Andy on one of the top rapids on the upper Skafta

Day 1 on the Upper Skaftá

Got up in the sunshine and packed up early. It could be a long day ahead and we are not sure what the river holds. I eased onto the river at 10:14am and paddled the first boily rapid without incident. I photoed Andy and Tom as they followed.

Tom on one of the top rapids on the upper Skafta

The second rapid, Dead End Rapid, ended as the entire river pushed against a cliff wall. Tom lead and I took the rear. Everything looked like it was going according to plan when Andy capsized. He missed his first roll and got washed into the boily area at the dead end. I saw him part company with his purple Mountain Bat, and move away from the horrible death that awaited at one side of the rapid. He managed to get to bank and self-rescue and was suitable furious with himself for missing a roll.

We continued down the river towards the foss we had seen a few days earlier. The rapids are fairly heavy, and I only just avoided a back-looping. The lead-in to the foss is safe enough and we get out close to the top of the fall on the left bank. The climb down to the river is rather awkward, and Tom and Andy set-to, lowering the boats down with a throw-line. Andy and I scramble down with the help of the rope, but Tom going last, does not have the luxury, and has to free-climb down.

The first foss on the upper Skafta that required a tricky portage

The river continues on, and there are some flattish sections, but the scenery is incredible. There are lava spires, raw edges of fresh (200yrs anyway) lava and brand new canyons. We stop for lunch at a pinch point in the valley, where the relatively wide valley narrows to a hundred metres or so (lunch here being a euphemism for ½ a cup of soup and some shortbread). The beach we land on is made of quick-mud and we spend a bit of time exploring its mechanical properties.

Lowering boats down a lava cliff onto a snow bank when portaging on the upper Skafta

The rapids after the pinch get rather more difficult. I imagine that the lava from the 1793 Laki eruptions flowed down the valley and were constrained by the pinch, causing the long flat sections we have just passed and the steeper sections ahead. We negotiate the first large drop with only minor mistakes, although the rapids were much worse than they looked from the bank. The next large rapid has a bit drop, but no stopper at the bottom and a fast shoot across a pool with the only hazard being a rock in the middle of the pool that looks like it could be one to get pinned on. Andy runs the drop and gets pinned and has to step out of his boat onto the rock. It takes Tom and I 10 minutes and a throwline pully system to free his boat, but eventually we get it off. No kit is lost, and we can carry on once Andy has recovered.

Lunch spot on the upper Skafta in a 200yr old lava canyon

Soon we get to another serious rapid that we inspect. It eventually gets called Tunnel Vision Trench. The river is a shallow and steep trench, the rapids are very fast and there a numerous things that need avoiding. Tom and I decide to run it, and I go first, with Tom close on my heels. We make all the moves well enough and avoid all the horrors. Pretty amazing feeling at the bottom of the rapids to have done it successfully. I think we were both pretty nervous at the top.

We soon get to another big rapid and call it a day. There is a suitable bit of gravel to plant our tent on, and we can tackle the next rapid in the morning when we are fresh. Tom goes off to look for fresh water to cook with. The river here is heavily sedimented with rock flour and gravel and is unsuitable for drinking, at least we have been informed that rock-floured water gives you the trots, and we don’t want to experiment here. Andy finds his sleeping bag has got wet so looks to spend a damp night squashed between Tom and I and wrapped in all the spare clothes we have with us.

Tunnel Vision Trench, one of the heavier rapids on the upper Skafta

Andy portaging another foss on the upper Skafta, just after the lunch site

Andy and a pinned Pyranha Mountain Bat on the upper Skafta