Iceland fulfilled some of our very special dreams. As nature and waterfall addicts we were easy to please wherever we went in this amazing country. But there was a specific adventure we were eagerly looking forward to: glacier hiking! We’ve never done it before and we knew we have to grab the chance on our visit to Iceland. After all, we don’t visit countries full of glaciers every other day.
Is walking on a glacier dangerous?
It can be. Simply said, a glacier is a frozen river. It’s constantly in motion. The ice has been accumulating over centuries and the glacier is moving under its own weight. Giant crevasses are formed in the process – and you don’t want to fall into them. Walking on a glacier without an experienced guide (assuming you’re not one yourself) and without proper equipments can be fatal.
We don’t often book hiking tours, mostly because we prefer hiking at our own pace. But hiking on a glacier is different. This was the occasion not to hike on our own. We booked a glacier walking tour combined with ice climbing on Sólheimajökull, a glacier in Southern Iceland. And we were rewarded with such a unique, amazing experience!
Because walking on a glacier can be breathtaking and fun. Our friendly guides made sure we are doing it safely, they taught us how to walk in crampons and educated us about both glaciers in general and Sólheimajökull, our particular one.
Our glacier: Sólheimajökull
Sólheimajökull is a 11-km-long outlet glacier from Mýrdalsjökull in Southern Iceland. The icecap actually covers an active volcano called Katla that usually erupts every 40–80 years. The last eruption was in 1918 and the next one is expected soon. Like anytime. Of course, the volcano is monitored and our guides told us that they test the evacuation plans from time to time.
But the eruptions of Katla also left visible marks on Sólheimajökull. Since volcanic ash is accumulated between the layers of ice, it makes the glacier look “a bit dirty”. But as we got closer, we realized that what looked greyish from the distance is actually perfectly dark black ash. It also means that the ice itself is perfectly clean and our guides showed us some amazing crevasses and blue ice formations.
Let’s climb that sheer ice wall!
Then they were searching for an appropriate ice wall where they can teach us how to climb. We’ve never even done rock climbing, not to mention ice climbing, but this tour was for beginners and we were quite excited. Our guides were very helpful and cheered us all the way to the top. It was easier than I thought it would be. Csaba didn’t share my opinion so enthusiastically though. Anyway, we learnt a simple and effective technique to conquer the ice wall using our crampons and ice axes.
How to dress up for a glacier walk?
Your clothing should be warm and waterproof – that’s the essential rule. We put on the clothes we would normally use on any day when hiking in high mountains: hiking pants, multiple layers of tops, warm sweater, thick socks, gloves, waterproof hiking boots and waterproof jacket. We also had our waterproof pants with us, and though it was not raining during our tour, I was happy to have that extra layer of pants to put on because it was quite chilly and windy.
This clothing is what you need for hiking in Iceland (or in any high mountains), anyway, so it’s worth investing in them if you plan to do a lot of hiking. The waterproof stuff is especially important, since getting soaked on a chilly, windy day in the pouring rain high up in the mountains really sucks. (Yes, I speak from experience. 😛 ) What keeps you dry, will keep you warm and happy – as happy as you can be on a gloomy day.
Walking on the ice and ash and hearing the water flowing under our feet below several layers of ice was an experience that we can’t compare to anything. Our glacier was magnificent, full of beauties and surprises. And it needs to be respected – just like the power and beauty of nature in general.
But however giant and amazing glaciers are, however dangerous they could be, they are also very fragile. Sólheimajökull has been retreating for a while now, getting both shorter and thinner. It’s not the only one. Climate change is a real threat to all glaciers.
Montana’s Glacier National Park was home to an estimated 150 glaciers in 1910 – their number has decreased to fewer than 30 by now and even the remaining ones have shrunk. Glaciers in the Himalaya are retreating so fast that most of them could virtually disappear by 2035. Greenland’s ice sheet is shrinking and Arctic ice is melting, causing average global sea level to raise.
Climate change is a threat to glaciers – and the rest of our beautiful planet
Scientists know that climate changes happened and sea levels have risen and fallen over Earth’s history. But the recent changes are happening more rapidly than ever, threatening not only the magnificent glaciers but our whole planet as we know it today. And it was human activity that has increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 40 percent within the past 200 years – just one, but one of the major factors of climate change.
Glaciers, being so sensitive to climate change remind us of this threat more than anything else. And it breaks our heart. Exploring the unique natural treasures in every country we visit make us realize how diverse, amazing and fragile our planet is. It makes us want to save it. Could we?
Have you ever been face to face with a glacier?