: Hvannadalshnukur (2119 m)
Hvannadalshnukur as seen from Skaftafell National Park.
KWANNA-dalsh-nyooker) is the highest peak in Iceland at 2119 meters. It is
actually the highest point on a crater rim of the volcano, Oræfajökull, located
in extreme southeast Iceland only a few kilometers from the Atlantic Ocean. The
volcano itself is massive, the largest post-glacial volcano in Iceland and,
according to my research, only exceeded in mass by Etna as far as European
volcanoes go. But this fact pales in comparison when you consider that
Oræfajökull is but a small part of the massive glacier, Vatnajökull.
Vatnajökull (meaning Lake Glacier, named after sub-glacial lakes under its
center) is the largest glacier in Iceland and the largest glacial ice cap in
Europe. At approximately 8500 square kilometers, it is larger than all of
continental Europe’s glaciers put together. To give Americans some idea of the
size of this chunk of ice, it is a bit larger than the state of Connecticut.
This glacier takes up 1/12 of the country of Iceland and contains approximately
3300 cubic kilometers of ice. The average thickness of the glacier is 400 meters with the
greatest thickness being over 1100 meters. It is interesting that scientists
believe it was not formed during the last great Ice Age but during a cold
period about 2500 years ago.
Vatnajökull has had five recorded eruptions with the latest three coming in
1996, 1998 and most recently in 2004.
The 1996 eruption caused large floods taking out bridges and
cutting off eastern and western Iceland from each other for a time. Oræfajökull
has had two recorded eruptions in 1362 and 1727. The 1362 eruption was the
greatest tephra fall in Icelandic history and caused the area’s abandonment
(the name means something like “glacier wasteland”).
Hvannadalshnukur sits adjacent to Skaftafell National Park. Created in 1967, it covers 1700
square kilometers and lies on the west side of the peak between three of
Vatnajökull’s 46 outlet glaciers (Skeiðararjökull to the west, Morsarjökull to
the north and Skaftafellsjökull to the east). To the immediate north of
Skaftafell is a finger of land with amazing hikes and sites (see section below
for details or click on the link in this paragraph). Skaftafell itself has
worthy climbs of both technical rock and glacier and is an oasis of color and
life in an area of southeastern Iceland that is so close to a massive drainage
of the giant glacier where a huge amount of flat stream-filled sand dominates
the coast. Skaftafell enjoys better weather and more sunshine hours than anywhere
else in southeastern Iceland as it is protected from wind and rain by the
volcano. Trust me when I say I spent several days in the park getting sunburnt
while clouds and 60 mph
winds whipped up on the mountain.
The climb to the highest point in Iceland is not technically challenging but as
you would imagine there are a large number of crevasses to deal with when you
have glaciers that come down to sea level. There are two main routes and they
both have about 6600 feet
of elevation gain and take a long day to accomplish. Both start on the western
flank of the mountain. The Hryggjaleið route from the Virkisjökull glacier is
used only until about mid-July and is then closed due to crevasses and an icy
surface. The more-standard Sandfellsleið route starts a bit further south and
is open most of the year. The latter route takes about 12 hours (8 hours up, 4
down). Even though it is not particularly technically challenging, please don’t
underestimate a climb of Hvannadalshnukur. Weather on the glacier can be particularly
bad and completely opposite of what is happening below in the Park. Crevasses
abound and guided climbs are recommended unless you have an experienced team in
The first ascent of Hvannadalshnukur was on August 17, 1891 when a British man
named Frederick W. W. Howell was guided up by locals Pall Jonsson and Thorlakur
The only guides on Hvannadalshnukur
are Icelandic Mountain Guides. It is recommended that you use
them unless you have an experienced team in glacier travel. The glacier is
riddled with hidden crevasses and even the guides say they won’t go up alone
there. They go up almost every day as long as there are at least 2 clients.
Cost is 11,000 kronur (about $150). If you really want to go up privately, they
will accomodate you but they have to make up their losses for the day and the
charge is 35,000 kronur (about $475).
Pros of using this guide service is that they are very good guides and know the
mountain extremely well, especially in finding hidden crevasses.
Cons are that you could get put on a 60 m. rope with 7 other people and depending on
their skill levels and endurance, your climb could be cut short. It’s a
crapshoot but the guides tell me they summit about 85% of the time.
Skaftafell with the peaks Snæbreið and Hvannadalshnukur overlooking it all.
Hvannadalshnukur from above Skaftafell, from the
point, called Glama.
normal route goes up the ridge on the right side of the glacier.
this view is from the ridge route, mid
view from the ridge route mid october,
in upper left half is the summit.