Mt. Hekla is one of Iceland’s most mysterious volcanoes and also one of the most active ones. The last time she (Hekla is female name so I am going to allow myself to refer to the mountain as "she") erupted was in 2000 and since she usually erupts in every fifteen years or so, we’re currently waiting for her to burst. Despite of that fact I embarked on a journey to reach Hekla’s summit last October.
Lava fields at the foot of Mt. Hekla. Travelade/Nína.
Disclaimer: Hiking Mt. Hekla is challenging and dangerous for the untrained hiker. Do not hike Hekla unless you are a fairly experienced mountaineer. Since snow storms occur frequently on Hekla, it’s absolutely necessary to carry a GPS device. Check the weather conditions carefully and contact the Iceland Met Office to make sure there are no signs of volcanic activity in the area.
Hekla is a volcano often associated with myths, superstition and magic. This 1419 m (4,892 ft) tall stratovolcano has inspired artists and writers for decades and during the Middle Ages, Europeans believed that the "Gateway to Hell” was to be found on the summit of Hekla. It was also believed that witches gathered together on the snowy hills of Hekla and the black ravens that flew over the mountain tops were thought to be devils in disguise.
In 1750, the first men reached the summit of Mt. Hekla. These courageous hikers were two scientists, Bjarni Pálsson og Eggert Ólafsson, and their aim was to disprove the world famous theories about the entrance of Hell being on top of the mountain. Needless to say, they did not find the “Gateway to Hell”.
Hekla is definitely not amongst the most popular mountains to hike in Iceland. The weather conditions are usually harsh near the summit and the road to the foot of Mt. Hekla is rough and not suitable for all cars. Hekla’s volcanic activity may also be discouraging for some hikers.
When I saw an advertisement from FÍ (The Iceland Travel Association) about an organized group hike up Mt. Hekla with a guide, I signed up immediately. I had no idea what it was like to hike this infamous mountain, which made the trip even more exciting.
The hike was scheduled the 14th of October. During this time of year the temperatures in Reykjavik city are somewhere around 5–10°C (41–50 °F). Luckily, I checked the weather forecast for Mt. Hekla the day before we did the hike and realized that it was way way colder up there. It was clear that I would have to wear my warmest outdoor clothes – woolen long-sleeved top and leggings, fleece-sweater, soft-shell jacket and warm soft-shell trousers. I even brought with me a light down-jacket, warm hat, scarf and extremely warm mittens (the puffy type you’d bring on a ski trip).
We drove out of Reykjavik at 7 am on a Saturday morning. We reached our starting point around 9:45. Our starting point was by a crater called Skjólkvíar at the south-eastern corner of the mountain. According to our guide, this is the most common route up to the summit. At this point we had already gained an elevation of 598 metres (1962 ft).
At the parking spot, getting ready for the hike. Travelade/Nína.
We got out of the car and met with the other hikers. The party was quite large, probably around 60 people. The guide told us that it was his birthday and he really wanted to organize a hike up Mt. Hekla for his birthday. The excursion was free of charge but the hikers had to drive to the mountain on their own.
Unlike the surrounding mountains and lava fields, Hekla was completely covered in snow. The entire hike was on a snowy terrain so it was important to wear sturdy hiking boots. I had called FÍ, who arranged the hike, the day before to ask if it was neccessary to bring crampons. I was informed that crampons were optional so I decided to leave mine at home, which turned out to be absolutely fine.
The weather was calm but cold during the first two or three hours. We walked at a fairly slow pace, enjoying the fabulous view over the surrounding area and occasionally stumbling upon volcanic craters and rough lava fields and formations.
As we came closer to the summit, the weather got worse. The wind was strong and freezing cold and the visibility was close to zero. We had a quick bite under a cornice of snow and after that, the guide informed us that the last hour of the hike would be strenous and the weather had already gotten quite extreme. Around 10–20 hikers decided to turn around at this moment and started walking down the mountain.
The last stretch was a bit hardcore, mainly because of the weather, but I felt awesome the whole time! When we finally reached the summit, I noticed that my clothes were icy and the locks of my hair that protruded from my hat were frozen stiff.
At this point, the weather had gotten pretty bad. Wearing a good hat and a hooded jacket was a must. Travelade/Nína.
At the summit. Travelade/Nína
The way down was easy and fun. I ran down some of the snowy slopes, which was thrilling. One hiker decided that it was a good idea to sit down and slide down the hills. She seemed to be having a great time but when she stood up she realized that she had ripped the whole back side of her pants. You have now been warned!
During the descent, we met two Portugese hikers that were on their way up. You could see that they were not very well equipped and they did not have a GPS device. My guess is that they must have returned shortly after we met them since it was impossible to get to the summit without a GPS due to the extreme weather conditions.
We reached our car around 4:30 pm and drove straight home, exhausted from the walk but still in a state of bliss.
Can I do this hike on my own?
If you are an experienced mountaineer you could do it on your own. You will have to bring sufficient equipment and a GPS device.
Do I need an ice axe?
Is it possible to hike Mt. Hekla all year long?
I can’t really answer that. The weather is usually horrible up there during the winter so I would advise against hiking Mt. Hekla during the coldest months.
Is the path marked?
Partly. I wouldn’t count just on the markings.
Where can I book a guided hike up Mt. Hekla?
I haven’t been able to find an operator that does guided hikes on Hekla. Check out FÍ’s webpage and www.utivist.is. These are associasions that focus mainly on hiking trips for locals. If you won’t find a trip to Mt. Hekla, you’ll definitely find other interesting hiking trips.
The best travel recommendations come from locals. Check out these Wanderguides from Iceland by locals sharing their travel tips and hidden gems.