“Golden Circle! Langjökull glacier!” Our enthusiastic driver Hjörleifur Kristjánsson, “Hjölli” to us, calls out the day’s destinations as he presents the gigantic truck that will chauffeur us around. His demeanour indicated that the “ooohs,” “aaahs,” and “wows” emitted by the group in response came as no surprise, as he pointed to the extended steps that appeared from underneath the coach like a magic carpet. Photographer Anna Domnick and I took our seats, wiggling with excitement for the upcoming trip.
Hjölli, an energetic and informative man, is a member of the Icelandic rescue team, the ICE-SAR, and a true connoisseur of extreme sports—perfect for the job. He started bombarding us with information as soon as we sped up Lækjargata, heading out of the city. Anna and I sat at the back with our gear and equipment spread out all over the five-seat row, and listened attentively to every word. As our excitement intensified, we became slightly agitated.
A high-level fun fair!
“Those here are marshmallow fields and this, what do you think this is? A cloud factory!” Hjölli announces as we pass an impressive chimney, furiously spurting out steam from the earth. After a scenic stop at Þingvellir, we had arrived at Gullfoss and Geysir—the lords of the Golden Circle—where new arrivals to our group flocked to the coach: an Icelandic couple and an English-speaking father with his two sons. Our journey continued, our final destination fast approaching.
“Impassable,” read two signs on each side of the road shortly after Gullfoss, and a blanket of snow loomed ahead. “Buckle up, you don’t know who I am,” Hjölli shouted as he hit the accelerator pedal, causing the decked coach to skate on the snowy surface. The glacier received us with open arms, and there was no going back. Civilisation was far behind.
Crossing the glacier, we spotted a few hunters carrying rifles on their backs, quietly searching for tasty ptarmigan for their Christmas dinners. Our snowmobiling instructor would later tell us that those hunters were seeking their prey in all the wrong places: “They’re wasting their time trying to search for ptarmigan here,” he noted, adding that glaciers aren’t very hospitable to living beings. He then informed us that the layers of ice beneath us spanned hundreds of metres.
The sun was slowly rising and its mango colour was striking against the blue sky, projecting an intense sunlight onto the snow that stung in my eyes. I knew they would recover, but I could only pray for my stomach to do the same. An intense sensation of motion sickness overtook us as we skated and bounced along the curvy road. We gasped and uttered sounds of terror as we raced down the steep slope and flew through the air before hitting the next one. My travel companion became so ill that she moved to the front where she sat right next to the driver. The skating and bouncing was surely done to entertain and impress the guests, and everyone else seemed to enjoy it very much.
I , however, had to do my best not to throw up in my seat.
On our own
When I finally took my first step on the glacier, it felt like what I imagine being on the moon must feel like. Certainly, my appearance underscored the notion, as I was wrapped up in ice gear: thick overalls and a 66° North down coat underneath, my head engulfed in a black globular helmet that rendered me temporarily deaf. I looked like a sofa. A cold smack of air hit my squashed face and the sound of the cracking snow under my feet ran up my body like lightning.
Our instructors showed us to the snowmobiles and quickly briefed us on the proper safety precautions. “The ice is really thin in some places, so you want stay on the beaten path,” they stressed. A reminder from before—a deep crack in the ice right next to the road—made this easy to believe. Each passenger got a personal snowmobile, but those lacking in confidence could opt to ride with a buddy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, photographer Anna and I were the only ones that went for the latter option.
Of course, we soon found ourselves at the back of the chain, struggling to steer the machine and trying hard not to fall off. Everyone, including an eleven-year-old boy, overtook us as we stalled the snowmobile a number of times (this was usually caused by us driving off track, or our attempts to make sharp turns). Quietly awaiting help as the others showed off in the hills and the talented instructor did his tricks eventually saw us losing all confidence. Not only did we suck at this whole snowmobiling thing, we were also stalled by having to stop and shoot photographs at regular intervals.
A few rounds on the glacier was “all” we had time for, but the effort that it took us was embarrassing. Indeed, an hour’s ride makes for quite the workout, as you employ basically every single one of your muscles. The key to a successful ride, I learned, is balancing out the snowmobile when you make a turn. Keeping up the speed is important too, but I can’t remember why.
At the end of the day, our entire group was blissfully high on adrenaline and glacial beauty, with several members enquiring about longer tours. Anna and I glanced knowingly at one another, secretly relieved that this ordeal was over. I took a last look at the breath-taking scenery: the mountain of ice, hidden lagoons and ice cracks that reflected my helplessness.
Finally, safe and sound on the coach to Reykjavík, I told myself I must do it again one day. Then, we all fell asleep like children being driven home from the playground.
Interesting titbits about Langjökull
- Langjökull is the second largest ice cap in Iceland after Vatnajökull, measuring at 953 m2, 50km long and 15-20km wide. Its last eruption was back in 925 AD.
- Langjökull was the setting of where the pieces of the nuclear-blasted Iron Giant fell in the 1999 animated science fiction film of the same name.
- Scientists have raised concern over the melting of the glacier due to global warming, with some fearing it may be completely gone in as little as 150 years.
Snowmobiling in Iceland
- Langjökull is the most popular glacier in Iceland for off-road and snowmobiling trips, as well as being open for skiing and hiking.
- It is classified as having an ‘easy’ difficulty rating for snowmobiling.
- The only notable snowmobiling accident at Langjökull in recent years occurred when a man in his sixties drove away from the group at high speeds.