New on Sidetracked:

Through The Ragnarök Fires

In the footsteps of legend across the Icelandic Highlands
Words & Photography by Alberto Ojembarrena

Norse mythology speaks of the Ragnarök, the battle of the end of the world between the Norse gods and the giants. But, as with most myths, it was inspired by real stories and natural phenomena. This is the tale of an invisible route through a landscape that seemed deeply hostile, its roots entwined with the old legends of Iceland and the Norse settlers.

I looked back and saw my footprints in the wet black sand of the mountain, tailing down the slope we had just laboriously climbed. I looked forward, shielding my eyes with a hand against the blowing rain, and tried to visualise our destination for the day. Warm sweat mixed with the cold raindrops blatting against my jacket. For two days we had been hiking the vast landscapes of the Icelandic Highlands and a huge storm was about to arrive. I could just make out the next hut on the distant horizon, a small wooden cabin framed by yellow mossy hills receding into the mist.

Monica and I started the weary descent towards the valley. My backpack was feeling heavier that evening, maybe because of the strain of hiking for hours in the fog, wind, and rain. A few metres in front, Monica – a figure in red Gore-Tex – was trying to scout out the near-invisible path leading us to the hut. Her leather boots, worn out after so many hikes in the most remote areas of Iceland year after year, struck a steady and confident rhythm as she followed the path’s thread through the valley. Perhaps sensing me watching her, she stopped and looked back to me. Her smile was small but vigorous. ‘C’mon! We are almost there!’ she shouted, trying to raise her voice over the increasing wind.

After her words faded, the only sounds across the valley were our footsteps, our heavy breathing, and the cold gusts whispering over the peaks of the nearby mountains.

We could see the hut in the distance, but it was like a mirage. Every time I calculated the distance left it was as if we hadn’t walked at all. Finally, after hours of worsening weather, we found ourselves in front of the old wooden door – wet and tired, but both smiling. Monica and I had waited for an adventure like this for months. Finally we were living it.

Grateful to reach shelter at last, I dumped my backpack on the cold stone floor at the entrance, stretched – I could feel every mile – and got ready to light the paraffin stove, completely black after so many years warming the nights for farmers and hikers who ventured into these forgotten lands. The hut was freezing. Slowly, as the stove worked its magic, the small room turned into a warm and cosy space. Monica started boiling some water for our mandatory post-hike teas and we squeezed onto a bench as close to the stove as we could. I rubbed my hands to warm them while Monica raised her phone and waved it above her head, trying to find some signal, then squinted at the screen. ‘Any news?’ I asked her. ‘I wish! We are too deep in the valley. I guess there will be nothing until higher ground tomorrow.’

Unspoken between us was one simple fact: we knew that the real cold was coming. In a few days a big storm was going to arrive. Even at that moment, after two cups of that spicy tea that we always liked to carry with us, we couldn’t bring ourselves to remove our beanies and down jackets.

But in Iceland there is never a perfect time for hiking in perfect conditions. Sometimes you just have to grab opportunities if you feel that there’s the slightest chance.


Before we began our hike into that unbeaten landscape, Monica and I had been wardening at the Landmannalaugar Hut. Every day for the last month of that summer I had woken surrounded by lava fields and rhyolite mountains. Every day I had brewed black coffee, opened up our small information centre, and started to welcome the new hikers arriving to take on the famous Laugavegur Trail. If not taking care of jobs around the office, I’d be found hiking to the tops of the surrounding mountains, always looking in the opposite direction to the crowded trails heading south.

At the end of the season, the weather was growing stormier by the day. Just a few travellers dared to come at the end of September to the Icelandic Highlands, and Monica and I were meant to leave with the last bus. But that evening everything changed.

Monica had been pouring hot water for a cup of tea. ‘So that’s it? We leave in a few days?’

Neither of us was sure of wanting to return to the capital. We had enjoyed a summer filled with amazing experiences and new friendships, but we had missed the chance of hiking one last time before access was closed. That was when a strong fist knocked on the door, and less than a second after that a friendly face appeared behind it. Soaking wet in his hand-made wool sweater, Klemmi entered the room smiling broadly under his moustache. ‘Focking geggjað! [fucking crazy!]’ he exclaimed while wringing out his beanie.

He had been driving the whole morning to Landmannalaugar under the hard rain, and the following day he would drive further east for what in Iceland we call trúss – delivering food boxes and luggage for hiking groups. The Icelandic Highlands are known for the famous Laugavegur Trail, but there are smaller, remoter trails connecting every corner of the land. Most are almost invisible: unmarked trace paths followed only by sheep and farmers. Klemmi was one of the few who knew about the start of these trails. We were definitely not expecting to find him that day, and with a small window of good weather before a huge storm, we decided to enquire about one last adventure.

‘Have you seen the forecast?’ he said. But, after a long talk about the weather and the trails, he agreed to take us to one of the most remote places you can get to in the southern Icelandic Highlands: Langisjór Lake. From there we hoped to begin one last hike before the summer was over. It was a gamble, but it would be our last chance. And sometimes the best stories begin with a dash of uncertainty, even jeopardy – just like the Norse legends that underpin this landscape.


That night at the remote cabin, as I lay inside my sleeping bag with the aroma of burning paraffin from the blackened stove in my nostrils, a thought came to my mind: This is it. There’s no return now.


It had been cold overnight; I woke to find condensation on my sleeping bag. After a hot breakfast, I turned off the stove and, when Monica opened the door, colder air swirled in to disperse the lingering breakfast smells. The thick fog was gone. Instead, muted grey clouds and drizzle revealed the most bewitching sight, beautiful yet also unnerving: a lava forest, crowding around the hut as if it had sprung up overnight. Enormous irregular pillars of volcanic rock rose two or three metres from the ground all around us. Tufts of white and grey lichens sprouted from these monoliths, and with their crowns of green moss and other vegetation they looked like the trunks of some ancient forest. Some of the pillars were grouped in small formations; others stood by themselves in the middle of the field, like vestiges of a lost battle. It was exactly as I had pictured in my head when I read about the mythology of the area we were about to hike. The entrance to this forgotten land was guarded by a herd of petrified trölls.

The encounter both enthralled and slightly unsettled us. After packing our rucksacks, we set out in silence, hiking towards a steep hill, and found ourselves suddenly in a vast area with nothing to guide us – no marked trails, no landmarks, nothing at all. Monica took her GPS out of her pocket. She had always been confident with navigation in the mountains, but this time she was quieter than usual, and she looked around a couple of times, trying to get some reference points. She looked back to the GPS, and after a few seconds of meditating her decision she put the device away again. ‘This way, c’mon,’ she said, and her tone inspired confidence. I followed her lead.

Slowly, the landscape changed – from brown soil and low bushes to black rock, veined deeply where once water had flowed, and peppered by the vivid colours of green moss and red tones that appeared more and more frequently. Then we reached the edge of a black cliff, and immediately we knew where we were. It was unmistakable.

Eldgjá (‘fire gorge’), 40km long, is the biggest volcanic canyon in the world – the place whose eruption is said to have inspired the Ragnarök legend. In front of us was a huge fissure, rent in the mythic past by the eruption of the volcanic system linking the Katla and Eldgjá volcanoes: proof for the old settlers of that legendary battle. We tried to find the canyon’s end on the horizon, but could not see it. I pictured myself in the middle of that massive lava flood, standing on the edge of the gates of hell, feeling the rage of the pagan gods.

We descended into the ravine. Reddish and green hues created a sense of drama and magic, accentuated by the stormy clouds churning above the fissure. Huge boulders stood in the middle of the valley, broken from the top volcanic tephra layers long ago, as if dropped there by supernatural creatures.

After several kilometres in this dry fissure, the atmosphere began to feel heavy, humid, and I could hear a soft murmur gradually growing louder until it rose up through the ground into our boots – a deep, irresistible vibration. Suddenly we found ourselves facing Ófærufoss: a massive seething spout of water falling from the top of the tephra cliffs, forcing its way between the black rocks and mossy walls of the valley. After a few minutes gazing at the waterfall, completely mesmerised, we started to follow the course of the widening river. The boulders gained a tenuous clothing of green moss as we walked. After every cataclysmic battle of the old gods, nature found its way again.


Before the storm came the pause. The peace before the Ragnarök.

After a couple of hours listening to the wind beat against the walls of our hut, the weather slowly abated and the black clouds on the horizon stopped their advance. A shy sliver of light opened in the distance for a moment. It was a false omen.

We tried to use the old radio to communicate with Kristín, waiting for us in a hut further down the trail, but it seemed useless; there was no chance of letting her know that we were coming the following day. Old maps from the Geodetic Institute lay in a pile on one shelf. I studied them for a couple of hours with a cup of ground coffee that I had found in a jar. The sweet aroma mixed with the wet smell from our clothes and boots drying near the stove, but finally we felt warm. Monica checked her GPS; even though we knew that we were so close to the following hut, where Kristín was waiting for us, we had no doubt that the next day was going to be gruelling.

Pensively, Monica looked out of the window at the shaft of sunlight playing through a gap in the clouds. ‘Maybe the weather will change after all.’

I smiled back at her and poured more Icelandic kaffi into my mug. I looked again through the grimy panes, shivering from the breeze filtering through the window’s joints. ‘No, I wouldn’t say so,’ I said while sipping my coffee. I truly could feel it – like the old wives’ tale, I could feel the storm in my bones, and I felt conflicted between excitement and concern as the two forces warred within me. This pause in the weather before the storm just made me feel nervous. The thing about tension is that it inevitably breaks.

The next stage would be committing. I looked at Monica and exhaled deeply, wondering if she could see the complex blend of worry and excitement I felt. She looked back at me. Did she feel the same? Later, while we were eating, a fusillade of rain suddenly began hammering against the hut’s roof – hard rain, intensifying hour after hour. I slipped into my sleeping bag and tossed and turned on the plastic mattress for hours, brooding on the upcoming challenge.

‘Only fifteen kilometres!’ Monica shouted over the blowing wind. The rain had been intense from the moment we had stepped outside the hut that morning.

We climbed up through a black tephra canyon and into a desert of sediment left behind by ancient glaciers. I looked back one last time. In the distance were flashes of blue sky, but we were heading in the opposite direction and my boots were sinking into a grey mire churned up by the rain. Plummeting temperatures last night had frozen the valley sides, and we tried to thread a weaving route between the firmer areas, desperately trying to avoid sinking into the mud. Some valleys harboured old wreaths of firm snow – or at least they looked firm until we stepped onto them and sank deep into collapsing slush, slowing our progress even further. The weather gave us no truce. Gale-force winds continually pushed us off course, and we were so soaked that it seemed pointless to take off boots before fording rivers. Splash, squelch, splash was the soundtrack to our hike – head down, hood turned against the shrieking storm, eyes focused on the little patch of ground right at our feet.

And then we heard it, like the hoofbeats of horses arriving on the battlefield, a ferocious surge of rain and hail bearing down on us. I looked up at Monica. She was stumbling wearily and I grabbed her hand. Her mitten was completely saturated.

Her hood drooped down towards the ground, water spattering from its brim, and I could hardly see her face. ‘I’m fine, no worries,’ she murmured. ‘We are close. We should keep going.’ I felt as exhausted as she looked, but she was right. If we stopped now we might not get going again.

Hard hours later, I finally caught sight of the hut: a tenuous ghost of a building floating in and out of vision a few hundred metres away. As we neared, the mirage solidified and I dared to believe that we’d reached our destination. That we had made it through the storm. Monica, still just ahead of me, was visibly shaking as she staggered forward, but I heard her let out a happy sigh of relief. I exhaled too. How much further could either of us have gone in those conditions? I couldn’t even feel my hands, and every layer of clothing was soaked through to the skin. Raindrops dripped from my beard and the hair in front of my eyes.

As we drew closer, a familiar face appeared framed in the doorway. Kristín’s long blonde hair was unmistakable, even from this distance, and I felt something in me unknot as I realised that we’d reached safety, we’d come through the fires. She pulled on a Gore-Tex jacket and came running and screaming in joy to us. Later that evening, Kristín told us that an Orange Alert had been announced because of the extreme weather in the Highlands. ‘I was waiting for you to radio from another hut,’ she told us, and despite the smiles and the defused tension I saw an echo of anxiety in her eyes. ‘I’m so happy that you are finally through. It must have been a battle.’

For the last three days of our journey, we connected from Hvanngil to the Álftavatn lake, joining the last stages of the Laugavegur Trail to Thórsmörk. The weather finally gave us a break. Storm and darkness gave way to quiet views and beautiful sunsets, and we ended our trip with one of the best days I’d ever had in Iceland. The warm atmosphere of Langidalur’s surroundings is something I can never tire of: the bright birch trees, the Eyjafjallajökull glacier glinting in the distance, the land of the gods, and the feeling of journeying through a place where everything around you is more alive than yourself. Yet, much as I enjoyed the more peaceful end to our hike, nothing stands out in my memory more vividly than those days of drama in the untrodden volcanic hinterlands, where the stories of old seemed to follow every step.

This story was first published in Sidetracked Volume 21.

Alberto Ojembarrena is a photographer & backpacker based in Iceland. He is a guide and co-founder of Amarok Adventures.
Instagram: @amarokadventures // @albertoutdoors // @moka_guide