Over The Moon: Flying Lake Askja; Iceland
The clear early morning held the promise of a good day as we emerged from our tents in Reykjahlíð on the shore of lake Mytavn in north central Iceland. 125km to south of Reykjahlíð stands the volcano Askja, and what would today hopefully be the realisation of a dream of soaring one of the most amazing and beautiful locations on planet earth. Aksja isn’t your classic cone shaped volcano like say Mt Fuji or Mount Taranaki, but is more a cluster of gradually rising craters and cinder cones around one large central crater. The top of the main crater rim is 1400m high but only rises only 630m or so above the surrounding plains. The allure of Askja lies in its remoteness, desolation, eruptive activity and simply stunning picture postcard views.
Despite Askja being only 125km away, the last 92km is via Road F88. Most inland dirt roads in Iceland have the prefix “F” and vary in quality from relatively smooth dirt to seriously rough, corrugated tracks with deep fords. F88 is 92km of sandy, corrugated and undulating track that has a couple of 50m wide and "up to the gunwales” fast flowing river crossings to negotiate.
The inland areas of Iceland have a certain "big sky" quality that you only get from wide flat treeless expanses like central
Australia. However, this area of Iceland is even starker because of it’s almost complete lack of vegetation other than some moss. The flat black plains of volcanic ash, pumice and old lava flows here stretch to a distant flat horizon, punctuated by a few small hills, and the impressive mountain Herðubreið.
Herðubreið is a volcanic tuya (2km wide cylindrical lava column) rising almost 3,000’ above the surrounding plains. This imposing mountain is actually a vertical lava flow which rose and solidified vertically in the 3000’ deep ice sheet which covered Iceland during the last ice age.
The straightness of F88 as it traverses the ash plains suddenly changes into one of the most convoluted tracks I have ever driven on as it traverses one of the many old lava flows on the way to Askja. Building a simple road through the huge mounds of solidified lava is not an easy task, so the road follows the path of least resistance, twisting and turning snake like as we head ever so slowly towards our goal.
Midway along the desolation of F88, we arrive at the small oasis of Herðubreiðarlindir and its lush grassy vegetation. In total contrast with the surrounding starkness, it would have been a nice place to camp if we weren’t pressured for time.
Not having been to Askja before, I wasn’t really sure that to expect. Google Earth had offered a tantalising peek at what lay in store but I was still surprised to not see a classic cone shaped “Volcano” as we headed closer to our destination.
rom outside its perimeter, Askja has a very understated appearance. The colours of the jagged rock and extremely barren landscape are interesting, but the whole scene looked almost unimpressive compared to the mental picture I had.
The real attraction of Askja however was the volcanic lake within the main crater. This 220m deep, 4km wide lake is the second deepest lake in Iceland and certainly the most remote. After the last big eruption of Askja in 1875, the lake created was warm enough to not freeze even during the harsh Icelandic winters, however the lake water temperature has gradually reduced so that now it remains frozen for most of the year. Numerous rock slides from the walls of the crater into the lake over the years have resulted in tsunamis up to 50m high racing across the lake and it’s for this reason that tourists are not allowed to climb the 50m down to the lake surface from the surrounding crater floor for fear that an unpredictable slide could cause a catastrophic loss of life.
That last main eruption of Askja had blown the western side of the main crater completely away leaving the steep eastern side of the crater open to a westerly wind. My dream and plan had been to soar the eastern inside of the crater overlooking lake Askja in a westerly wind. But as exciting and possible that seemed in theory, the practicality of the situation when we arrived was very different. The steep unstable slope of the crater covered in sharp lava and obsidian, no landing field, and breeze in the wrong direction meant flying the inside of the crater was definitely out.
But a look at the Cu’s starting to form high above in a clear blue sky showed a different potential… that of a thermalling flight and seeing the crater as no one had ever done before. Problem was where would we launch?
Te only road access around the perimeter of Askja is on the northern side, meaning at least a 7km one way hike to any possible east side launch site. The day was getting on and we couldn’t afford a 2hr trek through the unknown, to the unknown. Surely there was a closer launch?rock rather than a suitably launchable slope.
The only road access around the perimeter of Askja is on the northern side, meaning at least a 7km one way hike to any possible east side launch site. The day was getting on and we couldn’t afford a 2hr trek through the unknown, to the unknown. Surely there was a closer launch?
So leaving the car at the ranger station on the northern side we headed up a hiking trail leading to the crater rim. After 45min of climbing, scouting and surveying, we decided on a site which was, even though marginal at best, the only site within another hours hike to offer the potential of a launch.
The slope was relatively shallow, the ground was covered by hundreds of sharp rocks ranging in size from fist to football, the breeze was light cross and there was a 400m wide shelf only 120m below launch which may well end up being a landing field if we hit a lot of sink just after launch. But the sky and clouds looked good and light cycles were bringing the wind straight up at times. ½ hr of environmental adjustment (rock clearing) and we had a passable single slot launch. The texture of the rocks meant that the area was only suitable for a reverse inflation. Any dragging of the glider over these rocks would cut lines and canopy material quicker than fingers on a sharp kitchen knife.
“If it’s on, get off”… My hike and fly mantra, that means at least I’ll get off the hill rather than wait for something better which may not come. I quickly set up my Gin GTO 2, waited a few minutes for a light cycle and stepped of Askja into a small and unworkable thermal.
No time for searching as clearing the shelf below launch and making it to the next possible thermal source was going to be a squeeze even from launch height. By this time I was down to 150m above flat lands and the ranger station. But my decision was rewarded with a tight but workable thermal coming from a deep narrow rocky gorge. My dream of flying over Askja was coming true, but I couldn’t really enjoy the moment as I worked to stay in that small bubble. Then eventually you look around and it hits you. You’re there, where you dreamt of being… and the reality surpasses the dream a hundred fold. Level with the top of the crater… first glimpse of the lake… try to stay focussed on the climb…
More of the lake comes into view as I near cloudbase. I fly closer to the rim and the lake. The scene is much more spectacular than I had imagined. Lava, rock, ash and pumice in colours ranging from black to white through yellow, ochre, and even purple interspersed with areas of snow and ice reflect patches of sunlight.
The lake surface is absolutely flat, perfectly reflecting distant clouds to the south. I was most likely the first person to ever experience this amazing view from a paraglider. Once again, I’m in awe that such a light and compact aircraft, combined with an amount of skill and perseverance has allowed me to experience something that few will ever do. I was, “over the moon”!
And figuratively I was. During preparations for the Apollo moon missions in the 1960’s the astronauts were taken to the Askja area in an effort to “geologically” acclimatise for their upcoming lunar expeditions. The term being “over the moon” took on a whole new meaning to me as I marvelled at the sheer desolation of the lunar like landscape and imagined what it would have been like to be descending to such a surface in a cramped landing module almost 47 years earlier.
Unfortunately the sky rapidly overclouded just after I launched, so the other 3 pilots travelling with me had to wait another 45min to launch. Two of them were able to get high enough to see the lake which was fantastic, but it seemed I was destined to savour the breathtaking beauty of Lake Askja from cloudbase alone in the eternal sun of an Icelandic summer.
NB. Paragliding Queensland runs annual tours to Iceland. This Lake Askja flight was just part of one of our tours. I’d like to thank the other tour pilots Stewart Dennis, Carlos Espejel, Clayton Aubrey and Grey Hamilton for their great company on such an amazing adventure and I look forward to sharing similar adventures with you all in the future. Phil Hystek.