Glacier hiking in Iceland with Icelandic Mountain Guides
Iceland is a land of beautiful extremes, from some of the Earth’s most active volcanoes to massive glaciers that dominate the landscape. With glaciers covering 11% of the country one is never far from ice, making Iceland one of the best places in the world where you can easily get up close to a glacier. Sólheimajökull, located 2 hours from Reykjavik and near the popular tourist route of the Golden Circle, is perhaps the most accessible of Iceland’s glaciers. Our adventure started as we pulled onto a gravel road from Iceland’s Ring Road, the vibrant greens of the coast giving way to the lunar gray of the volcanic mountains. Driving down the gravel road with nothing to either side and ice capped mountains in the distance we wondered if we were going in the right direction. A twenty minute drive delivered us with little fanfare to a parking lot and and a spartan building that in high season serves as a cafe.It was here that we got our first glimpse of Sólheimajökull and met our guide Sigurður of Icelandic Mountain Guides. The constantly changing topography of a glacier can be dangerous for the inexperienced so its always a good idea to use a guide when exploring this icy landscape. Each of us armed with a pair of crampons and an ice ax we were off to explore this otherworldly landscape.
Leaving the stability of solid ground it took me a few minutes to get comfortable walking with the crampons, but once I got them gripping the ice I was good to go. At the base of the glacier it was easy to see how these enormous masses of ice, which appear immovable and immobile, shift over the Earth’s surface. Sigurður explained that as the ground warms it melts the ice from below forming a thin layer of water that acts as a lubricant allowing entire glacial sheaths to glide over the earth and each other. The glacial melt and runoff forms cracks, crevasses and ice caves.
Sólheimajökull is not the pristine white landscape that you might expect. The ice is layered with both volcanic earth from the ground below and ash from the occasional volcanic eruption (I’m looking at you Eyjafjallajökull). Glacial ice is so dense that the crystalline structure of the ice has changed resulting in that iconic ethereal blue glow, though much of the newer surface ice is still clear.
Following our guide Sigurður, we continued our trek upward. By now my steps were sure and confident, instead of constantly looking where my next step would be I could now look up and take in in my surroundings The icy expanse no longer appeared endless, the mossy slopes of the Myrdal mountains now flanking the edge of Sólheimajökull. The topography of this island of ice was as varied as any continent. Streams and lakes punctuated gently sloping plains, rolling hills give way to cliffs and canyons. As we neared the summit we pass a group of local Icelanders, some wearing lopapeysa (the traditional icelandic sweater), out for an afternoon of ice climbing.
Reaching the top I was rewarded with the view of the glacier carved valley below. Solheimajokull is one of the glaciers featured on Chasing Ice, a documentary that has filmed the retreat of this and several other glaciers over multiple years. Less than ten years ago the tongue of the glacier reached the end of the visible glacial river in the picture below. Yet again I am reminded of how fragile our glacial ecosystems are.
Hiking up a glacier was one the highlights in my trip to Iceland. Do you want to explore a glacier up close?
I was graciously offered a discount by Icelandic Mountain Guides but as always all opinions remain my own.