Seeing a glacier for the first time is a memorable experience. As the southern ring road from Reykjavík gently loops towards the coast, the peaks of Eyjafjallajökull start to appear, a white shadow against the sky, almost unbelievably high. It’s soon followed by the even bigger Mýrdalsjökull, an icecap that squats over the active volcano Katla, pouring forth its many glacier tongues to within just a few kilometres of the road. The twin glaciers tower above the rocks like snow citadels, compacted over time by their own weight into a natural phenomenon that infests the mountains like an organism of ice.
But both are dwarfed by the monstrous Vatnajökull. Located in Southeast Iceland, a five-hour drive from Reykjavík, this vast glacier is amongst the largest in Europe, both in terms of height and geographical area. It covers more than 8% of the country’s landmass, and its many peaks include Iceland’s tallest mountain, often glimpsed poking through fast-moving clouds. The glacier spills out into roughly 30 icefalls, each of which tumbles dramatically down to ground level.
The most accessible outlet is Breiðamerkurjökull, a jagged tableau visible from the Ring Road, which terminates in the famous Jökulsárlón iceberg lagoon. It’s here that we arrive to meet Óskar from Ice Guides. A down-to-earth, outdoorsy fellow from the nearby town of Höfn, he gathers the nine people who are booked on today’s trip onto the glacier in search of the famous “crystal cavern”—a famous network of ice caves carved out by nature itself.
After a brief hello, we load into a chunky Ford Econoline jeep and start chugging down Route 1, turning off down a scantly marked track. It quickly becomes apparent that the huge car is completely necessary—even with heavy-duty tyres and a roaring, powerful engine, the car labours to pull us through a series of slush-filled ditches, scree banks and sudden, slippery inclines (tip: don’t try this in your rental car). About eight kilometres from the road, we approach a foreboding black crack in the bright white snow of the foothills. We park and the group piles out of the car, strapping on helmets with anticipation. “They won’t save you if the ice cave collapses,” smiles Óskar, “they’re mostly to stop you banging your head. But don’t worry, it won’t collapse.”
After some brief safety instruction (“if you don’t see a footprint, don’t make a new one”) we squat through the cave’s low and narrow entrance. We’ve fortuitously arrived on a bright afternoon—sunbeams shine through the entrance, casting shadows and reflections around the frigid space. Fresh snow has caught the myriad facets of the ice, creating a vivid, dappled texture. “You’re very lucky,” Óskar says. “These are the best conditions we’ve had for months.”
It soon becomes apparent that, for the majority of those on the trip, this isn’t about just experiencing the cave, but documenting it. Almost everyone has a tripod tucked under their arm and long-lens artillery around their neck. Within a few minutes, people are set loose to find their frames, fanning out to try different compositions, popping off their lens caps and strafing the cave with rapid shutter-clicks.
After a brief exploration of the dazzling spaces that form the cavern network, I stand and talk to Óskar for a while, occasionally being shushed out of someone’s shot. “My job is often a bit like nannying,” he smiles. “I bring people here, and keep an eye on them, and then just try to stay out of the way.”
The tours started about ten years ago, as a photographer’s trip. “It was an occasional thing,” he explains. “Then someone printed one of their pictures in a big American newspaper—I think it was maybe the New York Times—and demand went through the roof. Now there are five or more trips here a day, and they’re often fully booked. We’re actually under pressure to make more seats available, but we don’t want to compromise either the space, the experience, or the level of safety, so we’re keeping the groups at a reasonable size.”
The caves are a natural phenomenon formed by flooding. Fast-moving glacial run-off water, either from rain, or melting, or both, cuts a pathway through the ice on its seaward journey. In the summer, when the frost has receded, the floor of the cave is a river, and the cave is unsafe and completely inaccessible. But as the winter approaches, the Ice Guides come back to see if the roof still stands, checking the safety of the various entrances, or cutting steps into the ever-changing ice formations to allow access.
As the hour mark approaches, I take a slow walk around, marvelling at the detail—the lines of bubbles frozen into the cave’s walls; the symphonies of trickling water and the perfect smoothness of the various surfaces; the etched scribbles of cracks in the clear ceiling. Some sections are like being inside a huge naturally hewn gemstone, the countless facets gleaming and dripping in the sunlight. Others are like a glorious abstract composition of black ash suspended in a vast, bright blue crystal.
Our time inside comes to a close, and the photographers emerge from the cave, and from their almost frantic trigger-happy trance. People are beaming in disbelief, their long-held bucket-list portfolio shots having been duly gathered. One guest seems to have had a small epiphany—his eyes glowing, he thanks Óskar heartily. “This place is paradise,” he says. Óskar’s eyes slowly scan the inhospitable, deeply frozen wasteland around us. “Yeah?” he says, breaking into gentle laughter. “I guess it is!”
Getting to Vatnajökull
Take Route One South From Reykjavík and drive all the way to the Jökulsárlón visitor centre for pickup. Trip provided by Ice Guide, book online or or call +354-6610900.
Distance from Reykjavík: Around 379 km
Accommodation at Skaftafell provided by Hótel Skaftafell, email or call +354-4781945.