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Sprengisandur: Ghosts and Geography

January 31, 2012

Iceland’s Sprengisandur highlands are not a good place to be lost.  For much of the year, this passage between jagged mountains is assailed by frigid downpours, surprise snowstorms and infinite winds.  When the sun shows its face, as it does from time to time, the earth shrivels and cracks in the unrelenting heat.  In the geologic timescale, it was a land of massive volcanic eruptions; in the Middle Ages, it was the place where witches, goblins, and outlaws roamed.  Sprengisandur is an area of exceptional beauty, but its beauty is harsh and has no real place for human life.

One sunny summer morning, my dad and I set out into these wilds on a three-day backpacking trip.

Our planned route made a wide loop around an old volcano and fit neatly onto our single map.  Following this map, we marched south along an old jeep road until it petered out into a faint path in the dusty soil.  We were headed towards a small lake, which, according to the map, was twenty kilometers down the trail and nestled under a small hill.  Near the closing of the day, we came to where the lake should have been, and found only a stretch of dried-up mud.  It wasn’t really the mapmakers’ fault, we told ourselves; the map was nearly two years old, and the summer had been exceptionally dry.  But without fresh water, we couldn’t make camp, so we pulled out our map to look for the nearest reliable stream or lake.

We disregarded the smaller bodies of water, having realized that they were just as likely to be dried up as our original destination.  That left us two options: a silty river, fed by several glaciers and running through a gorge, and a narrow mountain stream that trickled past a hiking hut of the sort that tourist boards build for backpackers who don’t want to carry tents.

If it had been anywhere else, we would have disregarded that stream like all the others.  But in all of our outdoors experience, we had never encountered a hut without a reliable water source.  Gambling that the Icelanders had built their hut in a sensible location, we decided to backtrack and find it.  Accordingly, we walked north a little until we came to an illegible signpost, then started up the hill towards where the map claimed the hut was.

We reached the place where the hut should have been and found nothing.  With no other option, we continued to climb.

After an eternity, we came to a precipice where there was a tiny carpark and a rickety staircase leading down.  Peering over the edge, we saw a yellow-painted, red-roofed building nestled in the green valley far below.  Glaciers on black mountains loomed high on all sides.  A glistening stream cut the middle of the valley, branching and braiding.  Glancing at the map, we found that the hut had been misplaced by about three kilometers; however, we were relieved enough to find water that we didn’t get too angry about it, not then.

That night, glancing through the hut’s logbook by candlelight, we found that the same story repeated itself.  “Hut completely misplaced on map,” read one entry.  “I wandered around for hours before actually getting here,” said another.  “Nice place, but a little hard to find.”  “Did they move the hut or something?” Reading the logbook, I felt a surge of irritation.  Couldn’t the Icelandic Geographical Survey do any better?   Sure, the natural features on the map had been recorded more or less accurately: there were mountains in all the right places, the major rivers were properly delineated, and there had once been a lake in the place where we hadn’t found one.  But that wasn’t enough.  The map existed to orient hikers to the landscape, to tell them where they should go and where they could die, where to find water and shelter and how to avoid getting lost.  A map properly made would thus accurately indicate features built by humans as well as those placed by time.  Its role was to civilize the wilds, so that people could explore the natural world without fear of its more hostile characteristics.  By misplacing the hut and misdrawing the trails, the IGS had left out all the friendly “You Are Here” signs that welcomed humans to the wilderness, thus leaving the wildness intact and humanity to fend for itself.

The next day, we debated turning back.  The sun still blazed, and we had no way of knowing how many other streams would be dried up.  Sprengisandur was hostile enough with accurate information; with a defective map, we weren’t sure we wanted to risk traveling there.  In the end, though, we decided to press on.  We emptied every spare container we had and filled them with water, hoisted our packs, and rounded the back of the mountain to rejoin the trail.

The path that day was clear, so we had little reason to take out the map.  We followed the banks of glacial river for half the day, then stocked up on water again before turning east into more arid regions.  Here the ground grew jagged and rocky, which made for difficult walking, even with the trail.  We fully expected to make a waterless camp that night; we were carrying extra water for precisely that reason.  But when the sun had fallen in the sky and we had reached the base of the volcano, we found a thin ripple of light trickling down the black mountainside in a place wholly unexpected.  At first, I was certain it was a mirage, created by the heat of the day and my own hopes; after all, no stream had appeared on the map in that place. Should I believe my eyes, which might only be fooling me, or the map, which had already been wrong twice?  Logic told me to trust my own senses, but faith in maps was so deeply ingrained into me that in the end, I didn’t really believe in the existence of the stream until I was standing right next to it and had dipped my hand in the cool water.  Deep down, I wanted the map to be right, even if that meant a lack of water, because that would reaffirm my faith in humanity’s ability to measure, if not control, its world.

The next and last day, we misplaced the trail.  At first, it had been marked by the footprints and hoofprints of previous travelers, but as we reached harder ground, these signs disappeared.  A glance at the map was unenlightening: the path ran due north across the plain until it intersected a road, but we had no way of knowing which side of the trail we were on, or even if it had been drawn correctly.  Accordingly, we pulled out our compasses and followed them north cross-country.  We were not lost, precisely: there was an obvious volcano on our left and another mountain range farther away to the right, with the road barring our way across the top of our route, so losing our way was almost inconceivable.  The lack of a path made us uneasy, though.  It appeared clearly on the map; we had met people coming the other way who had used it.  The people whose tracks we had followed had not disappeared into thin air, but continued their own journey, and we could not see where.  It was like Sprengisandur swallowed up all traces of humanity, leaving only the mountains and the desert.

Because the unrelenting wildness made us so uneasy, we were happy when we saw a cairn silhouetted against the horizon slightly to the west.  We deviated from our course and, approaching it, found a pillar of rock set on top of a mound of lava.  Passing dead branches bleached white by the sun, we scrambled up the mound to look at the pillar.

It turned out to be some sort of monument.  Letters were carved sharply into the stone, saying something about the eighteenth century, but because we knew no Icelandic we couldn’t decipher any more than that.  We pulled out our map and found, in our location, a single word written: “Beinahól.”  My dad figured out from his knowledge of Swedish that the name meant “the bone mound,”  but that did little to reveal the significance of the monument.  So, shrugging, we climbed back down the hill.  Passing the bleached white branches with the name of the hill in mind, we suddenly realized that they were not branches at all, but rather bones.  Shivering at the relics of an unknown story, we resumed our northward trek.

At the top of the next rise, we finally found a line of sturdy cairns that delineated the trail, and we followed them to the end of our hike without further incident.  Our map helped us cut nearly a mile off our route at the end, as it helped us plan a cross-country route that would avoid the highway.  There were many counts, however, on which it had failed during our trip.  It had lost a lake, severely misplaced a hut, not recorded a stream, and let us lose the path.  It could not tell us what we later learned from a guidebook, that in the late eighteenth century five shepherds had set out across the highlands too late in the season, and that the monument was for their deaths and the bones were of their sheep and horses.  The landscape that the map represented was not the one we traveled through: the map leant an illusion of order to the wilderness, gave to us a sense of false control.  The reality was far different.  The placement of lakes and streams was dictated, not by a splash of color on a page, but by the turning of the seasons and vagaries of the weather.  A cartographer’s careless error threw order into chaos.  Dirt paths were eroded; cairns tumbled down.  The traces of civilization on Sprengisandur, rather than being clearly laid out in bright colors, were tenuous, shouts of defiance that were lost in the immensity of nature.  No map could make them otherwise.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 1, 2012 12:53 am

    I’d have been freaking out about the missing hut. I hate doing extra miles, backtracking and inaccurate maps! Sounds like you had a real adventure.

    • February 1, 2012 2:14 pm

      Since we had a tent, the missing hut was only really a cause for concern due to the lack of water; and we were least carrying enough water to get us home, if not to cook dinner/breakfast, so there wasn’t any compelling reason to panic. Adventure is the right word, though!

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