Gingerly holding a rope in one hand and two ice axes in the other, I lean backward over an icy crevasse. I force one boot-clad foot toward the edge, checking to confirm my crampons are piercing the ice. I manoeuvre my other foot in a similar way, then repeat. Right, left. Right, left.
“Remember earlier when I said I’m afraid of heights?” I say jokingly to my ice climbing instructor, Mike Reid. He nods—just as I miss a step and completely lose contact with the vertical ice wall. The belay rope functions just as Mike promised it would, and I’m yanked upward—hard—by the harness around my waist. “This is why,” I mutter.
Once my feet are safely on a narrow strip of ice at the bottom of the crevasse, I breathe a sigh of relief and look skyward. A camera shutter clicks, capturing what I’m sure is my grimace. “Smile!” says Ryan Newburn from behind the lens.
Let the journey begin
Located about two and a half hours southeast of Reykjavík, Sólheimajökull is arguably one of Iceland’s most popular glaciers, and for good reason. Its proximity to other famous landmarks on the South Coast makes it a convenient spot for tour groups and intrepid adventurers alike. And, with its photo-worthy crevasses just a few minutes from the parking lot, Sólheimajökull was ideal for our ice climbing goals.
Ryan and Mike, co-founders of the adventure company Ice Pic Journeys, choose locations around Iceland that will result in the best photo packages, which are included in all of their tours. The pair—both trained glacier guides and talented photographers—don’t typically guide together, but their chemistry as business partners and friends is undeniable. Ryan, the “ideas guy,” snaps away on his Canon while Mike describes the history of Sólheimajökull and gives me a safety briefing.
We joke around all the way onto the glacier until Mike finds a suitable place for us to begin climbing. He’s the logistics man in the duo, which is evident when he begins carefully tying knots and explaining ice climbing technique.
Into—and out of—the glacier
At our chosen crevasse, I watch as each person in a neighbouring group takes their turn rappelling down the wall and then using ice axes to clamber back up. When it’s my turn—after I’ve slipped my way to the bottom of the wall—I attempt my escape. It’s harder than it looks, and I notice one of the other tourists sniggering. “Hey, it’s not easy!” I retort.
Just as I’m getting frustrated, Mike changes his approach. Undoing some knots, he scrambles, spider-like, to the bottom of the crevasse and begins instructing me from the ground up, offering pointers on each aspect of my technique. He shows me how to leverage my weight as I swing the ice axe, piercing the wall with a downward motion, and how to stomp my crampons so I’m climbing more with my legs than my arms.
Soon, I’ve scaled the wall and tapped the carabiner at the top like a bell. Ryan takes another photo and gives instructions for me to pose.
After another practice run up the wall, it’s time for the real deal. Mike and Ryan each climb out of the crevasse, and I follow. Just as my tired arms are about to give up, I crest the top of the wall and collapse. Mike poses with a thumbs up and I give an exhausted but triumphant smile.
One! More! Time!
As we remove our crampons and walk back to the car, Mike and I review elements of technique. “I want you to come away feeling like ice climbing is achievable,” he says. “Too many people do it once without learning properly and think it’s too hard, so they never try it again.”
I would do it again, I decide, as I relax into the heated passenger seat, sore and more than a little damp from ice melt. I feel delirious with a strange mix of exhaustion, energy, and pride that I conquered a 3-metre ice wall. And, thanks to Ice Pic Journeys, I have pictures to prove it.
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