From Iceland — The View From the Top

The View From the Top

Published June 18, 2008

Despite its name, Iceland is not all that icy. In fact, you’ll have to go through some trouble for a first hand experience of ice here in the summer time – like making the two-hour drive up to Mýrdalsjökull glacier. We arrived at the foot of the glacier at noon, just in time to meet up with a group of tourists taking a snowmobile trip up to the top. It is a sunny day, half-clear sky and the view from the base camp is already pretty impressive. We join the group, hoping for an even better lookout post up top.

Mýrdalsjökull is 1515 m high and roughly 600 km2 and rests on a very active volcano called Hekla, considered one of the most powerful volcanoes in the world. It last erupted in 1918, but the regular eruption cycle is between 50 and 80 years, so we are a bit overdue. Hekla is carefully monitored at all times, and in the case of an eruption it would take an hour for the lava to melt through the ice cap. This, however, is only a slightly comforting thought to keep in mind at the beginning of the trip.

Things start out slowly. Our guide, a small Frenchman called Anthony, gives us basic lessons on how to operate the snowmobile, and stresses the importance of everyone following in a single line behind him on the trip, especially this time of year when the glacier is warming and the snow on top melting away. The landscape changes fast on a glacier in springtime, and unknown crevasses are known to appear where there was none before.

We take off for the top, in a single line as ordered. I notice one crack in the snow, which we bypass. The group consists of an English family, two American couples and us Grapeviners. Apart from the guide and me, everyone is taking their first step on a snowmobile, so we ascend slowly while the group learns to operate the vehicle.
The hell raiser in me is having a hard time adjusting to the slow pace, so I make sure I am at the back of the line. Every now and then I fall back, even stop and admire the view, while the group gains a little advantage before I open up to catch them again. I make sure that Anthony and the rest of the group don’t notice, and I never break the single line. That would be bad form obviously.

There is nothing in this world as unreliable as the Icelandic weather. Near the top, at 1400 metres altitude, we hit fog. This is an unfortunate result of the warm weather. The melting snow on the glacier evaporates and forms clouds of fog as it cools down in the higher altitude. Although this seriously hampers our view of the surroundings, Anthony the guide improvises a great 3-d model of the glacier and its surroundings from snow to explain what we would be looking at, if weather permitted.

We head down again, towards the southwest tongue of the glacier. We quickly descend from the fog and into the sunlight. The visibility is greatly improved. We stop and take it in. On our right we can see the outlet glacier Sólheimajökull and its crevassed icefall, and a little further, Eyjafjallajökull glacier, sitting atop another active volcano. Between the two lies the popular Fimmvörðuháls hiking trail to Þórsmörk. In front of us we see Vestmannaeyjar Islands, and to our left, Pétursey and Mýrdalssandur. Quite impressive really. After a short stop, we head back to base camp. An hour later, we learn of a massive 6.2 Richter earthquake near Hveragerði, roughly 100 km away. Although the earthquake had nothing to do with activity in Hekla, I still felt better being off the volcano when it hit.

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