Birta Jóhannesdóttir is helping my daughter Veronica strap crampons over her boots. Our minibus parks in a lot minutes from Svínafellsjökull’s glacier tongue. The lot was purpose-made for the ‘Batman Begins’ film crew, who shot at this stunning location in 2005. Svínafellsjökull is an outlet glacier of Vatnajökull glacier, which covers 11% of Iceland. It’s a wavy field of waxy and shiny frozen sapphire, aquamarine and white waves. Our guide Helgi Jón Davíðsson lists the rules: “Safety, Safety, Safety.” He’ll lead our group, Birta another.
Veronica, nine, is the youngest. She looks like a superhero, Glacier Girl. Eight is the minimum age for this Extreme Iceland tour.
A guide is essential. It’s potentially lethal to hike without crampons. People have perished on this glacier, especially when crossing it or a river were the only ways to travel in this part of southeast Iceland.
Helgi Jón demonstrates how to walk in crampons. You plant your feet purposefully. Walk like a cowboy. On hills, walk with feet parallel, not sideways, or you could break your ankle.
Veronica stomps ahead, the first behind our guide. We’re walking on a mountain of deep blue ice, crevasses cutting through it. Ice ridges are smooth glass walls.
“The most amazing time to be here is in spring after rain,” Helgi Jón says. “Blue, blue.”
I love it now.
I ask Veronica what she thinks.
“It feels like hiking on a giant slide. These spiky things help me grip it. It is white but when you look in holes there’s ice. The glacier is blue, white, black and brown. I see ash from volcanic eruptions,” she says.
Svínafellsjökull means Pig Mountain Glacier. “Norwegian settlers brought pigs to Iceland,” our guide says. We dig our crampons into the ice then carefully peer into a crevasse. “You have to be alert because what appears only a small dip could be a snow-covered deep crevasse,” Helgi Jón warns.
This ice is a thousand years old. Vatnajökull glacier has an average thickness of 400 metres. In 250 years, it could all be gone.
Glaciers are alive. They shift naturally. But Vatnajökull is rapidly shrinking. Evidence shows glacial melting is accelerated by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Reports such as the 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment researched by hundreds of international scientists state glacial melting is a significant danger to people globally, with sea rise and climate warming.
I feel I’m amidst an endangered species. A glacier. What can we do now?
Doing Is Living
At the bottom of a ridge our guide asks us to choose between two routes. Sensibly, Veronica chooses the easier route though she’s been more confident on the glacier than many adults. My instinct is to take the harder route. But our new Australian friends, the ones Veronica calls the teenagers, joke, “Don’t worry, we’ll raise your daughter!”
The hike feels thrilling and safe. I follow instructions.
On a break I talk with Helgi Jón about children and risk-taking. Some European school groups he’s seen have such stringent rules it seems hardly worth bringing the children to Iceland.
I ask if he’ll share a childhood memory of adventuring.
“We were raised in nature. We’ve seen floods, rain beyond your imagination. I was brought up in the Westfjords. We collected eggs, climbing on ice cliffs with the ocean right below us. I didn’t realise the danger at the time. Sometimes I was frightened but it was harder to go down than up. Today if I looked at myself I’d freak out,” Helgi Jón says.
“Why do kids do dangerous things?” I ask.
“The young think they can do everything. Some take too many risks. But doing is living.”
Safety is crucial, yet I agree excessive risk aversion can equal missing opportunities to learn and test one’s limits.
On the road again, Helgi Jón tells us about the hidden people, elves. They are colourful invisible people who help you if you help them. He says Iceland’s government consults with individuals who can negotiate with elves, for example when construction sites suffer from inexplicable problems.
“If in 1970 you asked people in Reykjavik if they believed in hidden people, about 40% would have said yes. Today it’d be about 5%. It’s a shame,” says our guide.
Turns To Stone
For our final days Veronica and I stay at Reykjavík’s Hotel Natura. I choose it for its eco-consciousness, proximity to nature walks and the free evening storytelling.
I’m slightly embarrassed to wear my pyjamas to the storytelling, but Veronica insists. There’s a mother in a tiger striped one-piece suit, so I look okay.
On the stage in the cosy hotel theatre is a lamp and armchair. A friendly actress invites us to get cookies and hot chocolate before the stories begin. She’ll read a children’s book, and excerpts from Egil’s Saga and a novel from Halldór Laxness, Iceland’s Nobel prize winning author.
While listening to Guðrún Helgadóttir’s ‘A Giant Love Story’ (“Ástarsaga úr fjöllunum”), everything makes sense. Giant troll Flumbra falls for a troll on a distant mountain. When she cleans her house and discards things in anticipation of his visit, the humans below think it’s a landslide. She blows on embers on a fire to cook for the first time in 100 years, sending ash into the air. The humans think it’s a volcano.
Veronica is enthralled. But Flumbra turns to stone when the sun’s rays hit her as she walks to meet her giant lover.
A fan of scientific evidence, I also value folklore. It strikes me not believing in elves means losing stories and connection with nature.
I ask Glacier Girl what she thinks about our trip to Iceland. “I’ll come back to ‘Svina Fiat LaYogurt’ [her pronunciation of Svínafellsjökull] when I’m twelve to work on a farm. I’ll help the dogs round up the sheep,” Veronica says.
We do a last walk in the forest at Öskjuhlíð Hill in the fluffy snowfall. Veronica spots an elf house, revealed only to her, and a rabbit.