Hiking a glacier in Iceland. In the realm of exotic and adventurous, this was near the top of the list.
In my imagination, I saw myself leaning into the wind, a behemoth white glacier unfolding before me, the blue sky expanding above me, and the blue ocean only a short stroll away to the edge of a glacier cliff.
Of course, because it was in my imagination, in my mind’s eye I moved with stealth, determination and steely resolve through Iceland’s glacial obstacles.
By the time I landed in Iceland, I was nearly jumping out of my pants I was so eager to explore. The time had finally arrived.
The locals informed me that once or twice a week, the skies open and shower sleet and rain, while the wind packs an icy punch to your face, taking your breath away.
A punch so powerful in fact, that there are occasional warnings issued to parents advising that they hold on to their children outside – lest they be carried away like Dorothy and Toto.
As you can imagine, winter in Iceland can be a bit cold. But the 20-40 degrees Fahrenheit during the sunlight was tolerable.
After the sun went down, I bundled up like an Eskimo and imagined warm fires in hopes of bringing the blood flow back to my fingers. But have no fear – anyone who has experienced typical winter weather can handle Iceland, so don’t let frosty temps stop you from exploring this gem.
Luckily, on the day of our hike, the weather Gods were forgiving.
I was relieved to find that the winds were calm, the sky clear and unperturbed, and the sun shining.
Our knowledgeable, funny, and patient tour guide, Helga, was taking us to the fourth largest glacier in Iceland, Sólheimajökull. Helga was also in the process of completing her doctorate, with a focus on geology and glaciology.
A knowledgeable guide who was passionate about glaciers? I had hit the proverbial jackpot.
Sólheimajökull was only a two-hour ride from Reykjavik, located smack dab in the center of the southern coast of Iceland.
Throughout the entire tour, Helga spouted off an endless array of facts and cultural information. As our tour bus lumbered past frozen tundra and Icelandic ponies running through the snow, she filled our heads with more factoids than I could possibly remember. One important fact of note: 11 percent of Iceland’s land mass is comprised of glaciers.
As we pulled up closer to the glacier, she told us that Iceland is growing larger. In recent years, sea temperatures have risen, causing ice to melt, allowing Iceland to emerge further out of the sea. The road to Sólheimajökull is lengthened every year or two to accommodate the shrinking glacier and growing land mass.
Upon arrival to Sólheimajökull, our group of 30 split up into smaller groups of 10 as we prepared for our voyage. I stuck with Helga.
We suited up into warm pants and parkas, strapped crampons to the bottom of our shoes, and held tight to the ice pick axe that would serve as a stabilizer in the event of a misstep. We wouldn’t need rope or harnesses as the area of glacier we were walking on didn’t require them.
As we approached the glacier, a team of ice climbers attempted to ascend with stealth, ice axes cutting and crampons digging to tackle the pitch. It looked challenging. I was glad I would only be taking a stroll today.
The black volcanic pebbles below our feet quickly changed to crisp, clear ice tinted blue. Our crampons crunched heartily into the glacier beneath us, securing our footing.
The glacier, unsurprisingly, was nothing like what I had imagined prior to my trip.
It was better.
Nature’s paintbrush is unparalleled to any other. The resulting grandeur before me was both breathtaking and exhilarating.
In places, clear ice afforded a shallow view below. Dark volcanic ash swirled with white and blue ice, shaped majestically by sunlight and wind.
Ice patterns looked like mini moguls combined with upward sloping walls of ice sliced with sharp crevasses.
Glacial cauldrons, known to commoners as “hungry cauldrons,” dotted our path. Deceptive when filled with snow, glacial cauldrons can go anywhere from five feet to 500 feet deep. Helga cautiously steered us away from any missteps that could end in a potential cauldron feeding.
We climbed up, down, around and over Sólheimajökull, our faces smiling the entire way.
As we descended the glacier, Helga told us to turn around and take another look.
Easily overlooked at first glance, she pointed out what looked like small black peaks rising out of the glacier like horns.
These strange formations were know to the locals as “ice monsters,” and some locals got the heebeejeebies from what appeared to be eerie blue eyes glowing underneath devilish black horns.
In a country like Iceland, where elves, trolls and other mythical creatures are a staple of cultural folklore, this wasn’t surprising.
Iceland was founded by Vikings, after all. For a country name that conjures icy spine-tingling shivers, Iceland makes up for its chilly image with a cast of colorful characters.
Hiking a glacier is without a doubt a must-do activity for any visitor. Not only did our hike provide the most picturesque photo opportunities of my entire trip, it was also a safe option for all age levels. Our group ranged from young twenty-somethings to sprightly seniors, all of whom felt equally comfortable exploring the ice.
The glacier hike was part of a day-long tour which lasted twelve hours and included a variety of additional Icelandic sights: a stop to marvel at the Seljalandsfoss and Skógarfoss waterfalls, a visit to the Eyjafjallajökull Eruption centre (remember the big volcanic eruption back in 2010), a visit to a quaint country inn for lamb soup, and multiple stops to attempt a glimpse of the infamous Aurora Borealis (unfortunately, the Northern Lights didn’t come out that night).
Overall, it was an unforgettable trip. If you decide to go, be sure to tell Helga hello for me.
For More Information:
Icelandic Mountain Guides
Glacier Walk and Northern Lights
Cost: US$ 220
Provided: Crampons and ice pick axes.
Bring: A parka, hat, warm pants, gloves and camera.