As you approach the Svinafellsjokull Glacier at Skaftafell the first thing that hits you isn’t the sheer size of the glacier looming in front of you. In fact, the massive white summit is dwarfed by the impact of a small sign you approach the glacier entrance. Mounted on a unimpressive boulder, the square sliver sign lists two names with a simple note:
“Missing on the glacier since 2007. With love from their family and friends”
The sign was a sober reminder on a cheerful, sunny morning in Iceland. A reminder that Iceland’s famous glaciers are not simple tourist attractions. In the excitement of donning our crampons and grabbing our ice picks, I had forgotten about the real life danger of the formidable glacier. A glacier isn’t just a solid sheet of ice. Dotted with crevices and mulans that go meters beneth the icy surface, walking across the glacier can be a tricky task for even those most seasoned outdoorsman – which of course I am far from being. Luckily, we were in good hands with our experienced guide from Icelandic Mountain Guides.
Iceland is a land full of glaciers. In fact, there are at least two major Glaciers easily accessible from the capital, Reykjavik. As soon as we booked our airfare I knew that one of the things I REALLY wanted to do was a Glacier Walk.
Since there are two glaciers sort of near Reykjavik, the first decision we needed to make was which Glacier to conquer. The first, and smaller glacier, is only a few hours away while the bigger one at Skaftafell is around 6 hours from the capital. We heard that the Svinafellsjokull Glacier at Skaftafell (the bigger glacier) was a better choice due to the scenery and relative lack of crowds.
Glacier walking requires a substantial amount of great. In addition to our snow pants and hiking boots, we were decked out with crampons (spiked foot attachments), ice picks, helmets and harnesses. I felt fairly ridiculous.
Our hike started with us climbing onto the glacier and a short tutorial on crampon walking. Then we began. It was amazing how quickly the white of the glacial snow surrounded us – before long there was snow and ice as far as I could see. The only point of reference was the tallest peak in Iceland which loomed far ahead of us.
It was hard work, this glacier walking. In fact, walking might have been a bit of a misnomer. I had donned about five layers of clothing (Glaciers = cold, right?!) and within half an hour I was hot and sweaty. Stripping off my coat and fleece I did most of the hike my long sleeve t-shirt.
Luckily, the hard work paid off – the views were epic. A huge expanse of rippling snow and ice with the dramatic mountain backdrop. My fellow hikers looked like tiny dots as they scrambled up the snow hills.
At some points, when were near a crevice or other dangerous, our guide would rig up guide ropes for us to tie into using carabineers attached or our harnesses. I don’t like to brag (haha…lies) but I was recently belay certified and I am happy to report that all harnesses, knots and ropes checked out according to my “expert” eyes. It was hard to tell how deep these crevices were – until our guide kicked some ice chunks down one and we listened to the seemingly endless sound of them knocking against the ice walls as they fell down the crack.
Four hours is a surprisingly short time in glacier walk distance. Before long, it was time to turn back. As we retreated, I realized again the importance of our guide – everything look exactly the same. I would have never found my way back on my own. In fact, it took our guide a few tries to pick out the correct path back – but this just meant more time on the glacier and the exploration of more glacier formations.
Oddly, the glacier, and its never ending rolling hills of white, reminded me of time spent in the Sahara – echoes of the endless sand dunes. As we walked in silence back to the glacier lip, I thought about how strange a world we live in – where giant cities and endless deserts exist within miles of each other. Where you can walk on a massive glacier just miles away from black sand beaches and crashing waves.