“Welcome to the centre of the universe,” our guide Stefnir Gíslason says as we drive along a snow-covered, two-lane road surrounded by barren, snow-covered cliffs. We are arriving at the convergence zone of three massive glaciers, including the famously unpronounceable Eyjafjallajökull.
It’s almost 10:00 AM and the winter sun casts soft purplish-pink shadows across the landscape. The snow-covered horizon makes it nearly impossible to distinguish where earth meets sky. The still, desolate landscape hardly seems like the centre of anything, let alone the universe.
If you’re ever fording a river
Our group of six—three guides and three travellers—are in the midst of the quiet solitude that is Þórsmörk Canyon, located about two hours southeast of Reykjavík. Named after the Norse god Thor (Þór), the area is a popular hiking spot for the more adventurous.
For now, we take the landscape in from the comfort of our lifted Ford Expedition with monster truck-sized wheels. As we amble along in the cradle of Mýrdalsjökull glacier, Stefnir explains that the valley didn’t always look this way. As chunks of ice and rock crunch under our massive tires, he points to the vehicle’s GPS, which suggests that the area is underwater.
After the 2010 Eyjafjalljökull eruption, the Krossá River became choked with debris and formed a large, ashy lagoon, which only recently disappeared.
Stefnir winds the car through the landscape before heading straight toward the river. He slows down before crossing, looking over his shoulder as if casually making a right hand turn onto a city street full of traffic. “Always cross at the widest part of the river, it’s shallower,” he says gleefully as the massive vehicle barrels through the ice and water. He also notes it’s always better to drive with the river current rather than against it, and to watch the edges of the river bank—the higher the edge, the deeper the water. I can’t help but think he would make an excellent, if unconventional, driving instructor.
Sore fingers and jelly arms
We park the monster truck on the other side and gear up for a trek. We trudge through the crunchy snow for a good twenty minutes before arriving at our destination: the mouth of massive ice cave where the glacier has split the rocky cliff in half.
Our guides warn us to not get too close to the cave, as ice chunks could fall without warning. Instead, I stand at the cavernous opening and stare into the darkness, being careful not to get my boots wet in the icy river that flows from the cave.
To my right, our guides begin to rig a climbing rope on a solid wall of ice just outside the cave. Our second guide, Guðmundur Fannar Markússon, gracefully swings the pick into the ice to demonstrate and secures it on the first try. One by one we try our hand at the task, and we discover it isn’t so easy.
It takes me several tries to secure the first pick, and even more tries to stab my crampons into the ice. Halfway up, my arms are beginning to feel like jelly. Panting and sweaty, I finally reach the top and the guides lower me down. As my feet touch the ground, I realise how tightly I had been gripping the ice pick, and as I release my grasp I feel the blood rushing back into my now very sore fingers.
I am content to take a seat in the snow and watch the others try their hand at climbing before we all pile back into the Ford, our refuge from the cold.
Some things are universal
Before returning to paved asphalt roads and civilisation, Stefnir once again veers our beastly vehicle off the beaten trail, and we begin our ascent up Hamragarðaheiði, a mountain path that snakes up the Eyjafjöll mountains.
The sun begins to set, once again bathing the glistening snow in purplish-pink evening shadows. We reach a flat vantage point to stop, and look out over the expansive wilderness below. We even see the Westman Islands floating in the distance, like fantasy castles in the in the clear, crisp sky.
Before heading back to the black sand beaches at Landeyjarfjara, Einar Sigurðsson, our third guide, asks where we’d like to have dinner. I look at my fellow starving travellers, but none of us have any strong opinions. He suggests Gallery Pizza in Hvolsvöllur, a favourite amongst the guides. “I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like their pizza,” he says.
Some things, it seems, are universal.
Distance from Reykjavík: Þórsmörk Canyon is about 156 km from Reykjavík. Total driving time from Reykjavík is about three hours. Super Jeep tours of Þórsmörk are available through Eskimos Iceland in association with South Iceland Tours.
Visit www.iceland.eskimos.is to book a similar tour.