Sunday, June 23, 2013

FidEgan's Fastpacks - Episode 2- The Emerald Island of Ireland

John and I are currently on a 2 year trip where we are pursuing our passion of trail running through the various landscapes and environments of the world. As we pass through each country we want to post our top pick for a trail run that we did. This does not mean that this is the best trail to run in that country. It just means that it was our favorite that we did. We are both using Ultraspire Fastpacks to carry our gear, hence the name of the column. Ireland was especially meaningful as it allowed me to reestablish contact with family who hadn't been seen in far too many years and for John to get to meet some of the Aunts, Uncles, cousins, and family friends.  This run was not the longest one we did or most rugged but had some special components that made us pick it as our favorite.

Where:  Dursey Island, County Cork, Ireland
(Google images)

Facilities/Trailhead:  Dursey Island is located at the tip of the Beara Peninsula in southwest Ireland.  It is separated from the mainland by a narrow channel of water that has a cable car connecting it to the mainland.  This is the only cable car in Europe that goes over ocean.  Local residents (there are 12 full time residents) and livestock (sheep and cattle) get priority for the cable car. There is parking at the mainland side of the cable car and additional trails (part of the Beara Way) are located there.  A restroom and hot dog stand were also located there.  There are no facilities on the island itself so come prepared.
(Google images)

Fees:  The cost of the cable car ride was 8 Euros round trip.  The cable car runs in the morning, afternoon, and for an hour in the evening.  There is a long lunch and dinner break so plan accordingly so you don't get stranded on the island.

Terrain/Trails:  The island is 4 miles long and just under a mile wide.  The end of the Beara Way (206 km path consisting of a combination of single track, dirt, and paved country roads) is located on the island.  There is a loop that can be done.  The high route is single track that goes over the top of a series of hills to the end of the island at Dursey Head.  The low route is along the gravel farm road that traverses the island.  The trail is well marked with wooden stakes with a yellow hiker and arrows on them.

Distance:  The trail on the island makes a 13 km (~8 mile) loop.  Another 4 km loop is located on the mainland side from the parking lot and longer out and backs can be done further on the Beara Way. 

Description: From the cable car there is a single track trail that heads up the hill to the right.  This first part is the steepest part of the whole loop but it is not very high so it doesn't last long.  Sheep graze in the pasture watching you as you go by.

The trail then rolls over a series of hills with the third hill being the biggest.

This is 252 meters high and has an old signal tower on the top of it.  When we did it this hilltop was enveloped in clouds which made the tower very surreal as it appeared out of the mist.  The tower is from the Napoleonic era where it was part of an invasion early warning system. 
As you come off this hill toward the end of the island you start to feel like you are running to the edge of the earth.  Besides a few scattered small islands and some sailboats there is nothing in front of you or to the sides but water.  The view is pretty special. 
Returning we needed to go fast to make the last afternoon cable car in time so we took the low route along the road.  This passes old stone farmhouses and barns. 
The farmland goes right to the edge of the cliffs that then drop down to the ocean. 
There is also an old church and graveyard as you get closer to the cable car again. 

Other fun facts:  The island was once a depot for Viking slaves before they were shipped off to Scandinavia.  It also had a history during the Irish Revolution in 1602 when a massacre occurred there by the British.  It is frequented by bird watchers as rare birds from America and Siberia can be spotted here.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Iceland - a perfect place for a layover

    When we looked into cheap airline tickets to London/Dublin it turned out that IcelandAir had the best rates.  They also have the nice addition that you can have a layover in Reykjavik for up to a week at no extra cost.  It was a no-brainer for us that we would absolutely take advantage of the ability to stop at an island we have both wanted to go to for a long time.  After an excellent week in Durango with family and then another great week in Boulder, CO with friends we shouldered our pack and headed to DIA for our flight. 
We eagerly boarded our flight, fastened our seat belts, taxied out to the runway and then Whaaa whaaa.  :-(     Turns out our plane is broken and we had to go back to the gate and switch planes.  The second attempt at leaving worked and we left the United States behind with a brilliant red sunset over the Rocky Mountains being our last view of home for a long time (hopefully).  6 1/2 hours later we were in the middle of the North Atlantic on a wild volcanic glacier carved rock with hardly any people but a whole lot of sheep.  We also were not in Mexico/Arizona/Colorado anymore.  It was pretty much like Seattle in the middle of winter but it was 1 June.  Low 50's, completely grey and overcast with low clouds, windy, and drizzling intermittently.  To be able to see as much of the country as possible and to get to some of the trailheads we wanted we rented a car for maximum mobility.  We started off by camping in Reykjavik in the campground next to the hostel.  It was 1/4 of the price compared to the hostel and both Kathleen and I are in a phase where we are enjoying camping more then sleeping in a bed.  We stocked up on some groceries and went to a mall to look for camping fuel and a trail guide/map.  At the mall we discovered that golf appears to be the national sport of Iceland surprisingly.  After a nap we motivated and went back into town to find a pub that had live music playing. The crowd again reminded us of Seattle some.  Kathleen and I agreed that with the Viking influence that this was a good looking country.  The guys are hunks and the women gorgeous (if you like blonds).  They dress hip in a European fashion but there is also a lot of black clothes, dyed hair, tattoos, and piercings.  A great first night of music and people watching. 

    The next day was my birthday.  We drove out to Thingvellar National Park and did our first trail run. 

The park is in an area where the North American and European tectonic plates are pulling apart at the rate of 3mm per year.  Great clefts into the ground have been formed here and it is geothermally active.  Some of the clefts were dry but some had filled with water.
Our 4 hour run was through tundra and scrubby trees with areas of grass and a big lake to the south.  There was a big grassy area called Skogarkot in the middle and from this radiated trails like the spokes of a wheel.  We would run out one spoke and come back on another so the run took us through this central area several times.  There was also a beautiful waterfall cascading over one of the clefts formed by the earth splitting apart.
Turns out that compared to the even more spectacular falls we would see that this one was pretty tame.  In fact after the run we drove to a falls called Gullfoss that reminded me of Niagra Falls but not quite as big.
We spent that night at a campground next to an area called Geysir.  All night as we slept you could hear the water shooting into the sky every 5 to 8 minutes from a geyser that is almost as big as Old Faithful in Yellowstone Park.  I had heard whales breathing as I slept in Mexico but this was the first time I have slept to the sound of the Earth breathing. 

     The next place we went to run was an area called Skogar.  There is another huge falls here and a trail that follows the Skogaa river toward the center of the island. 
The weather had been nasty overnight.  It stopped raining long enough to get us to motivate but once we started it turned out to be a sucker hole and it soon started raining sideways.  It was an amazing run and would have been even more so if the visibility had been better.  Multiple massive waterfalls with a deep canyon that the river had carved and deep green hillsides around them. 

Above all of this was a snow covered ridge but we were not able to see this through the clouds.  We got close but never reached the snow because it was raining so hard that we became soaked and started to worry about becoming hypothermic.  This trail came close to being our favorite run in Iceland but was just beaten out by the last place we went, Vatnajokulsthjodgardur National Park (I would challenge you to say that 3 times real fast but it actually is a challenge to say it just once - a lot of Iceland has names that completely tie your tongue in knots plus they have letters that I had never seen before).

     Vatnajokul Glacier is considered the largest glacier in Europe and there is a large park associated with it.  We went to an area called Skaftafell where there was a network of trails that went to several of the glacial tongues stretching out into huge moraines.  The flat areas looked like something from the moon except for the braided river passing through it.  This was then flanked with large, steep, green sided mountains with streams and waterfalls cascading down them, and above it all a huge glacier with giant seracs and crevasses.  Our trail explored a variety of this terrain.  We initially climbed over a ridgeline that gave us an overview of the area before dropping into a beech forest.
Trees are a very rare thing in Iceland so this forest was quite the treat.  We then crossed a bridge over the river, went across the moraine, and then attempted to run up to the head of the valley.  The trail quickly degenerated to a path and soon even that disappeared.  The ground was quite boggy with multiple small streams that had to be crossed.  It was impossible to keep your feet dry. 
Eventually we cut out onto the rocks of the moraine that turned out to be quite runnable.  Once again though it started to rain so we turned around before reaching the complete head of the valley.  On the return we decided to take the lower loop.  We didn't notice the fine detail of the map until we got there but it turns out that there were 3 river crossings in a 500 meter section that we had to cross that were knee deep and flowing fast.  Our feet were freezing by the time we got across but then we noticed on the hillside that there was steam rising up with a faint trail going to the area.  We went there and found a natural hot springs with a pool built from rocks.  Our feet were soaked already so we waded in and soon had warm wet feet instead of cold wet ones. 
That helped us to get the last miles back across the moraine done to return to the Visitor Center and car.
There are a variety of options of trails to run in this park.  Single track and cross country, flat and hill.  It's definitely a place worth visiting. 

     The last days were spent on a road trip out to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.  A large volcano sits in the middle of this area with another National Park around it.  There is also a lot of rugged beautiful coastline.  We also road tripped around the Hvalfjordur (Hval Fjord) which was another very scenic spot that we wish we had more time to have explored. 

     We really only were able to explore the Southwest corner of the island and even then we barely scratched the surface.  Both Kathleen and I have a huge desire to go back for a longer period of time and be able to see the other sections of the island and do something longer and more epic.  Also June is still early season with a lot of snow still in the mountains.  July, August, and September would probably offer better weather and more options to go deeper into the mountains.  One word of warning to potential visitors though. This place is expensive.  We car camped, cooked our own food on a camp stove, and only went out for drinks a couple of times and still spent close to $80 a day each (this does include the rental car cost with was our "accommodation").  That aside, the people were friendly and great and the scenery is to die for.  Go if you get a chance. 

Saturday, June 8, 2013

FidEgan's FastPacks -Epidose 1- The Iceland Pick

John and I are currently on a 2 year trip where we are pursuing our passion of trail running through the various landscapes and environments of the world. As we pass through each country we want to post our top pick for a trail run that we did. This does not mean that this is the best trail to run in that country. It just means that it was our favorite that we did. We are both using Ultraspire Fastpacks to carry our gear, hence the name of the column.

Where: Vatnajokull National Park - Skaftafell Visitor Center, Iceland

Facilities/Trailhead: Skaftafell has a visitor center and campground both for tents and RVs. Camping is only allowed in the campground. This visitor center provides access to a variety of trails in the area. The bathrooms are spotless and there are also coin operated showers.   There is also a cafeteria for a post run snack and hot drink. 

Fees: Entering the park is free. Tent camping was 1150 Kroner per person which is $9.75 USD.

Terrain/Trails: The terrain is volcanic in nature that has then been shaped by glacial ice and water. Various glacial tongues stretch down into the valleys that are flanked by steep jagged mountains. In the center of the park is the largest glacier in Europe. Rivers flow over the lowlands forming wide rock and sand moraines. These areas are subject to periodic flooding from both volcanic activity and ice dams bursting underneath the glacier. The trails are a combination of single track and cross country. On the maps the solid lines are trails, dotted lines mean that there is little to no track.  Iceland is subject to quick and severe weather changes.  Be ready for cold, rain/snow, wind even if it seems nice when you leave the trailhead.  Bugs may be an issue later in the summer but were not when we were there in early June. 

Distance: A variety of options exist for both distance and amount of vertical that the runner chooses. Our run was about 25km (15.5 mi).

Description:  A friendly Ranger at the trailhead confirmed that the run we were contemplating would be a beautiful place to go.  The trail system right around the Visitor Center is a bit of a maze but good maps are available at the Center and the intersections are well signed.  The run started with 100 yards of warm up down a bike path before it was up the hill we went.  The plan was to follow the M3 trail which initially starts by hiking over the ridge of Skaftafellsheithi.  This trail went past several waterfalls and up and down the gullies created by the streams associated with those waterfalls. 

The top of the ridge was rock and grass but the initial climb was through scrubby trees and on the backside of the ridge the trail went through a beech forest.  Trees are in scarce supply so to stumble into this forest was a pleasant and unexpected change. 

 The trail then descended into the moonscape of the Morsardalur moraine below the Morsariokull glacier.  Extensive views up the valley of the Morsa River could be seen.  A glacial tongue of the Vatnajokull Glacier extended down into a flat valley with a braided river running through it flanked by steep green mountains.  In almost every gully there were streams and waterfalls cascading down them.  There are two bridges across the Morsa River and the trail took us to the upper bridge. 

It is here that a decision can be made.  We elected to cross the valley and head up the opposite side of the moraine on the M3 trail.  This ended up being a trail in name only.  The path became a cross country trek over boggy ground and crossed a variety of small streams multiple times.  We eventually cut out onto the rocky ground more in the center of the valley which was actually quite runnable.  We eventually reached one stream crossing too many and it started to rain hard so we turned around just short of where the valley turns up into the Kjos valley.  This section was a little slow going since there were some navigation issues to figure out and trying our best to find the least wet way across the bogs and streams.

The other alternative would have been to stay on the east side of the valley and not crossed the bridge.  The M2 trail goes up that side and eventually dead ends at Morsalon Lake.  This is a true trail on the map and probably would make a better (but shorter) run. 
On the way back we elected to take the M1 trail back which looped down further into the valley to return to the Visitor Center.  There is a section about 500 meters long where the trail disappears as it crosses 3 shin deep rivers.  The nice thing about these river crossings was that after the third one when our feet were soaking wet and so cold that we could barely feel them we noticed that on the hillside there was steam rising up with a small trail that went to the area.  We went up it and found a hot spring pool.  We happily waded into it.  Our feet had been soaking wet and ice cold but now they were soaking wet and warm which was a much better situation.

The trail then cut back across the lunar rock moonscape of the moraine before crossing the lower at the lower bridge. 

It was then a short run on mostly flat trail to get back to the visitor center.