Over The Hills: A Helicopter Ride To Langjökull Ice Tunnel

Over The Hills: A Helicopter Ride To Langjökull Ice Tunnel

Hannah Jane Cohen
Photo by
Hannah Jane Cohen

On a rare clear day in Reykjavík, I strapped myself into a helicopter for the first time in order to head out towards the recently-completed Langjökull Ice Tunnel. With not a cloud in sight, the sky was that beautiful Reykjavík azure, a hue I like to compare to Elijah Wood’s eyes. As such, I was feeling particularly absorbed in Iceland as the ‘copter warmed up—even more so when our pilot Snorri’s voice crackled over the headset, telling us to turn up the ‘wolume’ knob so we could hear him. So cute!

Up, up and away!

I quickly learn that unlike a plane, helicopters don’t take off in a gradual, diagonal fashion. Instead, they jolt straight up, like an elevator. “Holy shit,” I think, as we ascend vertically into the sky, “I’m fucking Michael Bloomberg.” I’ve never really understood why people want to go into politics, but suddenly I get it. In fact, at that moment I’d do anything to be permanently flown around in one of these contraptions.

As we rise above Reykjavík, those characteristic multicoloured houses and rooftops come into sight. It’s like the view from Hallgrimskirkja or Perlan, but much, much better. On one side is the sea, and on the other, the snow-capped mountains. “Wow,” I think, “the city really doesn’t look that big from up here.”

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Just as I’m starting to get used to the sensation of flying, there’s a moment of turbulence. The helicopter suddenly wobbles and jerks, and I instantly panic for my life. As the woman next to me frantically grabs her husband’s knee, the pilot laughs and says, “Just another day at the office.” Touché.

But the view is stunning, and calms us down. From above, the roads look like veins and capillaries, mapping out the body of Greater Reykjavík, feeding the different neighbourhoods of the urban sprawl. The cars and houses look as small as toys, and this causes me to have a brief existential moment. Each house contains a world of its own. Existence may precede essence, but there are a quarter of a million essences right below me.

Into the wild

As we pass the city limits, the landscape becomes increasingly volcanic, marked with massive craters and big viscously sludgy brown mountains. We pass over the Nesjavellir geothermal power plant, and watch the columns of water vapour float into the sky. “Damn,” I think, “even Icelandic pollution is beautiful.” The shadows of clouds pass over the dusty brown wasteland, giving the rugged land even more texture.

It’s time for our first stop, 30km from the city. On the side of a hill, near some geothermal waters, the helicopter touches down gracefully. It’s a picture-perfect Icelandic location, with views of hot pools, waterfalls and mountains all around us. Snorri shows us where it’s safe to feel the running water, and damn, it’s piping hot. As the wind blows down from higher ground, I think, “I could use a hot tub right now… I bet the Vikings felt the same way.” My pilot, I suppose, is psychic, and feels my desire for luxury and relaxation. He pulls out a bottle of champagne. Oh well—it’s 5 o’clock somewhere!

The alcohol is a nice touch, but I’m more entertained by the colours here: the grasses are interspersed with this muted violet shrub and the mud pools are an unreal steel-grey. I wish Monet were still alive and in Iceland; he’d do something astounding with this countryside.

But our time is soon up, and off we go again, headed towards Langjökull glacier. With the jerky movements of the helicopter, I’m happy I only had one glass of bubbly—I’d highly warn against having any more. We pass over Þingvellir, which looks magnificent from above.

Above and under the mountain

Suddenly, the first signs of snow approach. Like a Pollock painting, the white is splattered across the brown landscape. The patches increase in frequency, until eventually the whole painting is reversed: a white canvas with only dribbles of brown. At some indistinguishable point, colour disappears completely. We’ve gone glacial.

If you’ve never seen a glacier, it’s fucking crazy. In all directions, there’s nothing but whiteness. We come in for landing, and it’s even more stunning. The light is so intense that I can’t take off my sunglasses.

It’s time to venture Into The Glacier—a set of manmade tubes that opened up to the public only a few weeks ago. As I walk around under the ice, my feelings are mixed: the tunnels are a cool sight, but standing on the top of the glacier is just an incomparable experience. I would have walked on the glacier for hours, but I’m ready to exit the caves within minutes.

There are a few things designed to keep people entertained, such as an ice chapel and an ice reception hall, but if you’re anything other than a small child, you might well feel like you’re in the middle of a tourist gimmick. In a land as full of natural beauty as Iceland, there’s no need for these manmade vistas—the real glacier will blow you away far more than standing in a dark hole within it.

I will add this though: for those with young kids, and particularly ones obsessed with the Disney movie ‘Frozen’, these caves would be an ideal destination. I can see younglings being vastly entertained by every little part of this icy outpost. So for a tour to satisfy both the young and the old, go to the caves—but make sure to arrive via helicopter.

We trudge back into the snowy whiteout above, and it’s time to head back to Reykjavík. On the way back, we hover over Glymur, Iceland’s highest waterfall. It’s an incredible sight, and one that’ll remain with me for the rest of my life. Hovering high over a narrow fjörd, looking down at the moss, birds, water, and stone… this experience was fantastical. As we fly back to the city, my wind wanders, and I think only about the blinding white snow.

In an episode of “Friends,” Phoebe once made a New Years Resolution to fly a commercial jet. She decided the best way to do it was to wait by the airstrip until a pilot left one unattended. I’ve always felt very close to Phoebe, and now, I feel the same way. So watch out Norðurflug… check your hangers. I’m on the hunt for a ‘copter of my own, and I don’t think I can back down.

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