Rob on the Whirling Dervish, Upper Skafta

River: Skafta (upper section)

Grid Reference: Access 64 deg 5′N; 18 deg 25′W. Egress   63 deg 55′ N; 18 deg 35′ W.

Grade:  IV with some V and VI.

Length:  20-25 km.

Date run:  21.07.91 – 22.07.91.

Weather conditions: Dull and misty.

River level: Medium

Significant portages: Loads.

Access arrangements

Take the track to the highest hut on the Skafta some 20 km below the Vatnajokull. High clearance and four wheel drive is not an option on this track. We were using a landrover and still had to walk the last 4 km. With fully loaded plastic boats this will take the best part of four hours..


Take out near the tourist hut at Hanipufit where the river approaches the road.


Andy on the Upper Skafta

This section of the Skafta is a very serious undertaking. It is a medium volume glacial river and is very highly sedimented giving it a chocolatey brown appearance. The Skafta was formed by volcanic activity less than two hundred years ago. Compared to most rivers it is very young indeed. The majority of the river bed and surrounding area is made up of solidified lava. This is very sharp and abrasive and anyone contemplating swimming should think again before they pull the tag. Not only does the lava make swimming a nasty proposition but it is very easy to damage boats. It also makes portages very difficult and slow, be warned, it cuts wetsuit boots to shreds. Young volcanic rivers such as this have other hidden hazards. As the lava cools huge gas pockets are created. This results in the possibility of many siphons, sumps and other such nightmares. At one point on the middle section the whole river dissapears under ground to reapear some 4 metres further downstream.
The first drop is a 50 metre long by 10 metre high river wide slide. Although the first 49 meters of this is pretty easy the stopper created at the bottom is huge. Spend a lot of time contemplating this then get below it. This is followed by a simple rapid to be run just left of the boily wave. Next is the dead end rapid. The river takes a very sharp left turn after slamming into the wall directly in front. A very large (probably under cut) pillow is created which has been the scene of a scary swim. Further round the corner is a large hole which should be skirted on the right. The next small canyon will provide some excellent surfing and the chance to avoid some large pourovers. Get out on the left hand side when you spot a horizon line. This is a very impressive 10 metre river wide foss

(waterfall). It is necessary to rope down into the canyon below. No major problems for a while, just easy grade III rapids but also some incredible scenery. Multi coloured canyon walls, a dormant volcano, lava spires and other stunning rock features.

Portaging on the upper Skafta

Follow the river into a narrow gap and there is a small chicken shoot type fall on the left, middle left is a huge pourover to be avoided. The next set of rapids should cause no problems although there are some large holes worth missing. Another foss follows and can be run via a chicken shoot on the left. You should walk round the last 2 metre drop as the bottom pool is very shallow and full of rocks. An easy flat section follows then the river steepens again and eventually runs into the tunnel vision trench. This is definitaly grade V. It is marked by a 2-3m high wave on the right. The main aim is to avoid three large holes at the bottom. We did this by heading hard right and skirting along the edge which is almost certainly undercut. Its really big and control is hard to maintain.
Take the next drop on the left of the island. Beware of the pinning rock left of centre at the bottom of the drop. We found it and its quite a challenge to remove a boat from. The next section starts easy, getting progressively harder ending in a V fall on a left hand bend. Avoid the holes top right and bottom left. After a brief interlude you arrive at the whirling dervish in the right hand (main) channel. It’s a grade V 6-7m drop in two stages. Huge waves and a folding v notch to be avoided. Its very intimidating.
The river then goes through patches of easy and difficult parts. It also split up into many channels too numerous to mention. We headed right and got to the tributary on the right hand side before egressing. The main part of the river would be very serious due to its steepness and continious rapids.
Two weeks after running this section there was a glacier burst. These happen when large takes are formed on the glacier due to the sun. As the glacier proceeds down hill occasionally these lakes reach the edge and spill out into the river. The flow on the Skafta was increased to 20,000 cumecs?. Such huge changes in flowrate could have drastically altered the river!