There are a few choice days in Iceland when the sun appears, clouds dissipate, and this rock in the Atlantic transforms into paradise. This summer, we had so many of these clear, sunny days that folks around here started actually worrying about a drought. I’m sure there were some legitimate concerns, but considering that I wore my parka through most of these same months, I had trouble getting worked up about the too hot temperatures. And really, I couldn’t even bring myself to call it warmish.
Somewhere around mid-August, we started seeing fewer and fewer of those sun-filled days. So last Sunday, when we woke to clear blue skies, we knew we had to climb Mt. Esja. This enormous graceful mountain anchors the quaint city of Reykjavik. Each morning as I head into town, the first thing I do is check the mountain: Is it visible or covered in wispy clouds? Has a thick black storm spun around the summit? Are the peaks blanketed in snow or is the face lightly dusted? The ever-present Mt. Esja defines the landscape, it characterizes Reykjavik.
Despite having stared at this mountain for over a year now, somehow we’ve never climbed it. “The hike is easy,” some said. “I did it with my kids in tow,” said another. “Oh, and the best part is the café at the base when you are done. Great food.” I can’t remember which Reykjavik residents offered me these bits of advice. But considering myself a local, I didn’t bother to consult any guidebooks. We simply drove up there and started our ascent.
On the way up, we passed old men with walking sticks, young trail-runners, and other Icelanders who looked like they did this all the time. No problem, I thought. After an hour, considering we were hiking with our children ages four and six, we asked some locals which path was the easiest way up. They suggested the route on the right.
We walked over wooden bridges and along well-worn paths. We scrambled over scree and climbed on all fours over lava fields. We brushed through tall thin grassy fields and shimmied along steep drop-offs. In all, it took us nearly three hours to get to the summit and sign the guest book at the top. From each resting point, the magnificent views took our breath away. We looked across the Faxaflói Bay, over to the peninsula and lighthouse of Seltjarnares, beyond Hallgrímskirkja, the grand modern church in Reykjavik, over the shimmering water tower of the Pearl/ Perla, past the container ships in the bay, the sailboats in the harbor, the Snæfellsness Peninsula on one end and to the never-ending stretch of the Atlantic.
For our descent, we followed a group of tourists on a much easier and shorter route. This alternate path only took us two hours (with the four-year-old) and for some of that he rode on my shoulders. While the advice I’d received had been totally incorrect in regards to the difficulty of the hike, those locals were right about one thing: the café at the bottom was delicious, especially to us, the weary trekkers both young and old.