Sulphur Wave, Obsidian Ocean: Day One on the Laugavegur Trail

“Brennisteinsalda”

The letters linger in my head for a bit, they roll around in an Icelandic accent, but my American accent gets in the way when I speak them.

“Brennisteinsalda” my Icelandic guide says between the mountains, “brennisteinn and alda,” with an accent of melodic perfection, “together they mean ‘sulfur wave.’”

I can see what he means. In front of me stands a ribboning of multi-color, rocks of sea-foam green, salmon pink, golden yellow cascade silently off the side of this poetically named mountain. 

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“Brennisteinsalda,” I whisper the word under my breath as I climb. One foot into red, the second following in orange, hands pressing into soft green. I’m climbing upon volcanic ash, moss tinted rocks, iron stones, a sulphur wave. I can smell the hot springs below me, the volcano is active as I summit its iridescent shell. At the top I press my hands into my own hands, powdered chalkiness between fingers I take in the view. I am surrounded by the dips and bends of a sulphur wave community, they lap against my eyes like waves, I feel them moving. I take a deep breath and hold it in. I am here, witnessing something unbelievable. I am here, witnessing the echo of my vision as it bounces off the colored phenomena and back to my own eyes.  

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I see the feet of my trek mates making way below me, they climb up just as I clamber down. Each step down the mountain is another step into an even more fascinating reality: the earth, I see it breathing. Steam makes a show of hands across the valley. 

Photo credit to Anushila Shaw

Photo credit to Anushila Shaw

I have just entered day one of the Laugavegur trail, Iceland’s most famous trek through the mountains. It just so happens to be named after the main street “Laugavegur” in Reykjavík, the busiest street in all of town. I see 16 of my trek mates scaling the suphur wave, mixed with the random trekker here and there, and I finally understand the method behind the naming. The beginning of this trail is packed with hikers. After a long bus ride through the south coast, we come to the beginning of our trek- Landmannalaugar, the North end of the 4 day main trail. Tents of all colors bloom from the ground, talk of a natural hot spring travels around amid my unknown hiking friends as we bond over the though of escaping the cold. Peggy and Dave, both in their 70s, talk of trekking Mt. KilimanDSC_1056jaro, Mt. St. Helens, Pikes Peak, El Camino. A wonderful girl named Breezy smirks into her dad’s camera as he tries to snap a candid photo of her. Anulshila, barely woken up from the bus ride, contemplates whether or not she’ll be able to finish the trail. Allen hides an arm tattoo of the chakras underneath the sleeve of his blue coat. Kirsten and Ester round up their trekking poles and glance around, beaming at the thought of starting the trail. I stand among these people, curious to soak in their life experiences and various cultural backgrounds.

Our guide Svavar leads us to a giant painted display of the full route. We stand huddled around it, unable to imagine what it must look like in person. We can barely see over the hill, and what waits behind us is as mysterious as we are to each other. The route begins at Landmannalaugar and within 4 days ends at Þórsmörk, a natural forest, a rarity in Iceland. What awaits us are river crossings, glacier climbs, desert walks and mountain huts we’ll share along the way.

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We start our trek by treading harshly over lava, softly over moss. The trail is particularly carved out of the landscape, but this doesn’t make it any less difficult to find particular openings in the rocks to press our trekking poles against. Each step is a small challenge to find where the foot fits best, and I contemplate where my feet feel inclined to go. I have an inkling for the sharp rocks that have smooth surfaces at one edges. There is a particular comfort in knowing which rocks one’s feet will fit best against. My toes propel off the edge like a diver extending his knees to push off the edge of a lap pool, I create a small ripple my foot follows until it touches the next stone, then the next. My walking is a ripple effect interacting with the poles and feet of the people rushing up behind me. I have to find which internal path will create the least amount of disturbance. It takes a moment to think less about my body moving and more about the way my body moves within the atmosphere of this landscape held in front of me. These colored mountains lie everywhere, pulling themselves to the ground, raining in diagonal patterns to the earth. A step into them is a showering of rocks underneath me. I have to remember that all this colored powdered wonderland is a whole lot of scree before I can continue to climb it. Stepping on smooth surfaces isn’t an option. My ripple effect becomes larger and more effective, I move not only my own self on Brennisteinsalda but the self of the mountain, the small atomic parts of each stone and the colors they create when I blend each of them with the force of my own feet.

It takes the shout of one of my trek mates to startle me back to the path at hand. I am disoriented by the immensity of each color exposing itself around me. I am disoriented once again when I realize a small cloud of my vision has become entirely colorless, completely empty! A small cloud, literally, a cloud, lying naked on the ground, moving in a plume if its own self. I sit there puzzled in the stark void of my own vision while my mind behind to process the vents trailing around the valleys at the edge of each hill. We were entering a hot springs land mine.

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Smoke began working its way out of the earth like an active factory. The smoke signal was from one hill to the other, they spoke in a vaporous echolocation between themselves. If you froze these moments, you wouldn’t be able to tell whether the earth was breathing or whether it was consuming the clouds from above. Stepping through each cloud brought a strong smell of sulfur, the air was warm and damp as if traveling through a desert mist.

Upon closer inspection, we could see where the entrance to each natural factory was. It was difficult not to step over these holes, they were hidden and sometimes not at all seeable under the rocks. But once noticed, they pulled your eyes in with their magnificent colors. A young girl and close friend in our group, Morgan, noted that this entire trip felt like an exploration of texture.

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Each hot spring was harshly framed in outlines of bright orange and yellow which drained through the water like a used paintbrush being dipped into liquid for the first time. The colors pooled under the water’s surface and trailed their way around the rocks like a glowing aura. Certain holes were more defined than others and bubbled with a thick grey liquid. It looked like clay (which was apparently irresistible for my trek mates, because they kept sticking their hands into it. It made your hands soft and silky). Each hole looked like an eclipse against the yellow stained surface around it, an entire moon creating an entire sun.

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A trek mate even heat up some herbal tea in one of the hot springs!

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Once we passed the living and the breathing, we entered the dead. In front of us was the mountain Hrafntinnusker, or in English, “Obsidian Skerry.” Rising high above the valley, a giant endless mound of black rock and dust faced us. You could almost say we had entered a mine field of moon rocks. Shards of reflected grey-blue soaked in the clouds overhead, the entire mountain was speckled with bright glints of sunlight soaking into the rocks. You could tell which stones were sharp just by observing the way light hit the edges from afar.

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The trek through this land seemed endless. Feet made a game of stepping in between each glassy shard, a misstep sent an obsidian edge pressing harshly against the bottom of your shoe. Some stones were like oceans waves, their surfaces curved smoothly. Others were a mess of swirls, cooled rapidly once the volcano spit the material out to harden. As we neared the end of the mountain, snow began to emerge as a sharply contrasting force; black edged against white starkness, they remained distinct and independent. It was only when the sun came out that I was able to see the phenomenon of an interaction between the two opposite colors. As the sun revealed itself behind the clouds, it breached upon the surface of the obsidian, and the obsidian soaked it in. This lit up the entire minefield into a glowing, shimmering ocean of solar activity. Glints of light shimmered as if staring at a mirage of glowing star stuff. The black obsidian landscape soaked in the light from the snow and together they created a balance, a silent equilibrium within nature.

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It was then that we pressed on over the last hill and into the wide expanse of land that would be the view from our beds when we woke up the next morning. We had reached the first hut, Höskuldskali, one of the most remote mountain huts in all of Iceland. Overhead, a bright sky matched the color of the melting snow. Tents speckled out over the valley and a giant Icelandic flag had trouble falling asleep.

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And so here, in a flurry of exhaustion and awe, our first 12 km day on the trail had come to a close. For the first time in my life, I slept within a few hundred feet of a mountain, I slept soundly.

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