“For how many gin and tonics could you get ice from this glacier?” asks one co-traveller as our group of hikers makes its way towards Sólheimajökull, an outlet glacier in Southern Iceland.
“Uhm… that’s a tough one,” ponders our glacier guide for the day, Björgvin Hilmarsson from Icelandic Mountain Guides.
“I guess it’s possible to calculate an approximate value. On the average, Sólheimajökull is 270 metres thick. It is about eight kilometres long, and over a kilometre wide at its widest point. And one cubic meter of ice should do for quite a lot of G&Ts.”
I am on cloud nine: there is no wind, no rain. It was raining in Reykjavík from where we embarked on our journey three hours ago. It also rained in Hveragerði, Selfoss looked grey and gloomy as always. But as soon as we had driven past Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss, a miracle happened. The skies cleared.
“I’m sorry for all this sunshine… Especially you guys from Australia, I’m sure you are pretty bored with all the sun and would rather like to experience some strong winds and pouring rain,” says our guide, grinning.
Nobody agrees with the sentiment.
We are standing in front of Sólheimajökull, an outlet glacier of Mýrdalsjökull, the fourth biggest glacier in Iceland. When I spot the boxes full of ice axes and crampons, I begin to wonder whether we are going to march across the entire glacier ice cap instead of setting off on a nice, relaxing three-hour hike.
First we try on the crampons and are given a short lesson on how to walk on the ice.
“Walk with your legs wider apart than normally—as if you had been horseback riding for a week. Lean backwards with your feet pointing straight ahead when walking downwards. When walking uphill, spread your legs and walk like a duck. A duck that has been horseback riding for a week,” our guide explains.
More rules follow. The guide always goes first. If he disappears, do not attempt to trace him. If you drop your ice axe and you see it gliding away, do not go after it.
“It’s easier for me to go down a crevasse to pick up an axe than to go picking up an axe and you,” Björgvin explains, laughing. He seems to know what he is doing.
Okay, up we go… walking like a duck.
Just after we have taken our first 50 steps or so we bump into a bunch of tourists trying to explore the glacier—with sneakers on! Their feet are slipping on the icy surface rather worryingly. The grandpa of the group looks like he is about to trip and fall in a matter of seconds. There is a small hole in the ice close by… I decide not to look. Calmly our guide advises them to step down slowly. Without crampons and ice axes, situations can get out of hand pretty quickly.
The breathtaking glaciers can be fatal if you attempt to go there on your own without proper equipment and a guide. On the way up we take a block of ice and drop it into one of the cracks in the ice, and it takes a while until we hear it hit the bottom. Deep holes in the ice, so called cold-runs, and crevasses dozens of metres deep are simply not good places to fall into.
Yet somehow, the feeling of danger is fascinating. I am a two-hour drive from Reykjavík, walking on a glacier amidst a wonderland of ice sculptures, discovering hidden openings and deep crevasses while wondering when the next volcanic eruption will take place.
Under Mýrdalsjökull lies Katla, an active volcano. She has been showing signs of unrest recently, and geologists have voiced concerns that it could erupt anytime in the near future.
The most active volcano in Iceland, Hekla, also stands nearby. It has erupted over 20 times since 874. Scientists say she is preparing herself for yet another eruption.
Along the way we see layers of ash that past eruptions of the nearby volcanoes have left behind. The colour spectrum changes from white to clear blue and black, with the ash creating strong contrasts.
“I know the glaciers in some other countries are whiter than here in Iceland. But I’m proud of my colourful glaciers, and having the volcanic ash all around makes them special,” our guide states.
Then, all of a sudden, we hear a strong, thunder-like sound. A new crevasse just formed somewhere. Glaciers are constantly changing. They are expanding and melting. Waterholes and pipe-like passages form a sort of plumbing system inside the glacier, from where the melted water pools on the surface and ends up as a glacial river. Constantly flowing water is forming new ice sculptures daily. Like life, glaciers never stay the same.
Because of the constant changing, a lost ice axe or even an airplane can disappear into the glacier for decades. A glacier usually gives back what it takes, though—it just might take a while. In 1952, an American airplane with five crewmembers onboard crashed down on Eyjafjallajökull. One body was found at the scene of the accident. The glacier brought in the remaining bodies over ten years later. Pieces of the aircraft have been appearing gradually since then.
Even though over ten percent of Iceland is covered by ice, it should not be taken for granted that the glaciers will stay there forever. Due to the changes in climate and rise in temperatures, glaciers begin to diminish. Currently, the average receding rate of Sólheimajökull is around 100 meters a year.
“Now is the time to go to a glacier, while they still exist.”
Safe and easy nine-hour ‘Take a Walk on the Ice Side’ trip was provided by Icelandic Mountain Guides and Reykjavík Excursions. Tour includes bus guide and experienced glacier guide services, pick-ups from Reykjavík hotels at 8:30am, and stops in Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss waterfalls, 19.900 ISK. Glacier hike, without transport, is 9.500 ISK. Minimum age: 10 years.
Wear warm clothes and good shoes. Besides crampons and ice axes, guides have extra shoes, gloves and waterproof trousers you can borrow.