Vatnajökull is the second largest glacier in all of Europe, covering 8% of Iceland’s land mass and dominating the southeast corner of the country. Visible only on clear days, the glacier’s peak sits atop a vast sheet of compacted snow and ice, estimated to be up to a kilometre deep at its thickest point. Seen from the Skaftafell Express minubus, weaving gradually closer via the coastal ring road, it seems dizzyingly, impossibly high-like an odd, ancient, otherworldly life form, nesting amongst the mountains.
Despite its hostile and uninhabitable nature, Vatnajökull has a magnetic appeal that’s created a brisk trade in day-trip incursions onto the glacier. Over thirty glacier tongues overspill from the ice cap, each tumbling down to ground level with a unique path and style, and whilst many of them terminate in iceberg-filled lakes such as Jökulsárlón, some slowly retreat across dry land, scraping vast furrows in their wake and offering a chance to set foot on the ice.
Nestled between two such glacier tongues is Skaftafell, a south-facing nature reserve with a diverse, quickly changing landscape that’s home to a range of flora and bird life. We arrive a day early just to explore this area, which is criss-crossed by hiking trails of various length and difficulty. The easiest and most popular is a short dirt trail littered with rocks and boulders and punctuated by naked tree roots and well-kept wooden walkways. It winds upwards from sea level quickly through thickets of trees and shrubs, with the buzz and flutter of insects and birds in the air. Before long, the track offers a view across the grey wash of the sand plains below, tangled with shining, sea-bound rivers.
There are several waterfalls along the way, from fine trickles to foamy torrents, making a nice warm-up for the crown jewel of the Skaftafell reserve. Svartifoss is one of the most spectacular waterfalls in Iceland, not because of its size but rather a freakishly beautiful rock formation. The fall pours down over a cliff of geometric basalt that has been slowly eroded from underneath by the water spray, creating an overhang of gothic columns that might have sprung from H. R. Giger’s imagination. Fellow visitors discuss their interpretations of the scene—some see a forest of stone trunks and branches reaching towards the sky, others the graceful arches of a cathedral, and others still see a macabre ribcage opening from the cliffside. But whatever Rorschach associations it brings out, Svartifoss is a spectacular natural gem.
Taking the high road
After a few minutes of lingering for photographs the majority of visitors head straight back, but for those interested in continuing their hike there are plenty of signs and maps charting the area. We opt to head for Sjónarnípa, a viewpoint two and a half kilometres to the east. The path soon rises beyond the sheltered lea-side bank of Vatnajökull, with the lush vegetation giving way to bridged swamps and sparse weeds that shiver in the freezing wind falling from the glacier. Soon, the air is frozen, the plants vanish altogether, and the path leads over a bleak rock-strewn desert.
The view from Sjónarnípa is better than we could have hoped. Having ascended deceptively gradually, it turns out the path is now around 300 metres above sea level, with the huge Skaftafellsjökull glacier tongue wending its way through a wide valley far below. Its texture comes from crevices and white peaks streaked with ash, giving way to steep white outcrops of compacted snow, smashed into strange shapes by the pressure of crawling downhill from the towering summit, just visible through gathering clouds. Sparse pairs of walkers sit in awed silence, humbled by the scale of the scene before them.
The return path is three kilometres of dirt track that thankfully dips out of the arctic breeze, plunging immediately down a slope of verdant greenery. Edible berries, bluebells and wild thyme grow amongst trickling streams and low hanging branches laden with late-summer leaves. After an hour of zig-zagging through these glorious woods, we’re back at the base camp, and, with weary limbs, decide to call in a day.
The nearest town, Kirkjubæjarklaustur, is 40 kilometres away, so many travellers decide to camp, but we’re booked in at the conveniently located Skaftafell Hotel. It’s a choice we’re immediately happy about, especially after a hot shower, and substituting our trail mix and protein bars for a delicious meal of smoked arctic char and T-bone lamb steaks in the restaurant. We sink into comfortable beds and a deep sleep, waking up refreshed and ready for our second day of glacier exploration.
The falling glacier
At the Skaftafell visitor’s centre, a little village of cabins has sprung up around the car park in recent years, housing various competing tour companies that offer climbing and hiking activities on the nearby glacier tongues. Our trip is run by Glacier Guides, who operate on Falljökull. Our guide for the day will be Fannar, a helpful and cheerful young Mossfellsbær chap with a bright disposition and a wealth of interesting and relevant knowledge at his fingertips.
After borrowing some well-used (and slightly tattered) Cintamani waterproofs and hiking boots (hired at 1,000 ISK per pair), the climb begins. We’re a group of eight that includes Polish, German and English couples, myself, and my companion for the hike—she’s an Icelander, and apparently only the second native to take this tour this summer.
Fannar explains the geography as we go, stopping every ten minutes or so to point out features and identify types of terrain. At our first stop, he tells us we’ve already entered the glacier without even realising it—we’re already standing on ice that’s been covered by a layer of thick dirt and grit. When we get to the naked ice, we’re given climbing harnesses and crampons, and a short lesson is how to walk in them—feet splayed when going uphill, straight and parallel when going down, and kept apart at all times so as to avoid skewering oneself with the spikes, and so forth.
Before long, we’re crunching across dazzling white ice in the sunshine. We soon reach a glacial feature known as a moulin—a hole of about one metre in diameter, through which a stream of melt-water trickles deep into the sheet below. Fannar drops some screws into the ice, attaching a line to each of our harnesses in turn so we can lean out over the opening and see the water tumbling into the darkness and vanishing from sight. It’s beautiful, and chilling to imagine what might happen were one to slip. “Be careful,” smiles Fannar, as he demonstrates the best way to stand, “because if you were to fall in, well… that would be the end of your tour.”
Fjalljökull is an interesting glacier to hike, because its icefall—the area where the near-vertical cascade of ice hits the ground and begins a more gentle descent to sea level—is reachable on foot in about an hour. We’re quickly immersed in this almost fantastical landscape, traversing dappled plains and jagged spikes, banks and steep canyons. The shapes in the ice are chaotic and ever-changing, alternating between geometric and organic, with arterial blue depths visible in the larger cracks. Fannar spends time scoping out the immediate area for interesting features—we end up drinking water straight from the glacier’s surface, clambering through a short ice tunnel, and happily exploring Falljökull’s surface for a couple of wonderful hours. His curious and sunny disposition adds insight and charm to the trip, and we feel like we’ve seen an impressive range of features before beginning the slow and careful descent.
A short drive away, we stop at Fjallsárlón, the last stop on the tour, donning bright red body suits for a dinghy trip amongst the floating icebergs. These huge chunks of glacier have become detached from Vatnajökull, and will melt away slowly into the steely grey water, or perhaps find their way out to sea. Even here, the glacier is dangerous—as they shrink, icebergs can flip over dramatically, causing a mini-tsunami in the lake.
From its faraway peak to this watery terminus, the Vatnajökull region offers an escape from the everyday through an amazingly varied natural landscape.
As night falls on the long homeward bus ride, I fall into deep, well-earned slumber, already dreaming of a quick return.