I’m the kind of traveller that likes to do a bit of research before I travel. I lay out an outline for an itinerary, choosing which sights are my personal top priorities. Once the outline is done, I accept that at any moment, I might throw those plans right out the window in favour of something entirely different.
Such was the case when I found out that we could go hike a glacier if we stayed one more night following the Vatnajokull glacier tour. Goodbye Akureyri, hello Solheimajokull glacier hike!
The hike set off from Skaftafell at 9:00. Our tour guide was Benjamin, a really friendly Chilean guy. I’m happy to report that his next stop after his time is done in Iceland is the beach and sun in Nicaragua.
Our group was a really interesting bunch. There was a recently married American couple from Boston on their honeymoon. (They were really nice for Patriot fans.) There were two friendly German guys, as well as a big muscly 19-year old local sailor who seemed to have a wrap in his hand every time I turned around. Fun fact: He works out at the same gym as the Mountain from Game of Thrones. Apparently the Mountain lives ten minutes away from him.
Then there was the elderly Asian couple. I think everybody was a little worried about them on the hike. For one thing, the woman had to translate everything for her husband whenever Benjamin had to teach us certain techniques for properly and safely traversing these glaciers. However, half the time, the husband was too focused on taking photographs to either listen to Benjamin or keep up with the group.
For example, when descending a slope, one should walk with their crampons facing down the slope, kicking the teeth of the crampons into the glacier surface. Your body should also be leaning backwards, and your ice pick held in your hand behind you. This is so that in case you fall, you will fall backwards and hopefully dig your pick into the glacier to keep you safe. Instead, though, the old man, always descended hunched forward.
However, having said all of that, guess who in the group ended up falling and scraping their wrists like an idiot. I’ll give you a clue: It wasn’t the elderly Asian couple. Nope! It was I! Your beloved accident-prone buffoon! In fact, it was the same wrist I got a scar on after punching my way out of a washroom in Vietnam. But that’s a whole other story. I guess that’s my lucky hand.
At the start of the hike, Benjamin had warned us that we have to be conscious of keeping our feet apart and not strut like a model, or else the teeth on our crampons can get caught. At one point, we had to cross over a small ridge, and as I raised my left leg and went to plant it across the ridge, I quickly realized that my left boot had gotten caught in the other boot. Time started moving in slow motion, as I came tumbling down like one of those cartoon characters who realizes that somebody has tied their shoe laces together when they weren’t looking.
Thankfully, the elderly Asian man was there to document the whole thing on camera as Benjamin bandaged me up.
I hope I have half their energy when I’m their age.
Anywho, back to the start of the hike. Benjamin taught us how to properly ascend and descend slopes using our crampons and our ice picks. He also taught us how to use our carabiners to cross slightly more dangerous terrain.
Whenever there was a surface area where there was a potential danger for somebody to slip, there was a long thick rope or cable anchored down into the glacier. It was anchored in sections rather than one long rope. This was so that we could cross carefully. You hook your two carabiners into the first section and walk across the surface to the next section. When you get there, you unhook ONE carabiner and hook it to the next section. Then you do this with your second carabiner. This is so that you are always hooked into at least one section of the rope at all times. Once you have both carabiners in the next section, you can call out to the next hiker that it is safe for them to hook themselves on to the section you just finished. There should never be more than one person attached to the same section of the rope at any time, because that way, should something happen, only one person has to be rescued.
And that, essentially, was our tutorial. The rest of the morning was spent walking in a single-file line and enjoying the serene beauty of Solheimajokull glacier.
Now I mentioned in the previous post that I’d talk a bit about the volcanic ash covering the glaciers. This is a phenomenon that is unique to Icelandic glaciers. The ash actually provides a cover for the ice from the sun. At one point, Benjamin cleared away some ash from one area and revealed a crystal clear layer of ice that had been practically untouched by the sun. It was beautiful. And obviously, the ash-covered parts were much less slippery for us to walk on.
Benjamin introduced us to fascinating phenomenon known as moulins, which are circular shafts that allow meltwater to travel from the surface down into the glacier itself. These are dangerous for hikers, as they can grow exceptionally fast. The water can travel as far down as the base, and may exit out into the sea.
It was amazing to learn just how quickly these glaciers move and change. Workers have rotate every day to come out onto the glacier and work away to create new steps on paths because the ice melts and moves so quickly that if they don’t, it all becomes a slippery and dangerous mess within a couple days. They also have to check and change the anchors very frequently. You’ll see towards the end of the pictures, that Benjamin led us into a small ice opening. After you walk inside for about 10 metres, the hole immediately turns into a vertical drop. Benjamin said that entire opening will be gone within a couple weeks.
Oh yeah, and another cool thing: Not only was this glacier the site of some Game of Thrones scenes, it was also used as a location for Bruce Wayne’s training in Batman Begins. My love of this place tripled when Benjamin told us that.
If Trevor and I ever do come back to Iceland, we’ll definitely be back in the Winter to explore some ice caves.
Now, granted, a four hour hike is nothing severe. However, you throw on those crampons and you add on all the extra effort necessary to dig them into the snow, and it’s a decent enough workout.
We got back to Skaftafell at 1:30; however after getting re-bandaged up, eating a quick lunch, and dropping off some things in the camper, it was already 2:00. This left us six hours until sunset. Trevor and I knew we wanted to do a hike, but we weren’t sure which one. Well, I knew which one I wanted to do. Trevor and I just weren’t on the same page, as you can see:
Me: I bet the view from atop Kristinartindar is great.
Trevor: Dude, you literally chose the only route that’s labelled “difficult.”
Trevor: It takes 6-8 hours.
Trevor: It’s already 2:00.
Trevor: At best, we’ll be back at sunset.
Trevor: And that’s if we hustle the whole way. You know how these Scandinavians are about their hikes. A six hour for them is probably a ten-hour hike for us.
Trevor: You’re really doing this?
Me: We’re really doing this.
Trevor: Let’s do Baejars…tad..ar…let’s do that one! It’s 4-5 hours, and it’s almost as long as the other one.
Trevor: I really don’t want to get lost or trip on a rock coming back in the dark.
Trevor: Let’s go refill our water bottles….
Me: That’s the spirit!
Trevor: Shut up. I’m not talking to you.
And that’s how we ended up hauling ass up to Kristinartindar and back! But just look at it!
Trevor kept pointing out that we were the only “idiots” walking towards the mountain. Everybody with “common sense” had started the hike early enough that they were already on their way back.
We barely stopped for water and snack breaks until we got close to the end and it got significantly vertical. I actually had really enjoyed the hike up until this point, and I was proud of the time that we made.
Then things got a lot less fun–not because it got steeper, but because of the nature of the trail. Up until then, it’d been your standard dirt/rock-littered path Then we got to this sign, and we had to take a hard left.
At this point, the path disintegrated into nothing but loose stones and rocks. The climb up, while challenging, was manageable. However, the entire time, I kept thinking, I’m so going to fall and hurt myself on the way down. And I know it doesn’t look that bad in the pictures, but that’s because every time it got particularly slippery, I had the sense to put my phone away. But believe me, it was not a fun climb down.
Trevor was being all dramatic towards the end.
We finally got to the top of the ridge, and were greeted by this spectacular view.
Unfortunately, then we turned to the left and saw this:
The final ascent. Sadly, we never made it to the top. This part was nothing but loose pebbles, and I could barely walk UP without slipping; I couldn’t bear to think what climbing down would be like. Within two minutes, we turned around, enjoyed our sandwich while enjoying the view of the glacier and the sound of ABSOLUTE SILENCE. I think that was more breathtaking than the view itself.
Eventually, I knew I couldn’t delay it anymore, and it was time to start making our way down. Imagine you’re walking downhill, and then some jerk throws a bag of marbles at your feet. You suddenly find yourself surfing downhill rather than hiking downhill. That’s what this part of the hike was like. I almost tumbled on at least half a dozen different occasions. But we made it back down to the dirt path in one piece and started to make our way back towards Skaftafell.
Trevor was in much better spirits on the hike back because he knew that not only were we definitely going to make it back before sundown, but the worst was over.
Since we didn’t do that last portion of the hike, we got back well before sunset, and with more than enough time before the cafeteria closed for me to treat Trevor to a well-deserved drink for his efforts.