Vatnajökull Voyagers: Walking On Ice

Vatnajökull Voyagers: Walking On Ice

Photos by
Henrieke Müller

It was a sunny, Friday morning in Reykjavík. The air was still and the sky was clear; the perfect kind of day to drive out east and hike up a big pile of ice. The plan for the day was a short, five-hour drive to Skaftafell, followed by a two-hour adventure on Vatnajökull, and finally a relaxing boat tour of Jökulsárlón, the Glacier Lagoon. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but my bag was packed with some warm clothes, a light snack and a lot of excitement.

I showed up to the Iceland Excursions office on Lækjargata at an early 7 a.m., meeting up with my companion for the day who was equally excited and curious about what was in store for us. The tour we joined was called Vatnajökull Voyager, and the brochure spoke of ancient ice, deep crevasses, and…Icelandic waffles? My curiosity was certainly peaked. A few minutes past 7:30, we boarded the bus and were on our way to Europe’s biggest glacier, and what would turn out to be, an unforgettable experience.

Journey to the East

The drive seemed to fly by, stopping a few times on the way to let us stretch our legs and maybe grab a quick snack. It was still pretty early and quite a few of us caught some Zzzs on the way to our destination. We arrived at Skaftafell National Park just in time for a lunch of hearty mushroom soup and a small sandwich, provided by the tour operators. After filling up on lunch, I took the time to change into my activity-appropriate clothing and hiking boots. Fortunately, if I would have forgotten something, the nice folks at Glacier Guides have warm jackets, gloves, and other outdoorsy items to let. Which is really convenient.

Our glacier guides for the day, Óskar and Danni, then helped fit each of us with a set of crampons, metal spikes for the bottoms of shoes (to facilitate walking up chunks of ice), and an ice pick. The two rugged Icelanders assured us that the ice pick was really just to help with walking, not to ward off any polar bears or to climb our way out of any crevasses. I took their word for it as the difficulty level for this trip was marked as a 1-2 out of possible 5.

After a quick bus ride, we were at the site of Virkisjökull, one of the many outlets jutting off of the Vatnajökull glacier. This is where we would put our crampons and axes to use. Óskar and Danni provided some helpful walking techniques and on what to expect up on the ice, then we were off. It was a short walk to the glacier, past many growing mosses and lava formations. According to our guides, the path we were taking had been covered by this enormous glacier just fifteen years earlier.

Walk like a penguin

As we got closer to the giant beast that is Vatnajökull, a light drizzle began to fall and huge pieces of ice started appearing alongside us. Before I knew it, the dirt and rocks beneath my feet turned to white, frosty ice and the realization hit that: I was walking on a glacier. Talk about a wake-up call.

Most of the hike was uphill, but the crampons really make you stick to the ice; it’s what I’d imagine having bear claws is like. The adventure can be a bit trying for those of us who don’t hike regularly, but the trek stopped at many points along the way, allowing us to catch our breath, take some stunning pictures, and for our guides to point out some of the interesting things about the glacier itself.

One of the unique features our guides pointed out to us was the huge winding holes, seeming to drill straight down into the ice. These swirling ice slides of doom are called “moulins” after the French word for windmill. Needless to say, don’t fall down one and you’ll live to brag to everyone back home that you walked on a glacier in Iceland.

Our guides also peppered our journey with some history of Vatnajökull and facts about its current state. Sad to report, this monstrous and beautiful ice deposit is currently melting faster than it can grow, receding about a metre each year. We tried not to let that fact get us down and instead savoured the amazing views and sipped at some of the delicious glacier water flowing right by our feet.

Ice floats

Before we knew it, it was time to head back. What had at first seemed a daunting task had become amazingly enjoyable. I know many of us dragged our crampon-clad feet as we hiked back down the glacier. But, other sights awaited us, so back on the bus it was. This time our destination was Jökulsárlón, the beautiful glacier lagoon.

The lagoon, home to Iceland’s deepest point at almost 248 metres to the bottom, never looks the same twice. The huge icebergs taking up residence in the lagoon have broken off of Vatnajökull and find themselves in a different position every day. It really is a sight to behold: a lake full of white-ish blue forms peacefully drifting. Besides ice, you can also spot a few of the indigenous species of birds that have homes around the lagoon as well as the occasional seal.

Before we boarded one of the amphibious car-boats to tour the lagoon, we stopped for a taste of some genuine Icelandic baking, Icelandic waffles with cream and rhubarb jam. While the rain had stopped, the sky was still a bit overcast and there was a slight chill in the air, but that’s nothing a hot, fluffy waffle can’t cure.

After quickly munching on some waffles, we donned some life vests and boarded the boat. Our tour around the lagoon provided a neat view to this beautiful, natural wonder. The guide explained that the blue colour of the ice is a result of ice being unable to absorb the colour blue. The less oxygen in the ice and the more compressed it is, the bluer it appears. We were also given a sample of ice that was around 1000 years old, verified by carbon dating and its pure, crystal-clear appearance.

On beyond Reykjavík

Jökulsárlón having been properly explored, it was time to make the trip back. We stopped off at the Skaftafell National Park, returned our crampons and borrowed clothing, bid adieu to the friendly Glacier Guides and boarded the bus back to Reykjavík. It had been a long, enjoyable trip and it was time to head home.

The bus trip back was fairly uneventful. Many of us chatted about how spectacular the glacier had been; a few were even planning on scheduling more hikes during their stays. After a quick, 15-minute stop at the Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon, an impressive gorge with a pleasant view of the Fjaðrá river, we carried on to Vík where we stopped to buy some dinner.

Sitting there at the small roadside grill in Vík, looking out at the impressive black-sand beach, my companion and I could not stop discussing the beauty of Iceland. Reykjavík is a wonderful city, perhaps even my favourite, but living there it can be easy to forget that there’s a whole country outside its limits. Iceland is an amazing place, with staggering mountains, exquisite waterfalls, some breathtaking glaciers, and nature everywhere you look. So, take some time off from the city, book a tour, and get out there and see for yourself!

Trip provided by Glacier Guides. Book trip: +354 571 2100 or info@glacierguides.is. Lift from Reykjavík to Skaftafell was provided by Iceland Excursions.

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