Glaciers are an essential part of Iceland. They actually cover about 11% of the country’s surface. I had never even seen a glacier before I came to Iceland so when I got a last-minute invite to go glacier hiking, in near-perfect weather conditions, I jumped at the chance. I do, of course, get plenty of opportunities to walk on ice on the streets of Reykjavík in winter but glacier hiking is another kettle of fish.
The glacier hike took place on the Sólheimajökull glacial tongue which is part of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier. Navigating the different glaciers of Iceland can be baffling at times, as each glacier can have several glacial tongues that all have their own, separate names. Our guide, Margrét, handed out harnesses, ice axes, and of course, crampons before we set off for the glacier. This is all vital equipment for glacier walking, which is safe enough with an experienced guide, but shouldn’t be attempted solo.
After receiving everything that we needed to be safe on the glacier, we hiked up to the glacier itself (about 10 minutes). On the way, we had a slightly disconcerting stop where the glacier had ended a few years ago, still a couple of minutes’ hike to the present day’s glacier’s edge. Glaciers in Iceland are actually disappearing at an alarming rate, we’ve even lost one only in recent years. The hilariously named Ok glacier (the word means yoke and, unfortunately, it’s pronounced AWK, not Oh-kay) must now be content with the moniker Ok mountain as its glacier cap is now too thin to be accurately called a glacier.
Upon reaching the glacier, we put on our crampons and off we went! Margrét had told us to stomp hard as we walked so the crampons could bite into the ice, which made for awkward first steps but I soon got the hang of it and became more confident walking on the ice.
You might have the mental image that walking on a glacier is just like having a walk through the snow but in reality, it’s much different. The ice is not the fresh white of a blanket of snow but an icy blue with streaks of black ash or gravel. The glaciers look smooth from far away but when you’re up close, they are dissected with vicious-looking crevasses and the edges are cracked with ice caves. While these caves and crevasses look like they’re here to stay, they are in fact only temporary and can close up at any moment. Glaciers are tricky, that’s why it’s only safe to go there with an experienced guide!
What made my trip better than I had even hoped was the glorious weather we had. It was a perfect day; sunny, with no wind at all. The ice glistened all around us and all the formations on the surface were especially pronounced and beautiful. Actually, glaciers are actually not made of ice – or rather, they do not start out as ice. When the snow falls, due to its own weight, it gets pressed together into very hard and dense substance that doesn’t melt, even in the summer, because of the cold climate. come winter, it gets replenished with a fresh dose of snow.
The hike was not too hard, but you have to pay attention and follow in the footsteps of your guide to avoid crevasses that you might not see. I don’t think I can stress this enough but do not go onto a glacier on your own, it can be really dangerous.
After the hike, we got back into the minibus and drove back towards Reykjavík. On our way back we had an extra treat; we stopped at two waterfalls on the South Coast: Skógafoss, one of the biggest waterfalls in Iceland and Seljalandsfoss, otherwise known as ‘the waterfall you can walk behind’.
I loved going glacier hiking for so many reasons. Some of them were incidental, like the fact that we got the perfect weather for our trip, but glaciers possess the kind of sublime beauty that is bound to impress, whatever the weather (plus, the tour operators won’t go on the tour if the weather is too bad for the trip to be enjoyable). It was also just a thought-provoking experience to walk on a glacier that’s shrinking every year with the changing climate. If you haven’t tried glacier hiking yet, I recommend you try it, sooner, rather than later!