Hiking on a glacier is cool and all. But have you ever heard of ziplining on a glacier?
When I found out about Ice Pic Journey’s latest adventure thrill, I knew I had to try it out. Basic ziplining is fun, but ziplining on a glacier over a 40-metre deadly crevasse is a whole other level of fun – the thrilling, and scary kind. So during the last weekend of November, we made our way down to Höfn, approximately 5.5 hours from Reykjavík in the Southeast of Iceland, and took up the challenge. Spoiler alert: This is not for the faint-hearted.
Heading into the Cloudy Mist of Jökulsárlón
The right place for this adventure, as well as many other glacier and ice cave tours, is Breiðamerkurjökull glacier. Breiðamerkurjökull is one of about thirty glacier outlets of Vatnajökull National Park, Iceland’s largest and most voluminous ice cap. Vatnajökull also hosts multiple volcanoes, like Grímsvötn and Bárðarbunga, under its deep ice cap, spanning to about 7,900 km² [3,100 sq mi] in total.
Currently, the days are quite short in Iceland. So to make the most of the day, we met up with the owners of Ice Pic Journey, Mike and Ryan (both American) at the parking lot of Jökulsárlón, ready for our 6-hour day tour. The company was founded just two years ago and apart from their new ziplining adventure, specialises in glacier tours with professional photo packages. The ziplining and ice cave tours first started at the end of last winter in early 2023.
First on the itinerary was to visit one of the many ice caves at the foot of the glacier and then head on to the thrilling adventurous part of the day: Ziplining over the deadly crevasse.
40-Metre Deadly Crevasse
Ice Pic Journey picked us up in two monstrous jeeps from the lagoon’s parking lot. The way to the foot of Breiðamerkurjökull runs through a very rocky road, unpassable for normal-sized cars like ours. While we made our way through the bumpy road, we passed some calm reindeer, enjoying the first light of the day while munching on some scarce grass next to the road. Interestingly enough, these large creatures (which are not native to Iceland as they were imported in the 18th century) only exist in the Eastern part of Iceland. The natural border to the south is the bridge spanning between Jökulsárlón and the diamond beach, where all of the melted ice eventually drifts into the ocean.
During the bumpy ride, Mike, the co-owner of Ice Pic Journeys, tells me a bit about the time when he first had the idea to install a zipline on top of the glacier. “I was a bit tired of the basic glacier tours, every day it’s just the same. So I came up with the idea of the glacier zipline. It’s actually not a zipline, but a tyrolean traverse, which is very common in climbing. But obviously, no one knows what that is, so we use the term “zipline” instead,” Mike explains. The system was already developed in the late 19th and early 20th century in the Alps of Tyrol and is used to cross through free space between two points on a rope. In our case, that free space means a 40-metre-deep glacier crevasse and two ropes held by a complex system with three 1-metre-deep drill holes in the ice.
Exploring Sparkling Ice Caves
According to Mike, the glacier zipline (or Tyrolean Traverse) is the first of its kind in Iceland- and worldwide for tourists who seek the extra thrill. Keeping up the safety of the installation takes a lot of effort, as new 1-metre deep holes need to be drilled about every week in the winter, as the glacier naturally melts. In the summer, this procedure needs to happen even more frequently, making the upkeep quite tedious. Mike is not bothered by the maintenance, as he is already contemplating the next extreme. His dream is to install a bungee jump into the same crevasse soon – and he is already working on the plans and their approval by authorities.
I won’t lie, while Mike told me about his excitement for the extreme, I wondered if I overestimated my bravery. My hands were a bit sweaty as we just arrived at the little parking lot about two kilometres [1.2 miles] from the foot of Breiðamerkurjökull, and there was no going back. We put on our climbing harnesses and began our journey.
After a thirty-minute hike through the valley, which made the recess of the glacier even more graspable, we reached our first stop at the “Reflection Ice Cave”. Inside, the approximately 1,200-year-old ice was crystal clear and the light was reflecting in the deepest and brightest blue colours, I’ve probably seen in my life. The ice was finely marbled with old ash – remnants of previous eruptions in the area. The glacier never forgets. Then it was time to put on our crampons.
The Safety Behind Ziplining on a Glacier
After a quick introduction to how to act on a glacier (“Do not walk close to crevasses”, “Do not jump down a deadly moulin” etc.) we ascended to the upper part of Breiðamerkurjökull and reached our final destination after a 25-minute hike. I asked Mike whether there had been any accidents during his tours. “Yes, but only on the hike to the glacier through the rough terrain, people can sometimes twist their ankles or something can go wrong if they don’t listen to us and go too close to a crevasse. But luckily that hasn’t happened yet,” he replies.
There it was. The deadly crevasse that I had feared for the entire hike. My heart began to pound faster and I couldn’t help but feel a slight peak of anxiety rising. Mike began checking and thoroughly readjusting the whole system. Recently, he had changed the angle from one degree to two degrees, making the whole thing a bit steeper. I wondered why we didn’t just do a simple glacier hike as that is already quite the experience and so much more comfortable. But there was no going back.
Taking a Leap of Faith - The Jump
When he told me to come closer to the edge of the ridge (while safely secured in the rope system), I asked him if he promised that everything was safe. Mike laughed and replied cheekily, “I don’t promise anything. If you fall into that crack, you’re dead either way. So you can just enjoy the fall while it lasts.” I laughed drily. Not really what I wanted to hear, but at least he was honest. I decided not to turn back and look at the depth of the crevasse, as I was afraid of chickening out.
Mike told me to think about my life in the moment before the jump. To be honest, my brain was blank and my only thought was whether my employer had good insurance in case this went wrong.
Then I jumped and a big wave of thrilling adrenaline hit my anxiety-ridden brain. I can’t describe it any better but while you realise what you’re actually doing and see how deep and violent the crevasse is, all of your fear is suddenly gone and pure excitement floods every cell of your body. Now I finally understood Mike’s quest for the next thrill and even said to myself that I would try the bungee jump when it’s available. I’m not so sure about that anymore (at least at the time of writing this), but a tad of curiosity remains.
The Only Glacier Zipline in the World
After the jump you land on the other side of the crack, and you can run into the crevasse again and hang right in the middle to properly enjoy the view. Tall, icy columns, marbled by black ash remnants pervade the crevasse scapes, a view that would only be possible to witness from the bird’s perspective, but not by the human eye – without dying at least. Every visitor gets to jump twice, if they want to. Because we had some time left, we managed to jump three times and even though my confidence grew each time, the initial thrill never left.
After we descended Breiðamerkurjökull and hiked down past a glacier moulin, the sun began to set. After all, it was the end of November and the sun already said its goodbye at 03:30 PM. We arrived back at the parking lot at Jökulsárlón and indulged in a true Höfn-style (Höfn is the lobster capital of Iceland) lobster roll, before venturing back on the long drive to Reykjavík.
If you are seeking a unique adventure, including a lot of adrenaline and anxiety at the same time, I can’t recommend ziplining on a glacier with Ice Pic Journeys enough. I promise this won’t be something you will forget in a very long time and it’s very cool to be able to say that you jumped into a deadly crevasse. This is one of those experiences that you will feed off for many months to come, always remembering “Wow, I can’t believe I did that!”