Mad Dogs and Englishmen – A trekking in Iceland saga

Mount Esja ……….. You are going to walk it?” asked the bus driver near Reykjavik, Iceland, after enquiring if he could tell me when the bus reached the base of the mountain. When I affirmed my intention to do just this, he replied “You’re mad!”

The day had started out defining dreary, grey and drab with constant drizzle driven by a gusting wind. It wasn’t the kind of day planned for a little stroll up Reykjavik’s neighbourhood peak. However I decided to get ready and head into town for something to eat, and see if things improved. They did not!

Mount Esja across from Reykjavik harbour Iceland on Mallory on Travel, adventure, photography

Mount Esja looking a little more benign

Enjoying a bowl of chilli tomato soup, with cheese and some filling bread, definitively the snack of champions, I was feeling pretty good despite the weather. I went in search of a more detailed map, as the plan was to have a stroll along the summit ridge to the highest point if the weather permitted. Suitably nourished and equipped I decided to take a trip to the base and have a ‘look see’ anyway, as spending another day dawdling around the City did not appeal.

“because it’s there!”

Mount Esja at 914 metres isn’t the highest peak on Iceland however it had dominated my thoughts for several days; just as its brooding presence dominates the skyline of Reykjavík. It just needed hiking; in the words of a much more famous and eloquent Mallory “Because it’s there!”

The journey required two buses and it was on the second bus that the driver gave his concise analysis of my sanity. I asked him if he was aware of the Noël Coward quotation “only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun” and informed him it was just as suitable for foul Icelandic weather, this however merely confirmed his earlier suspicions I fear.

The weather was if anything deteriorating, it was raining elves and trolls now and the wind rivaled a Force Ten from Navarone. The bus driving psychiatrist informed me that the wind would be gusting at least 30m/second which is the method of measurement they use here. Not totally sure how it equates to miles or knots per hour but it definitely equates to pretty strong!

Donning full waterproofs and warm clothing at the bus stop I set off. The guidebook describes the first summit Pennhorn (Þverfellshornas) taking around an hour and a half, but it is unlikely the author had these conditions in mind. However I made good progress and was enjoying the solitude.

Only the English

As expected it appeared I had the mountain to myself, wait a minute though, what was coming over a distant rise, a couple making their way down. Reaching them in a few minutes and surprise they were of course English, from Buckinghamshire, I rest my case Milord! They had turned back around two-thirds of the way up due to the strong winds, worried about the clag that was closing in around the top ……… very sensible people.

Mist on Mount Esja, Iceland on Mallory on Travel, adventure, photography

Clag on Mount Esja

The route up is a well-trodden path and is very well-marked; it even has numbered marker posts from top to bottom, six in all. The intrepid English couple had turned back between four and five.

The path splits into a few different paths above marker four and route finding is a bit trickier, but still fairly easy. The wind however was wild and becoming a real problem, I have experienced some severe mountain weather, but this was probably the strongest wind to date. It was actually difficult just to stand let alone walk as it swept up towards the col, picking up speed all the time.

I was constantly being buffeted, blown backwards many times; in fact every step required a herculean effort and immense concentration. Still making exceedingly good time to this point, reaching it in less than forty minutes. It took me a further forty however to walk the remaining few hundred feet, this seemed like walking in a wind tunnel.

Managing to get into the leeward side of the slope the wind eased for a short time, but to reach the summit it needed negotiating once more.

There was not of course any view to enjoy, the top was completely under cloud cover, twenty metres was about the limit of my vision. The only reason I was really stood on top of this ‘hill’ was sheer bloody-mindedness! The original plan had been to explore the ridge further, but in these conditions there wasn’t any point, probably would have been a folly to do so and there is a limit to even my stubbornness.

Descent to sanity

I usually prefer going up to down, and in these conditions, descending was not going to be any fun. It required once again walking into the teeth of the gale whilst still making as rapid a descent as was safely possible, pausing only once to take a couple of photographs.

View from Mount Esja towards Reykjavik, Iceland on Mallory on Travel, adventure, photography

Looking back towards Reykjavík

I had scoured Reykjavík for a detailed map; Iceland doesn’t seem to have any great need for maps with a scale of less than 1:75,000 had been an unnecessary extravagance, it had not been required at all.

I arrived back at the bus stop wet through, as the wind had driven the rain through the waterproofs. It does not really matter how expensive the waterproof clothing is, if out in wet driving wind for long enough you will eventually get wet!

The English couple, Mike and Pat were there already, having been waiting for over an hour, feeling a little chilled and there was still thirty minutes or more before the bus arrived. We chatted as I got out of some of my wet clothing, and put on some dry stuff. They found it pretty amusing when I removed my approach shoes, and my socks needed wringing out. I had the last laugh however……….. my feet weren’t cold, unlike theirs after waiting so long at the stop.

The bus eventually arrived and we were soon back in Reykjavík. Finding a coffee shop to enjoy my favourite beverage while eyeing up my adversary for the day I realised the true opposition had been the conditions. Mount Esja had been my constant companion throughout the day, windscreen at times, model at others and had provided a break from the city for the day; an adventure.

The weather had provided a stern test and it may have been a more pleasant walk in less atrocious conditions but it is likely not as exciting. Now however it was time for another taste of the Viking nightlife and plan a trip to the famous Blue Lagoon, but that is another story.

View over Reykjavik, Iceland with Mount Esja on the horizon on Mallory on Travel, adventure, photography

A view of Mount Esja across Reykjavík


Comments 8

  1. Cailin

    “raining elves and trolls!” hahaha love it 🙂
    I didn’t climb anything when i was there but I definitely will when I go back…. if the weather is good that is… haha

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      Thanks for taking the time to comment Cailin hoping when I get back next time the Northern Lights will make an appearance. Loved it up North too actually preferred Akureyri to Reykjavik.

  2. Dominique

    Iceland has been on my “want to visit soon” list for quite some time. If I don’t completely kill myself on my walk across Britain I might be tempted to follow in your footsteps…literally! 🙂

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      Thanks Dominique I am sure whenever you manage to visit Iceland will not disappoint you, it is an absolutely top notch destination with so many opportunities for an adventure. Enjoy you visit.

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