Iceland's Highest Peak

Hvannadalshnúkur, a massive volcano and Iceland’s highest peak, was a climb that required more than 6,000 feet of ascent and a roundtrip hike/climb that totaled nearly 20 miles of mountain distance traveled. Unlike Eyjafjallajokull, the country’s ash-spewing volcano in the news this spring, Hvannadalshnúkur is for now dormant and calm.


Summit ridge on Hvannadalshnúkur

Our day on the peak began at a trailhead with literally dozens of Icelanders. A climbing program organized by Icelandic apparel and outerwear company 66 North and Icelandic Mountain Guides called “Toppaðu with 66° North” included a series of training climbs over the past few months. Hvannadalshnúkur, at 6,922 feet, was the final test for the group of climbers, many new to mountaineering.

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Icelandic climbing guide

We hiked uphill in thick fog. The scene was wild and dark, clouds dropping and rising, mist so heavy your face would get wet. The trail wound up and up through moss and rocks. Waterfalls floated off walls. We crossed streams pure enough that you could dip a bottle in and get a drink.

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Hydration on Hvannadalshnúkur

For the day’s adventure, our initial goal was Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Europe and a massive sheet of ice that covers a large share of Iceland’s southeastern interior. Crevasses, icefalls, deep snow and perpetual winter were ahead. My group ascended a rock ridge and roped up just before the snow.

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Nearing the glacier on Hvannadalshnúkur

I climbed with Oskar Jonasson, a film director from Reykjavik, guide Sigurdur Skarphinsson, and six other Icelanders. The pace was steady for almost six hours on the ascent. Sun cut through the fog as we crested a snow field and kicked into the Vatnajökull glacier’s hard crust.

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Icelandic climber smiling in the fog

A final long traverse, arctic and blank, looked more like Greenland than Iceland. Then the final hump of Hvannadalshnúkur rose like a pyramid from the ice. We kicked steps and followed a trail in the snow left by climbers ahead.

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Rope teams high on the peak

The summit was big and flat, but with cliffs all around. Icelanders were smiling and back-slapping, posing for photos and jumping into the air. “Highest person in Iceland!” you could shout. Below, the Vatnajökull glacier’s immense crevasses formed mile-long crescents on the slope. The white tumbled down and faded where clouds still obscured the land below, thousands of feet and many miles distant from Iceland’s highest peak.

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Above the clouds and near the top

Here are a few more photos from the climb and my time last week in Iceland. A full-screen photo slideshow of these images is available on —Stephen Regenold

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Summit of Hvannadalshnúkur

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Young Icelandic climbing guide

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Glenn the Swede in Iceland

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Gear Junkie on Hvannadalshnúkur

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Earth tones and lava rocks on the descent

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Cascades on the lower slopes of Hvannadalshnúkur

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Valley of ash courtesy of Eyjafjallajokull

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Handful of Eyjafjallajokull ash

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