Villingadalsfjall's Heights

On the craggy scree-topped mountains there are vantage points that stare across the beautiful islands and out onto the blue abyss of the Atlantic ocean – views that only the privileged few who climb the wild Faroese mountainsides ever get to see. Amongst those few is Pól Sundskarð, who has summited all 340 of the islands’ peaks…over five times!

After weaving quiet roads, over causeways, through tunnels, from one island to another, cutting through villages of colourful wooden houses with turf roofs, set upon a backdrop of mountains and fjords, we finally reach Viðoy, the northernmost island of the archipelago.

Tucked away in the mountainous Norðoyar region, Viðoy takes its name from the Faroese word for timber, viður, referring to the abundant driftwood that gathers in one of the island’s bays. In bygone times, driftwood was a highly valuable resource for the Faroese, who, in their treeless landscape, prized it as a building material and fuel source. Items brought to the Faroe Islands by the ocean currents offered the Faroese glimpses into worlds beyond their isolated isles, from the Americas, Scandinavia, Siberia and beyond – even coconuts would wash up, having made it from the Caribbean.

We arrive in the village of Viðareiði, one of the two small settlements on the largely uninhabited island. The little collection of homes dot the thin flatland between two peaks, Malinsfjall (750m), a pyramid-shaped mountain with oddly defined faces, and, perching on the northern tip of the archipelago, Villingadalsfjall (841m), the islands’ third highest peak. Although steep, these mountains aren’t overly imposing, and their weathered edges and sweeping fells bestow an arresting air of serenity.

In the crisp air, we load our packs onto our backs, tighten our boots, zip up our jackets, and, following Pól, we set upon Villingadalsfjall’s grassy slopes. Pól Sundskarð, now famed locally for his love of mountain walking and hiking feats, only took an interest in hiking during his forties. Remarkably, in the past decade, he has summited all 340 peaks on the Faroe Islands more than five times. Today, as we climb one of his favourite mountains, we are joined by his two hiking buddies Jonhard and Arnie, who couldn’t pass up the opportunity on such a beautiful day.

Stepped basalt strata climb the mountainsides, betraying the islands’ origins and geological history, each ‘step’ formed by a series of volcanic events that brought the islands into being millions of years ago. Pronounced grooves cut vertically through the strata, funnelling rainfall and snowmelt down towards the fjords. The mountainsides taper in colour from dusty-grey peaks to umber-coloured slopes, graduating into the verdant green pasturelands and gardens of the villages below.

Having passed through farmers’ fields, we power up the tawny moorland, our blood pumping, drawing deep breaths of the rich fresh air. The gentlest route, if there were one, follows the steadily emerging sea cliff and cuts into the mountain from the south side. Pól, by far the fittest of the group, barely breaks a sweat, while the rest of us shed layers of clothing. However, Pól has not always been in such great shape; the change came when, upon looking in the mirror one day, he decided there were aspects about himself he wanted to change. His physical fitness, for one; because, as Jonhard says, “he looked like a marshmallow”. But Pól also craved a challenge. So he tied up his running shoes, pulled on his walking boots, and overhauled his lifestyle. From casual jogs to long distance competitions, from evening walks to summiting peaks, Pól has since continually pushed himself further and further. “It is important that everyone sets themselves goals in life. The easiest thing is just to quit. About a decade ago I started to set myself goals; my first major goal was to run 100 kilometres on a small island in Denmark, a hilly island in a flat country. The following year I challenged myself to run seven marathons in six days – which I don’t think anyone has done before.”

Now, at age 58, he runs 14 kilometres each morning and walks in the mountains almost every day, while still finding time to hold down a day-job. When asked, “does he not tire from all this exercise?” Pól, with a timid smile, casually shrugs with a shake of his head. Jonhard speculates that Pól’s combination of both hiking and running equally conditions his body, and that’s how he has built up such strength and stamina. Proud of his friend, Jonhard beams that “Pól recently joined me on a 77-kilometre charity run, which he followed the week after with climbing all the mountains on the island of Vágar in just 30 hours. That’s 41 mountains in one trip, without any sleep.” Incredible for a guy who before 2004 didn’t do any hiking or running!

His challenges have intensified since, and his latest was to run 525 kilometres in just six days. “The amazing thing is that when he started in 2004, he was twelve years younger than he is now and he still keeps upping the challenge”, says Jonhard, reaffirming his and Pól’s belief that age should not be a barrier nor an excuse. Pól’s activities, however, have become fuelled by more than just fitness and challenge: he’s fostered a deep love for the Faroese landscape and found that being in the mountains is, as he puts it, “good for the soul”.

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As the moorland runs into ancient rubble, our hike becomes a scramble, and Pól takes the lead manoeuvring the craggy rocks and untrustworthy scree as we approach the open ridge. Our previously removed layers are hastily put back on as cold bursts of fog force their way up the seaward cliffside and over the mountain’s rugged backbone. On the other side of the ridge, the carpeted cliff of bright green grass plummets into the Villingadalur cirque, where in the past the Faroese would have pulleyed down sheep onto its plateaus for summer grazing – no doubt it was a perilous task to round them back up for the winter. Beyond the cirque, the ocean’s dark blues burst into aquamarines as waves crash against the sea walls.

Soaring colonies of seabirds swoop in and out of the great wisps of cloud that spew over the ridge top. Cloud, mist and fog are characters of their own in the Faroese landscape, and from our elevated vantage point we watch sea fog crawl along the deep-cut fjords towards the islands of Borðoy, Kunoy, Fugloy, and Svínoy, shimmying their sea walls until finally wrapping its hold around their mountain peaks. The wild and unpredictable weather features heavily in the islanders’ lives. Even more so for the Faroese hiker. Wandering out onto the misty moors and mountains of these tiny islands of steep sea cliffs and abundant coastline comes with its dangers, and sewn into the fabric of Faroese folklore are tales of lost souls and the Huldufólk.

We follow the ridge along the steep terrain towards the summit, heading further into the thick fog. With no marked trail, Pól keeps one eye on his sat nav and one on the treacherous ground – he always keeps at least two GPS systems on him in case one malfunctions or a battery dies. The heavy air is laden with moisture, and beads of dew form on our skin, hair, and clothing – without the right attire you’d be quickly left soaked through. Although, as Pól says, “you can never get so wet that you can’t get dry again” – a motivating motto for these damp isles. The incline begins to plateau, and we enter an eerie lunar landscape that disappears into a claustrophobic grey haze in all directions. Here, on Villingadalsfjall’s summit, if the weather was clear we would see across Norðoyar’s islands and the along the mountainous spines of the islands of Viðoy, Borðoy, and Kunoy – long, thin, rugged islands that run parallel to one another.

We continue on to Enniberg (754 m), the tallest sea cliff in the Faroe Islands and one of the world’s tallest promontories (a point of high land that juts out into the sea or lake). Still surrounded by fog, we take a perch on the cobbled ground to share stories and refuel on cake lovingly baked by Pól’s wife, who, along with the rest of his family, support him throughout all of his escapades, both home and abroad. Pól reveals that, unlike with running which he enjoys doing abroad, he prefers to hike only in the Faroe Islands, where he strives to become an expert on the local terrain. He says he feels that the Faroese mountains are where he can express himself as a person, and, as Jonhard says, “today he is the guy who knows these mountains best.”

Jonhard continues with a heartwarming story that beautifully shows Pól’s kind and giving character: after hearing on the radio that a Faroese truck driver whose dream was to put his foot on every Faroese island had become paralysed after a road accident, Pól set out to make his dream a reality. By liaising with the helicopter service and local farmers, and with the help of his hiking group, Pól enabled him to visit the last remaining island on his list, where the two men shared in their love for their homeland.

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Without warning, the cloud and fog clear, unveiling an endless ocean glittering in the sun and Enniberg’s steep drop into the waters below. Feeling both small and tall, humbled and elevated, we stare across the sublime, breathtaking view. After a few still moments of awe and reflection, we begin our descent. Hiking up was one thing, but climbing back down is another, and our feet keep being swept from beneath us by the loose rock. Digging in our heels and zigzagging downwards, we soon come upon an idyllic and beautiful valley tucked away behind the back of the mountain. Here the green, luscious fells are full of life and are a stark contrast to the other side of the mountain where Villingadalsfjall’s heights block the rainclouds that move in from the open ocean from quenching the thirsty land on the leeward side of the mountain. The damp landscape shimmers in the evening sun, and the sound of babbling water pricks our ears; we refill our water bottles from the small stream running through the heart of the valley – a welcome find after the arduous hike. The endearing squeaks of the oystercatcher, the Faroese national bird, fill the amphitheatre, and countless seabirds flood the skies. Hidden away, it feels like we are the only people to have ever found this unspoilt landscape.

Pól, Jonhard and Arnie explain hiking has not traditionally been a popular pastime in the Faroe Islands, but that today the growing community of hikers are having a positive impact on the environment by becoming unofficial custodians of the moors and mountains, clearing any runaway litter and helping to protect local wildlife.

Leaving the valley, we traverse the mountain’s western flank along the fjord edge. Were we not with seasoned Faroese hikers I may have apprehensions about walking the narrow path with its clean drop into the dark fjord-water to the right side and a towering cliff to the left. Leaping over small waterfalls that cross the trail, we follow the coastal path into grassy meadows and emerge back in the village in the late evening, with the Nordic summertime sun still very much awake.

Still full of energy as if we hadn’t spent the past ten hours traipsing the mountainsides, Pól and Jonhard discuss their evening plans. In a mix of English and Faroese, they reflect on the day; it is easy to see that Pól thrives on these landscapes and embraces the challenge of pushing his mind and body to its limits. Throughout our hike, the hurdle of age became a point of discussion: Pól, especially now, finds it unfathomable that some believe that middle age is a time to start winding down; instead, he believes that it is the time “you have to pull forward. Life doesn’t end at 50; it can begin at 50.” •

This story is from Volume Eight

The Journeys Volume

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