Published October 14, 2017
Nervously I grip my ice axes tightly, kicking the ice as hard as I can until the spikes on my boot finally pierce the wall. I do the same with my other foot, but it skims the surface and I lose my balance, dangling ungracefully from my rope. “What on Earth am I doing here?” I muse, before righting myself and trying again.
Despite my bewilderment, I am somewhat prepared for this dalliance. We’ve travelled two hours from Reykjavík to Sólheimajökull, an outlet of Iceland’s fourth biggest glacier, Mýrdalsjökull, to take in the views before trying our hand at ice climbing. With unseasonably good weather, we drive through Iceland’s stunning scenery bathed in rare autumn sunshine. Sheer rocky cliffs are decorated with waterfalls that cast spray up into the air. Grassy fields dotted with snoozing horses and grazing sheep morph seamlessly into stretches of lava field edged with towering volcanoes.
“This is better than doing it in the rain,” grins our guide, a quietly confident 30-year-old Spanish guy named Hodei, who says he has only experienced such clear skies around four times throughout his year-and-a-half long stay in Iceland. He points assuredly to the gleaming top of Mýrdalsjökull against the horizon. “That’s where we’re going,” he says. I’m nervous; this is too far from my comfort zone. Hodei laughs and tells me I’ll be fine. I hope he’s right.
The black volcanic ice
Once on the glacier, my worries melt away as I take in its sheer natural beauty. We crunch past trickling meltwater streams, frosty blue crevasses and ‘moulins’ (French for “well”), which are rounded shafts that spiral down into the depths below. The cracks in the ice are impressively deep, but are apparently relatively small—some can grow up to 10 metres in width. In the distance, the enduring presence of the surrounding volcanoes contrasts with the transience of the ice.
In my mind glaciers are supposed to be white. A serene image from the BBC accompanied by the soothing voice of David Attenborough. But Sólheimajökull is covered by a blanket of black ash. Leftovers from a volcanic eruptions sometime in the past. It’s (dare I cliché?) haunting, a testament to the violent power the land’s nature can conjure. A place unlike any other, unlike anything I’ve experienced before.
A glacier disappearing
But the glacier is receding, every year it retreats around 100 years further inland. Everything we walk over today will be gone in the not too distant future. It is being devoured by warming global temperatures. To enjoy its grand beauty means not waiting too long.
Finally, we reach the crevasse we’re going to climb and Hodei shows us how to ascend, advising us to keep our legs wide and our arms narrow. It’s easier said than done, but spurred on by the effortless performances of my fellow tourists as they spider up the surface, I take a deep breath and get a firm grip. Fragments of ice rain down on my helmet as I swing my axes into the glacier and wrench myself upwards, a couple of inches at a time.
To my utter disbelief, I soon find myself peeking over the ridge of the crevasse, grinning. “My favourite thing about this job is seeing the sense of accomplishment in people’s faces after they’ve reached the top,” says Hodei, noting how impressed he is that all of us managed it. My arms and legs ache, but I do feel a sense of pride.
Taking the plunge
On the drive home, we stop at Skógafoss, a majestic 200 foot waterfall and one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. “A guy on a tour once jumped in a puddle formed in a hole in the ice,” says Hodei. “He wanted to see how deep it was. It came up to the top of his shoulders.”
“Did he carry on with the tour?” I ask. “Oh yes,” says Hodei. “He did the whole hike soaking wet.” I laugh incredulously, but as I stare up at the mammoth column of water descending from Skógafoss and reflect upon my day, I decide that life is better when you occasionally push yourself out of your comfort zone.
I arrived in Iceland only recently and have yet to have the chance to enjoy the country’s many stunning sights. But in one day, just hours away from Reykjavík I’ve seen nature incomparable to anything in my native England. A world apart from my big city live, or bountiful fields and farms. I have witnessed the sublime, a spectacle unlike anything my eyes have gazed upon before–and now I’m hooked.