While it’s commonly known that “Iceland is actually green” and “Greenland is mostly ice,” the fact remains that almost 11% of the landmass of Iceland is covered with glaciers. The best way to learn about these monumental masses is to strap on some crampons and get up close and personal. I book the Day Trip from Reykjavik: Glacier Hiking and Ice Climbing on Iceland’s Sólheimajokull Glacier, leaving out of Reykjavik, to do just that.
After our guide Ingó picks up the six of us at our various hotels and hostels, we depart Reykjavik as the sun is still working its way above the horizon. During the two-hour drive to the glacier, Ingó entertains us with Icelandic music and snippets of geological and historical facts as we head east and south on Route 1, the main highway that rings the country. The landscape is as variable as the weather: snow-dusted lava fields merge into wide expanses of grass lands until mountains once again dominate, punctuated by waterfalls.
Preparing for the glacier
We’re headed towards Sólheimajökull glacier, part of the Mýrdalsjökull ice cap. The drive passes quickly and we soon pull into the parking area, which, we are informed, was covered by the glacier as little as 15 years ago. The glacier looms ahead, a giant mass of gray that seems to touch the overcast sky; hunks of ice float in a small lagoon as tendrils of low mist swath the mountains.
The glacier is ever-changing and, as a result, should not be approached without proper safety measures and healthy caution. Ingó fits us with crampons and distributes ice axes to serve as both walking sticks and extra support on the ice. With the crampons threaded onto our ice axes, we carry our “glacier lollipops” to the edge of the ice, tramping along a mix of ash and earth that creates a landscape more suited to the moon or a far-away planet.
Our guide is extremely informative, providing us with a mix of science, glacial geology, terminology and history as we traverse the ridges and valleys of Sólheimajökull, carefully pointing out the crevasses and moraines so that we take extra caution. “If you fall here,” he explains, pointing to a narrow rift with no discernible bottom, “you probably wouldn’t die. But, it would be uncomfortable and difficult to get you out.” Duly noted. I stomp my crampons with a satisfying crunch, avoiding the edge of the gash.
The glacier is not a monochromatic mound. Layers of ash and lava from nearby Katla volcano create ribbons of black and collect in dips and cavities; the glacier is composed of a spectrum of whites and blues, varying according to the density of the ice. Water pools in pits and cavities and, one-by-one, we stoop and scoop out the filtered water. We creep over the surface, moving at a shuffle—every new vista deserves a photo.
Deep in the heart of “Mordor,” an area of the glacier named from one of the Icelandic sagas (they came first; Tolkien merely borrowed), Ingó finds a suitable ice wall and proceeds to secure a rope for our ice climbing lesson.
It seems simple enough: thrust the ice-climbing ice axes (different from those we carry now) into the ice to gain two points of purchase; slam the crampons on your feet into the slick ice to secure another two points of security. Always have at least three points attached to the ice.
As I scramble and claw my way up the ice, wishing for Wolverine’s claws or at least his upper body strength, I appreciate the skill and strength that it took Ingó to lead climb the face in order to secure the rope. My crampon slips and suddenly I’m hanging onto the ice axes with my feet dangling, supported by the harness and Ingó’s grip on the belay rope. I regain my hold, my legs like jelly. I’m exultant—and relieved—when my crampons are once again horizontal instead of vertical.
All too soon we’re headed back for the van, now a small white speck in the distance. Ingó leads, carefully scouting ahead before we follow like little ducklings in a line. Removing my crampons, I stomp along the path; I feel a bit bereft walking without them. We gobble sandwiches and cookies before a brief stop at Skógafoss, an impressive waterfall just a short drive from the highway that provides a bracing spray as we navigate the icy pathway. I quickly return to the warm van and strains of Mammút on the stereo.
Iceland conjures images of Vikings, waterfalls and, of course, Björk, but my memories of Iceland are now arranged in shades of blue, punctuated by the crunch of crampons and the tooth-numbing cold of glacier water scooped straight from the source.