Iceland is home to a larger number of natural glaciers and an ideal location if you wish to experience the vertical limit for the day. Many of the glaciers here on the island date back since the last ice age, particularly those located up on the Highland Mountains where the water is pristine and locked in under permafrost aged over a thousand years old. Trekking on the glaciers themselves is one of the few best ways to experience these magnificent works of natural beauty up close large ice masses still residing in Iceland today.
Enroute to Sólheimajökull and Mýrdalsjökull
My journey to the glaciers started off at about morning 11am with a drive towards south eastern Iceland with the Icelandic mountain experts. They were our guides for the day who also did the logistics planning as well as the rental of our vehicle for the day. Our guide here is from New Zealand called James who stayed in Iceland for the last 3 years, making a living doing adventure expeditions around the island, including the glacier trek today.
The glacier in question here is Sólheimajökull and Mýrdalsjökull, Iceland´s fourth largest glacier. We stopped by a gas station rest stop along our journey with a café halfway through our 2 hour drive to size up and equip and familiarize ourselves with the crampons and trekking sticks we will be using later for the trek.
The southern highway route of Iceland is rather scenic too, with the Icelandic sea coastline facing with the Atlantic ocean constantly flanking the right of our vehicle with the beautiful Vestmannaeyjar islands just visible off the south coast as you drive towards east of Iceland. These islands are off-limit to the public as it is zoned as a closed ecosystem and deemed as a natural heritage site. This exclusion ensures that scientists on the island have an opportunity to study life without any human influences or interferences.
Panorama of the Ice Fields on the Glacier
On nearing our destination, we broke off the main highway into an off-road environment. The route to the tongue of the glacier saw some considerable off-roading on our 4 x 4 vehicle through volcanic dirt trails which used to be the start of the glacier tongue centuries ago. We offloaded our equipment at a large clearing by the start of the glacier tongue.
Panorama of Iceland Glacier tongue
Equipped with our trekking gear and ice axes, we set off trekking up the glacier. Getting onto the glacier is the hard part; we found a route of ice meandering along the edge of the glacier with an occasional need for ice climbing on all fours on the steep areas. The top of the glacier is plateau-like and is pretty flat with a gentle incline.
Glacier Ice features
The ice spots here on the glacier comprise of an array of interesting glacier features such as water cauldrons, crevasses, waterways. The outer surface of the ice has a very distinct ripple pattern formation, which can be seen with the naked eye reflecting off the glacier surface. The guides say that the constant strong see winds up here coupled with the freezing of the ice creates these unique works of nature. These patterns are synonymous and similar to dune ripple patterns you get in the desert too, also formed by the movement of wind.
Up on to the glacier ice field, it will be a generally good idea to stay on the ice and avoid trekking on formations of snow patches here. Snowy accumulations over glacier ice are known to conceal hidden dangers, such as a vertical hole hidden, where the fast-frozen snow can be dislodged under the weight of a person. Once you are on the glacier, the gradient is pretty gentle, as long as you do not trek too far deep into the glacier where the incline greatly increases. The Crampons does a good job in holding you onto the ice even in the slickest of Ice surfaces.
The winds on the plateau can get rather strong too, given the openness the glacier facing the open seas. It will be wise to bring on extra wind protection clothes if you are more susceptible to the cold.
Exploration on the glacier was pretty much an enjoyable and rather painless affair as you scoot around the surface checking out the various peculiar ice formations, with occasional use of the ice pick as a walking aid to get you onto higher grounds. Some people may not enjoy the screech scraping sounds it makes when you dig into the ice on each step, which takes up a considerable amount of energy too as compared to regular walking.
All glaciers here are formed by heavily compacted snow accumulated during various snowfalls, particularly the last amount during the last ice age. The snow is compacted under pressure as the layers pile and freezing into ice. The said water from the melted snow here were trapped right here are locked in over a thousand years old.
As such, the layers of ice are extremely clean and unpolluted by the industrialization of man. Less can be said of any potential prehistoric bacterial or viruses which lurks trapped under the ice. No trip to the glaciers is complete without getting a drink of the melted ice; it is water in its purest form.
On the glacier, I got to chance upon and explore large blue ice glacier caves. The ice surfaces and the interior of the caves have a very distinct blue hue due to the purity of the composition of the water frozen to produce ice in-sync into trapping the blue wavelengths of the sunlight. As such the blue lights get reflected back into your eyes, which makes them appear blue in colour. Some of these caves weren’t as large and cavernous as they used to be 5 years ago, with many of them sadly, melted due to the vast onset of human-induced climate change.
Panorama of Iceland blue ice glaciers
Vulnerable to Global warming
The glaciers of Iceland are fast vanishing due to global increase in temperatures, particularly by global warming. The glacier we were on is no different either. Sólheimajökull and Mýrdalsjökull glacier tongues used to extend towards the Icelandic highway into the sea, but the melting of ice had retreated the glacier inland by over few hundred meters over the last 20 years, particularly since the start of human industrialization and global warming.
The devastation of the glaciers is so unreal that such a large natural feature so daunting, showcasing the very size and might of nature can be so vulnerable to the activities of man. Part of the melted ice which now forms small mini lakes and lagoons at the glacier tongue, exposing the prehistoric permafrost and underlying dark volcanic soil which had not seen the light of day for our thousands of years till the present.
If nothing is done to curb global warming, it won’t be a few more decades where these glaciers get completely wiped out from the face of the Iceland, or even the planet.
If nothing is done to curb global warming, it won’t be a few more decades where these glaciers get completely wiped out from the face of the Iceland, or even the planet…
Þorvaldseyri Volcano center
After spending a good 2 hours on the ice, we made our way back down the glacier for a quick stop at the Þorvaldseyri Eruption Centre. This mini museum run by a local family farm across the road tells the story of the infamous 2010 Icelandic eruption. Yes, you may remember the Volcano as the notorious one one which halted air travel around the western world, and its adverse effect on the region.
A combination of models, photos and wall-lined posters tell a story of the turmoil which persisted during the eruption, particularly the rescue efforts by the Icelandic civil defense (contrary to having an armed forces) who are the unsung heroes in the island-wide rescue operations into protecting the Icelandic people during the Eruption and subsequent ass-cloud which shrouded the country.
Northern lights hunt on way back
It started getting dark on our way back to Reykjavik, which bought us to our northern lights hunting phase on the way back, but that is not of course stopping by two impressive waterfalls along the way, particularly, Seljalandsfoss and Skógarfoss and of course the world famous volcano, Eyjafjallajökull constantly looming over the horizon. The Seljalandsfoss waterfall is the source of the river Seljalandsá, dropping 60m over the cliffs of the former coastline situated in between Selfoss and Skógafoss at the road crossing of the Route 1 Ring Road.
It is possible to go behind the waterfall in summer where the trail is not frozen. The Skógafoss is one of the biggest waterfalls in the country with a drop of 60 m spanning 25 m in width. On sunny days, the waterfall consistently produces a single or double rainbow due to the amount of water spray it lets out. It was also a way point during the first leg of The Amazing Race 6.
We had a pit stop dinner at a local farm near the waterfalls for a delicious traditional Icelandic Meat dinner, this is as traditional a meal you can get in Iceland, the meat dish is a local delicacy which found its origins as a pleasant dish, where the hungry simply just throw anything they can find at home in a stewing pot, it is a delicious dish which is surprisingly filling when eaten with bread too, I couldn’t get enough of it, particularly with unlimited refills.
The hunt for the magical Northern Lights continued on our route back to Reykjavík, stopping occasionally up to 3 times along-side the road to take some pictures when the clouds clear out. The lights are not as strong as they are in Norway even up to 12am, though activity here goes on all the way past late 4am in the chill of the night with the stars, but boy we were lucky to catch it here as well.
You can see more of my Iceland Northern lights adventure in a separate post here.