Published September 19, 2017
We went with Icelandic Mountain Guides to Skaftafell for walking and climbing on a gorgeous day. They offer all kinds of walks and climbing for everyone around Skaftafell, making it one of the more inclusive tours you can take in Iceland. As the trip starts, I‘m having one of those moment when you suddenly feel as if you were standing on the edge of the world staring into a deep abyss, contemplating every decision that brought you here—all the “whys” and “ifs” of existence.
Except now I’m physically perched at the edge of the world, looking down at an impossibly blue abyss, so deep I can‘t see the bottom. I have been tiptoeing (as much as the crampons allow me) along the coarse icy curves of the Svínafellsjökull glacier for the past hour or so. Dan Saulite, our Icelandic Mountain Guide for the day, has made sure we are wearing all the gear we need, so I’m not overly worried. Although Dan is from Scotland he has lived and worked as a Mountain guide in Patagonia, New Zealand, Alaska, India … you name it. It’s a pleasure to have him around: he often flashes a bright smile through his coarse beard, but his instructions are decisive.
Ice ice baby
It’s a sunny Friday morning when we get to the Icelandic Mountain Guides house in Skaftafell, overly caffeinated and jazzed about the morning ahead. We met most of the mountain guides the night before, but somehow they look even more striking under bright sunlight.
As I stand atop a tiny crust of lava and dirt before our adventure begins, the frozen waves of water are making their way out of a peculiar mist, but the air is clear and energising. Our small group is bursting with excitement so off we go, following Dan like awkward dinosaurs, planting our crampons flat on the ground. We meet more guides on the way. “The glacier changes regularly,” Dan explains. “So every morning the guides do the rounds to make sure footpaths and staircases are carved into the ice. It makes our tours easier and safer.” I look at the guys dancing on the rim of the curves, often defying gravity. They’re mesmerising.
A steep walk
Soon enough we steer away from other groups. The sun is bright, but not blinding—just enough for the glacier to glimmer happily, a fiery tongue of ice peeking out of the mountain cluster like a mischievous smile. Dan leads us across deep crevices. We climb icy staircase and walk tights paths, one eye on the ground and one on the steep walls on our right, sometimes bound with our belts to sturdy ropes that run along the perimeter of the ice. “A couple more steps and then we might do some climbing okay?” One of my fellow travellers, Wojciech, who has climbed before and has seemed keen to stick his face down an intensely blue hole in the ice without fear of falling down, is eager to shimmy down at the first opportunity. To this day I regret not following him.
Sitting on the edge of the world
Dan is happy to help. “Remember to keep your feet perpendicular to the ice as you go down, okay,” he says. “Then on your way up use the axe to help you up. I’m here so you can be sure you won’t fall.” But Wojciech is already going. I’m sitting right on the edge, one leg in, one leg out. White walls of frozen water stretch before my eyes like serpents. I am tempted to think it’s only a dream, but the cold touch of the glacier and its sky blue shine feels real enough. I breathe in, look down once more and I feel free.
It bears mentioning that there are numerous tours available for people of all skill levels. Whether you’re an absolute beginner when it comes to glacier hikes or an expert with the sure-footedness of a mountain goat, there are tours of any length for you. Icelandic Mountain Guides also offer glacier walks of Sólheimajökull in the south, as a part of a day trip from Reykjavík or meet them on location.
Name: Dan Saulite
Home Country: Scotland
Favourite part of the job: The people. The conversations I have, the energy I get from other people when they’re having a good time—that’s what makes it special.
Strange guide moment: Once when I was on a tour we got an emergency call from the local rangers: one of them had accidentally gotten an axe stuck in his neck while building new paths in the ice. It was the most gruesome scene I have ever seen. But we helped him down and the odd thing is he was really calm: being a refugee, he told me he had experienced far worse in his life.
Once when I was on a tour, a guy decided to ask his girlfriend to marry him on top of the glacier. It all went well until later on they realised the ring had slipped off the girl’s finger and fell off a crevice. It was a very sad walk back, but we actually managed to find it months later and ship it to them. They were so happy they sent us loads of beer to thank us!