A Glacial Cliffhanger: Walking Like A Cowboy On Sólheimajökull Glacier

A Glacial Cliffhanger: Walking Like A Cowboy On Sólheimajökull Glacier

image/svg+xml Grunnur Grunnur Created with Sketch.
Joanna Smith
Words by
Photos by

Along with volcanoes, hot springs, and a bucket-load of black sand, glaciers are one of Iceland’s must-see natural wonders. Coming from England—a country that literally shuts down at an inch of snowfall—the concept of a massive block of impenetrable ice is both foreign and magical to me. I was aching to get to know this frozen wilderness, and the best way to do that is by buckling on your crampons and venturing out on a glacier walk tour. Not only that, but Icelandic Mountain Guides offer this popular tour with the option of ice climbing. So if you’ve ever dreamed of scaling a wall of ice, here’s your chance.

I was pretty excited to get my Lara Croft on, and I waited eagerly for our tour guide, Illugi, to pick us up. Once in the van, we headed south of Reykjavík. One of the great things about this tour is that you get to stop briefly at two of Iceland’s most famous waterfalls, Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss. Depending on the light and weather conditions, you may stop at the falls before or after visiting the glacier. If you go before, try not to get too wet. Trust me, wearing damp clothes whilst stood on what’s essentially a massive ice cube is not a good idea.

Once at Sólheimajökull glacier, we were given our harnesses, helmets and crampons. After a 15 minute hike, we reached the base of the glacier. We were taught how to put on our crampons and how to walk properly on the ice (“like a cowboy” as Illugi put it). Don’t fret if you’ve never done anything like this before; this tour is a total beginners guide, so they talk you through everything.

Hand, hand, foot, foot

Walking with crampons is bizarre at first. You have to sort of stomp around so that the spikes dig into the ice and you don’t slip over. It didn’t take me long to get used to it however, and then I could properly take in my surroundings. It almost felt like I was on the North Pole: dazzling white as far as the eye could see and whistling bitter winds. After this short hike, we began climbing. Again, they teach you everything, and before you know it you’re harnessed up, ice picks in hand, ready to ascend. You get into a rhythm –hand, hand, foot, foot– swinging the picks into the ice and kicking in your crampons. To my pleasant surprise, it was actually easier than I anticipated, and just as I was beginning to get tired, I realised I was at the top. We spent about 90 minutes taking it in turns to climb this wall of ice, practicing our technique and really getting the hang of it. It was during these 90 minutes that the heavens opened and I was grateful for my waterproofs and thermals—seriously, make sure you wrap up.

Luckily the clouds cleared as we hiked around the glacier for a further hour or so. Illugi showed us some of the wonders of Sólheimajökull: we peered into huge crevasses, sipped pure glacier water and (my favourite part) explored ice caves.

We returned to the van feeling sleepy; the sign of a good day’s climb. Needless to say, it was pretty quiet on the drive back to Reykjavík, as we all snoozed together. This experience was one of the best I’ve had in Iceland, and now glaciers don’t feel quite so foreign to me, but still just as magical.

Door-to-door this trip takes between 10-12 hours, 3-4 hours active. Groups are between 2-6 people. Minimum age is 14 years and Icelandic Mountain Guides offer this tour throughout the year.