On March 19, 2021, the Fagradalsfjall volcano in southern Iceland erupted after lying dormant for 800 years. To date, it remains active and draws tens of thousands of visitors.
On July 9th, 2021, my daughter and I set out to see this volcano for ourselves. We failed, miserably.
First, a little background. Iceland is an island that is about the size of Kentucky. It has about 130 volcanoes with 32 active systems and experiences eruptions about every five years. Until now, Eyjafjallajökull was the most recent eruption in 2010. Featured in the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, it famously disrupted European air travel for nearly six months. The most devastating eruption of all occurred 238 years ago and lasted for eight months – the Laki eruption. It ultimately killed 6 million people and wreaked havoc in Europe, Asia, Africa and North America.
Fagradalsfjall, however, is somewhat unique in that it is more safely accessible to visitors due to its location and effusive nature. According to one of our hosts, Icelanders eagerly, but fearfully, anticipate these occurrences and are making frequent trips out to this particular sight.
The international airport and our hotel were only a 30-minute drive from Fagradalsfjall. We were to be in Iceland for 12 days and our plan was to hit the volcano early in the morning and spend our first full day there. All that I’d read and watched indicated that the hike wasn’t too strenuous and that we just needed to dress properly and simply follow the crowds to see the spectacular show of spewing lava and flowing lava rivers.
Upon arrival, we noted that it was foggy. It was early, though, so I optimistically thought it would quickly burn off. We set off in our gear with our hiking poles and followed the wide path. About 20 minutes into it, a couple of guys who were ahead of us turned around and told us that if we were following them, they’d been going the wrong way. No worries, we quickly course corrected.
A few moments later, we came upon a cooled lava field. Our excitement was building. We stopped briefly to examine it and then kept on making our way to the base of the ridgeline.
Shortly thereafter, we found ourselves climbing a pretty steep and rocky trail. The temperature was in the mid-50’s but that became pretty uncomfortable when the wind kicked up. It was fierce at times and even the slightest amount of drizzle drenched us.
There was a tour group below us and we worked to stay out of their way. When it appeared that we’d disconnected with the tour group, we began to doubt that we were on the correct trail, even though a few other folks had passed us. We met up with a young California couple and decided to stick together. Then an older couple came back down less than 15 minutes after passing us saying they couldn’t see anything. Since they hadn’t been gone that long, we decided to press on. The fog seemed to only grow thicker and thicker.
I had read that the hike was 1 ½ hours to the lookout site, so after hiking for over 2 hours and still seeing nothing but fog, we decided it was time to turn around. The Californians decided to keep moving forward and we said our goodbyes. It was quite eerie to watch them disappear into the fog going up the mountain.
We descended rather quickly but soon found ourselves lost. The fog, wind and rain were worsening and we couldn’t determine if we were still on the right path. We hadn’t seen anyone for at least 30 minutes, we were not seeing the lava field we’d seen prior to our ascent and the google maps compass appeared to point us towards the volcano instead of the parking lot, even though we knew that couldn’t be right.
We began to argue. Then we began to cry. We argued some more. We cried some more. Finally, I broke down and called 112 (their equivalent of 911) thinking that they’d send one of the many rescue workers I’d read about right away to assist us. No. Instead, the gentleman told me to use Google Maps. I explained what I was seeing and he said he’d call me back.
A few moments later, he called me back and asked for my coordinates. When I provided him that information, he told me that we were within 15 minutes of the parking lot and to just “head that way.” I asked “Which way?” He said, “In the direction of the markers.” I told him I only saw two markers and they gave no directional indication whatsoever. He asked if we could see the ocean. Exasperated having already explained this to him, I said, “We can’t see anything. The fog is so thick we can barely see 10 feet ahead.” After remarking something to the effect that we should have known better about what we were getting into, he said he’d call me back. I begged him to just send someone to us.
Forty-five minutes from my initial call and four subsequent calls later, the dispatcher finally said he’d send someone to help us. Within two minutes of hanging up, we spotted a small group of people coming our way. They were not the rescue team. I immediately approached them and asked if they’d come from the parking lot or the volcano and they confirmed from the parking lot. Shortly thereafter, the dispatcher called me back and I told him we were fine and no longer needed rescue.
Exhausted and covered in mud, sweat and tears, we made our way back to the parking lot. A guy near our camper van asked excitedly, “Did you see it!?!” Speechless, we could only shake our heads no.
We left the site completely dejected and drove through more fog until I got turned around and got lost a few times before we finally made it to the small town of Grindavik. I wondered if I was crazy for thinking we could do this trip on our own. What if the weather is like this the whole time? What if we hit the Ring Road tomorrow only to find out that we’ve left civilization behind and get even more lost? What if our entire trip is this bad? What if it gets worse? I had never felt so defeated in my life.
I’d originally hoped to camp that night, but since we were soaked and miserable, I made my way to the first hotel I could find. Hotel Volcano Grindavik. I kid you not.
I approached the front desk and asked if they had a room. After confirming that they did, the woman stared at me and asked if I was ok. I briefly explained that we’d been to see the volcano and had had a pretty rough go of it. She replied, “Oh, today was not a good day to do that. The weather is bad and the volcano hasn’t been active for 3 days. See?” And she pointed to a large TV that was showing a live webcam of the volcano we never saw.
We made our way to our room. It was sometime around 4:00 p.m. Still in shock from how bad the day had gone, I did feel a little better knowing that no matter what, we would not have seen that volcano active today. We weren’t the total losers that I’d thought we were after all. I started to perk up and chalked it up to a trial run. We still had 11 days in front of us and we could time the rest of our trip to return with a couple of days left to re-attempt it.
As I continued to try to reset my perspective, I realized that our appointment at the nearby Blue Lagoon was not until 1:00 tomorrow. I also realized that they were open until 8 pm this evening. Determined to salvage at least part of the day, I called to see if we could move our appointment to tonight and they said yes!
We immediately left for the Blue Lagoon and enjoyed our mud masks in the bluest of geothermal waters. It was relaxing and dreamy and exactly what we needed.
To our surprise, we ran into the California couple that we’d last seen hiking off into the fog. They told us that they had continued on another hour after we’d departed and only got more and more lost – nearly to the point of calling for emergency help themselves. They said they were out there for more than five hours and that it only got worse as they saw a number of other people roaming around aimlessly. Though I was empathetic, my own feelings of being such a loser further dissolved.
The next morning at breakfast, one of the hotel staff greeted me with, “It’s time to go hiking again!” and pointed at the webcam. The air was clear and the volcano was spewing gorgeous red lava. I laughed and said that there was no way my daughter and I were ready to give it another go this soon. I assured him that we would return, though, after we completed the Ring Road.