Just outside of Reykjavík, past the snowy bulge of Úlfarsfell and the small satellite town of Mosfellsbær, lies the way to the northern reaches of Iceland. The road passes the hiking trails at the feet of mount Esja before arcing up past Akranes and plunging through the 5.7-kilometre Hvalfjörður tunnel, emerging amongst beautiful flat-topped mountains and open farmland of Borgarfjörður. Right before the land bridge that connects the south of Iceland to the town of Borgarnes, there’s an unassuming turning that veers inland from the coast—one of many small roads that keen-eyed northbound travellers eye with curiosity, wondering what lies towards the country’s interior.
This particular road leads to Húsafell, a 100-square kilometre area of farmland and largely untouched countryside that acts as a hub for outdoor activities and forays onto the nearby glaciers of Langjökull and Eiríksjökull. In the summer it becomes a popular base for Icelanders and tourists to explore the area’s caves, birch woods and sights such as Hraunfossar, a series of waterfalls where bright blue melt-water pours from the edge of a lava field over a distance of 900 metres.
But during winter, the area gets quiet. With the camping grounds and golf course snowed in, local Icelanders who’ve come to rely on tourism suffer accordingly. “Extending the tourist season” has become a kind of mantra in these parts, and as such, the area is under development. As we approach the local information centre, a crane peers out from above the birch trees— a 48-room hotel is under construction, aiming to draw people into the area all year round. Specifically, they’re hoping to fill the hotel with people coming to look at a brand new attraction—a circular 500-metre ice tunnel that’s currently being excavated high up in the Langjökull glacier.
At Húsafell we meet our guide for a press tour of the under-construction ice tunnel, the rotund and beaming Addi, who’ll drive us there in a huge truck that’s been customised to traverse the glacial landscape. Addi explains how he and his two sons—a geologist/engineer and a mechanic—have spent five years making the project a reality, with some heavy investment backing them up.
Addi beams with pride over his two customised MAN trucks, which can house 10-45 passengers in their heated cabins, offering a 360-degree view of the surrounding scenery. He talks at length about the tyre pressure system, which can inflate and deflate whilst driving, making the 20-tonne vehicle glide improbably over loose snow. We strap in tightly as the engine starts to roar, and begin our long crawl towards the cave.
Before long we reach the highlands on a wide plateau, 500 metres above sea level. As the truck ploughs through deep banks of fresh snow with ease, the white light becomes blinding, with breathtaking mountain and glacier views in all directions. But at the base of Langjökull, the truck starts to labour, slowing to three miles per hour as it powers through deep, powdery drifts.
Eventually, we pull up. “This is going to take a while,” says Addi. “I have the Snowcat on call as a backup. You guys go ahead, and I’ll meet you at the top.” We transfer into a claustrophobic passenger box pulled by a lighter, smaller blue vehicle with track-belt wheels. The windows of the tiny cabin are snowed in, blocking our view. As we rumble further up the glacier, the adventure starts to feel more like a troop deployment than a tourist trip, and the group falls silent.
The ice miners
Eventually we come to a halt and the doors are flung open. We stagger out into a ferocious, roaring blizzard. An orange-clad workman waves us towards the entrance—a raw, gaping hole with struts bolted in to keep it open. The cold is intense, stinging any exposed skin. We stumble into the dripping tunnel, stepping carefully across the uneven, slushy floor and following a string of fairy lights into the glacier.
A couple of dirty-faced workmen appear suddenly out of the murk, carrying their heavy tools like ice miners. They show us the way, and we walk deeper, sheltered finally from the frigid winds. A faint glow starts emanating from patches of the ice around us. We’re told lights have been embedded into the tunnel’s walls and floors using a steam drill, and that the seams in the glacier wall can be read like the rings inside a tree. Black seams punctuate the bright blue, each dirty streak indicating a layer of eruption ash held in the ice.
One of Addi’s sons, Hallgrímur, is the geologist and engineer who conceived of the tunnel. “We did a lot of consultations on the project,” he explains. “It’s been a long process of four years. We talked to people at The University of Iceland and the Meteorological Association, and spent a long time planning the safety aspect, and the technical stuff like drainage and ventilation. People were unanimously supportive.”
I mention that a common question about the project is whether the tunnel is harmful to the glacier itself. “No, it’s not damaging to the glacier,” Hallgrímur says. “Langjökull is over 500 metres thick, and we don’t go any deeper than 30 metres. Glacier ice has rifts and crevices that close naturally over time, due to the pressure from above. The expected lifespan of this tunnel is only ten to fifteen years—we’ll need to monitor the tunnels, and do continuous excavation.”
Addi finally rejoins the group, having crawled up to the cave in the truck. He shows us around the tunnel’s features, which include a non-denominational chapel space with a glowing ice-block altar, and a crampon that was found deep in the ice during the excavation. We get a whistle-stop explanation of how continual snow is crushed under its own weight to form the dense blue ice, and the importance of glaciers to both the global ecosystem and Iceland’s nature and industry.
But as we trudge around the dripping tunnels, I’m overcome by a sudden feeling of sadness. There are many ways to experience the excitement and glory of Iceland’s glaciers—whether flying over Eyjafjallajökull in a small propeller plane, hiking over Sólheimajökull with crampons, or exploring the stunning naturally formed “crystal caves” of Vatnajökull. And despite Hallgrímur’s reassurances, carving a man-made tunnel out of the ever-shrinking glacier just feels irreverent.
We finish the tour by looking at a large, narrow natural crevice that was discovered during the dig—an impressive space draped in icicles that gleam under Addi’s powerful torchlight. “This ice is money,” says Addi, knocking on the tunnel wall, “and it’s safer here than in the bank. We thought we’d have to stop digging in this direction when we found this, but it’s actually a great attraction.” He pauses, grinning rapaciously as he scans the high ceiling. “This here is a million dollar crevice.”