Climbing Mt. Kirkjufell, Iceland's Most Iconic Peak
A chance encounter with friendly locals delivers inside knowledge into summiting the classic mountain
words and photography by Adam Mowery
For many, Iceland is a once in a lifetime trip, and as a photographer that feeling is greatly intensified—it’s a dream trip. But it’s also a huge challenge. With the rise of discount airlines flying there for next to nothing, Iceland has become the big thing in the travel world, and everyone is photographing the heck out of it. Having been a photographer for 17 years there is one thing I have learned for sure: there is always a unique story to be told, and the local people are usually a good place to start.
After spending a few days and long nights driving and shooting along the Ring Road, like the millions of other tourist, a good friend and I finally arrived at Kirkjufell, a strikingly symmetrical mountain near the northern coast. We set up and waited for what we hoped would be a dramatic sunset. After being sorely disappointed by the lackluster showing of the sun we decided to drive back to town and grab a bite to eat, edit a few photos and put off another miserable night’s sleep crammed in our rental Toyota Rav4 for as long as possible.
When we got to town, just 10 minutes away, we found an awesome little pub called Ru Ben’s that was open until 11pm. After bumming out there for a few hours and with closing time approaching, we struck up a conversation with the bartender who invited us to stay and hangout with a few locals for as long as we wanted.
Icelandic people are very kind and laid back and get a huge kick out of watching Americans try hákarl (Iceland’s national dish otherwise known as rotten shark meat), which is horrible, by the way. We stayed until 3:30 am because the conversations were just too good to leave, but our interest was sparked the most when one of the older gentlemen mentioned that you could actually climb Kirkjufell. He said that only locals usually did it and if you were afraid of heights you probably didn’t want to go up there.
That’s all we needed to hear. We decided right then that the following morning (more like, in an hour or two) we would get up, shoot sunrise over the mountain and then head to the top and hope for the best.
Getting half way up the mountain we realized the trail wasn’t really much of a trail at all, and considering there were goat paths everywhere, we ended up getting lost multiple times. After practically walking around the entire mountain on very small ledges, we came to multiple dead ends before turning around ready to give up and admit defeat.
Coming around to our original starting place I decided to make one last effort and high tailed it straight up the mountain about 150 yards just to see if there was any chance a path could be found above us.
And there it was, a small path heading up and over what was at least class 3 to 4 scrambling. As we approached the summit, the locals had placed a series of three ropes to aid climbers up the steepest parts of the route, all of which were pretty sketchy. After coming over the edge we realized their means of anchoring the ropes were even sketchier. But what kind of adventure is it unless there is a little bit—err, a lot—of risk involved.
All in all, Iceland would have been amazing even if all we ever saw were the typical tourist spots, but in the end we had an even better story to tell.