A different way to enjoy the mountains - Sheep Herding with the locals in Öræfa.
Tuesday 22nd September 2020
It's early on a Thursday morning as Svanhvít and I finish our coffees unceremoniously and jump into her truck. She is a local woman, born and raised here, the daughter of a sheep farmer and a teacher/ranger. Although she is rather petite she exudes strength and a defiant pride that can throw anyone in their place if or when needed. I am feeling honoured that she has invited me to join her community today in one of their oldest traditions.
We pulled up to a large farm house at the eastern end of Svínafell, a cluster of buildings spaced generously apart and tucked neatly under gigantic basalt cliffs with cascading waterfalls and towering pinnacles.
To the south, lush, flat planes of moss, grass and a scrub land cover all that the eye can see with a subtly beautiful blanket filled with endless hues of greens and browns laced with morning dew and sparkling in the new day sun. A quilt of immaculate intricacies that only nature can ever seem to imagine.
Meeting the locals
Hólla strides around the corner of the house to greet us.
Earlier over breakfast Svanhvít had already told me quite a bit about her and I was now all to aware that she is one of the toughest farmers around, a respected Horse rider and someone I was very keen to impress, which would be difficult as my Icelandic language skills are very poor indeed and I got the impression that Hólla is keen only to converse in her native tongue and not in English, I cursed myself again for not learning the language sooner and being so lazy as we native english speakers often are. I then attempted to say as much as I could (not much) in my pigeon Icelandic so as not to stand out too much.
After exchanging pleasantries she began pointing out sheep up in the mountain that I could hardly even see making me wonder if my eyesight was particularly bad or if hers was just attuned to the landscape and of course the task at hand... I came to the conclusion it was probably a bit of both. Hólla was born and raised here and knows every centimeter of this land.
Her partner Árman was next to appear, tipped as being the fastest herder in the south east Árman is by no means a young man but after years of herding sheep and obviously realising he was super fit he had decided to take up ultra marathons (as you do) and now can literally run up mountains without breaking a sweat leaving folks half his age huffing and puffing far below in his wake. I was told that sometimes the Herders go up in teams and if you end up in Árman's team then you are in for a big day.
After a few minutes a landcruiser careered up the road towards us and out came the last member of our team Hilmar. I had seen him earlier that week at a large horse riding event where he was a farrier fearlessly shoeing countless horses with their hoofs in between his legs, sharp nails sticking out of them in all directions and hammering away like it was nothing at all. I think I would not have looked so relaxed doing that job, with those big animals pulling and kicking away.
I knew now that everyone I was with today was tough as old boots and would expect nothing but one hundred percent from me... game on.
On the move
Svanhvit drove us in her old maroon Hilux bumping up and down on the barely used track until we came to a halt at some large and old glacial moraine, we got out, grabbed our 'broddstöng' (Unique Shepherding sticks to this area, with a long (2.5m oak shaft and a metal spike fashioned carefully to the end) from the back and then carried on by foot. The weather that morning was very fine indeed, it was a bit chilly but had a very clear blue sky and piercing sunshine that hit us as soon as we rounded the corner into the valley putting a ridiculous smile on my face that was hard to get rid of, this all felt very new and adventurous.
We followed the lateral moraine of a glacier called Virkisjökull (Fort glacier) which skirted by its neighbouring glacier Falljökull (Falling glacier) and then followed the eastern side of Virkisjökull up the enormous valley. I could see incredible large cliffs to the west that I knew we would be traversing back along that day with the sheep in front of us and thought to myself how impossible it looked to be able to cross that very steep and foreboding landscape, How would we manage? Especially whilst rounding up a large flock of sheep. I decided not to worry too much about it and put my full trust in the locals.
By staying on the moraine we were able to walk quickly and without any equipment. Which made us very efficient. However eventually we were forced to come to a halt as the debris that we had been cruising up came to a finish.
Sometimes in the summer months the sun can damage the surface ice of the glacier so much that it becomes very crispy and can be quite easy to walk on with no crampons at all. Just a month earlier I had traversed one of vatnajokull's largest glaciers (Skeiðarárjökull) without wearing my crampons once. However today this was not the case at all. The night had been dark and cold and the ice quality was hard and unforgiving. The crampons were essential as we moved out into the middle of the glacier and beyond where we crossed under a large icefall that led up into the icecap until we reached the northern side of the ice and the start of Hvannadalur, the valley where our lambs had been fattening up all summer roaming free and happy and living on all the lushious subalpine plants that they could stuff themselves with.
Is this why Icelandic lamb is so incredible? a finely balanced mix of breeding, good diet, happiness and free roaming? I would say that it doesn't do any harm for sure.
The perfect grazing land
I fear that too many people on this planet don't even think about where their food comes from and what kind of life their meat will have had to endure. If I am going to eat meat then the diet and quality of life of that animal must be of a very high standard. Standing below at this incredible and diverse area with sheep roaming free all summer I know that the standard is very high indeed.
Up until this point the terrain had been relatively flat and somewhat easy. Well the next section was a bit of a wake up call for me. The pace did not relent one morsel as we started to ascend steeply into the mountains and before long I was sweating away and I could tell that it was going to be rather intense for the next while and that the rumours had not been unfounded.
I pride myself as being able to keep up with most people in the hills, however on one of Ármann's infrequent stops I noticed that not only was he not breathing heavily or sweating but he didn't even have red cheeks. I thought he looked as if he' d just been having a stroll in the garden, coffee in hand and enjoying a relaxed morning. I was thoroughly impressed. Actually coming from a mountain guiding background it was refreshing to be surrounded by people who seemed stronger and more confident in their surroundings than I was. This had been their job since they had become adults and was just another day in the office for them.
The slope leveled off eventually and Arman stopped to address us, he began pointing out at the terrain in front of a roaring glacial fed stream. After a while he turned to me and asked me if I understood "niður" and "upp" (down and up) "hægri" and "vinstri" (right and left) "hætta" (stop - this one was "very important"). Then he told me that I was to continue with Hilmar up the mountain and that Svanhvít and himself would contour around it and meet us on the other side. Hilmar then pointed out on the mountain where we would go and where we were to split up near the top and that I was to traverse below a series of small cliffs to a ridge where I should stay and await further instructions.
Then we were off, we used our broddstöng to vault over the raging stream and I was very careful to copy Hilmar's style as it was a bit of a foreign tool for an outsider like me. Actually, Svanhvít had gifted me her fathers stick for this trip which I felt was a great honour and a big deal as he (Jóhan Þorsteinsson) is reputed to have been one of the most gifted herders in the area and I could tell that the way everyone talked about him had the respect of all those who knew him. I was determined to use it well in his honour.
The key is to use it in two hands and to hold it with the spike in the uphill hand palm facing down and the downhill hand palm up this creates a kind of leverage that when applied properly can relieve some of the pressure from your feet making steep scree slopes like the one that we had begun to ascend much easier to scale by spreading my weight onto three points rather than two.
On the way up I spoke intermittently with Hilmar who at first seemed like the strong silent type but we ended up enjoying good conversation and laughs. He told me that he was considering joining Ármann in the ultra marathons and I concurred that this is excellent training and he would probably get a good time at the race if he was doing this all autumn. The chatting fizzled out as the slope gradually steepened and even our magic brodstöng didn't manage to help too much as the small rocks ran like water under our feet, covering our boots with a never ending flow of loose scree, streaming endlessly from above us and every new step we took only unsettled the slope more and more. I couldn't resist smiling at how difficult this was and kept going.
I left Hilmar as we crested up onto a shoulder and followed the cliffs that had been identified earlier, taking time to search every gully along the way for my quarry.
I stopped at the ridge line where I was to wait and looked down into Hvannadalur for the first time. "What a special place" i thought to myself. There was a beautiful white river that danced and plunged around giant mottled rocks and colourful mossy verges about 150m below me that sliced the valley in two on the other side a slope climbed instantly and steeply up and up into huge, dark, brooding cliffs towering above the valley in varieties of moulds that I had only ever seen in Iceland and nowhere else. Shapes you could easily make into faces or haunting figures, gargoyles of epic proportions calmly watching over us. Silent guardians waiting, observing.
The Long wait
I can't stress enough how much I did not want to screw up. I had the impression that the locals are not too keen on inviting outsiders and that Svanhvít had put her own reputation on the line by vouching for me. So far I think I had made a good impression but I found that the waiting made me very uncomfortable like I was missing something integral to the hunt and would struggle to catch up again.
Still I waited as patiently as I could and munched on some pizza bread guiltily. Eventually my vhf radio came to life. It was Hilmar. "Dan, there's some sheep on your side of the river, go down and get them to cross to the other side" I was off like a sheep dog down into Hvanadalur after a few minutes I realised I had left Jóhann's broddstöng where I had been waiting, cursing myself I sped back up the hill scouting for where I had just been which now blended in with everywhere else around. Thankfully the broddstöng stood proud against the rock I had sat on waiting calmly and expectantly for my return. It felt good to hold it again. Light and strong.
Feeling relieved I again sped down into the valley and as I closed in on the sheep Hilmar called "Dan, you must scream and shout at the sheep, don't just sneak up on them" well I wasn't too sure if this was some rouse to make the new guy look silly or not but I had no choice but to get involved, so now shouting loudly at the sheep and waving my arms I descended towards them and to my delight they crossed the river easily and without a drop of fuss and then continued in the correct direction too.
Hilmar said good job on the radio and I couldn't help but feel a bit proud. I don't think there are too many compliments thrown around in Hvannadalur so I will take it.
Soon after the others came into site and we all crossed the river and positioned ourselves in a vertical line up the other side of the valley with clinical precision, like well trained soldiers with Hilmar at the top and then myself, Svanhvít and then Ármann at the bottom with roughly 100m between each of us. We then started to comb down valley driving the sheep towards a bottle neck that took us all between huge cliffs of around 300m above and below us, the same cliffs I had wondered at earlier from far below on the glacier.
A series of clever sheep tracks meandered through what looked at first like impassible outcrops hanging above insane drops but gradually turned out to be quite easy although with a few areas that you would not want to fall.
We followed the sheep, I could no longer see them but could smell them on the tracks, musky and sweaty, probably a bit like me.
We were now together again on one track and stopped for an unexpected lunch. It was 2pm and all I could think of was the chocolate milk in my bag. I had drunk a bit of water from streams here and there but definitely not enough to keep me properly hydrated. We sat in comfortable silence together admiring the epic views from all around us immensely. The glaciers rose majestically from close to sea level all the way up to the highest peak of the Hvannadalshnúkur at 2110m crushing and blanketing the valleys below them for millenia now. In between them like fins were huge ridges of volcanic outcrops, contorted into impossible shapes by unimaginable forces.
The glaciers broke into thousands of pieces as gravity forced them down like waterfalls frozen in time almost completely.. almost. We had heard collapses all that day where massive chunks unchecked had finally given up under great duress and suddenly let loose, falling hundreds of meters and crashing to the bottom in a thunderous explosion.
Back to work
The break was a short one, which was fine with me, we had a job to do.
I assumed that most of the work had been done by now but that was an incorrect assumption, optimistic perhaps which seems to be one of my strengths and definitely one of my weaknesses. The crux of the mission was about to commence as I was to find out momentarily.
The cliffs above and below us were starting to open up again allowing the sheep to spread out. I was told to look out for a grey sheep that Svanhvít said was a troublemaker. Luckily far below parked up in her 4x4 was Hólla equipped with binoculars and a radio and she proceeded to herd the herders into position so as not to let the grey sheep lead the flock back around us and into Hvannadalur.
Once again I was racing up the scree slopes breathing heavily and starting to feel my feet rubbing quite a bit. Hólla, unconcerned about the state of our feet, expertly instructed us into all areas of the mountain driving out the sheep and creating a barrier so they would not get past us. I honestly think it would have been incredibly difficult if not impossible without her watchful eye. Onwards we moved with precision and purpose, unable to see each other but trusting fully in Hólla to guide us towards our common goal, to start pushing the sheep downward towards the glacial lake and those beautiful flats that were not too far away now.
After what seemed like an age I was told to wait for the others. Hilmar appeared around a flank and told me it was time to descend and down we went using our magic broddstöng as rudders in the scree, glissading like we were racing on invisible skis, triumphant in our task and jubilant to be almost done. Svanhvít called on the radio and told us to take the car she had left. I had no idea she was in front of us and was running after the sheep which at this time of the day I found to be superhuman in effort and spirit.
We drove towards the sheep and herded them down the track back to Hólla and Ármann's barn where they were finally rounded up and moved inside. Hólla hopped gracefully on the fence separating the sheep pens and proceeded to walk down it using great balance with ease and counted the sheep. She knew everyone of them by feature and had names for them all, this strong connection with the animals pleased me, it is not something you would ever have found in a commercial farming operation in most other places I thought. She was happy to announce that we had collected all of the sheep and that Hvannadalur had been a great success. Hólla thanked us for the day and we said goodbye to everyone and drove back down through Svínafell, happy in the knowledge that I had been able to help and keep up with this incredible and dying tradition unique to this area of the world.
That evening I thought to myself that mountaineers like myself can have a real connection with the high places in the world perhaps like a visitor would, we travel through as tourists, we take nothing and give nothing back (Perhaps the odd piton I suppose) We delight in the beauty, adventure, danger and unique spirit that makes these places so alluring.
Today felt like I had tapped into a deeper, stronger connection and understanding of this most powerful place, shadowed by Volcanoes and Glaciers. Where I had been for years now. One that spans generations and is forged with necessity, hardship, respect, a sense of home and above all community.