By: Eric Chin, a Let’s Go! researcher-writer
I’ve always thought it would be awesome to be a mountaineer. Who hasn’t, at some point in their life, dreamed about strapping on a harness and spikes and scaling a sheer mountain face, or standing on the summit of Mt. Everest?
That’s why this PlacePass tour caught my eye. We all know what glaciers are — big ice cubes moving very slowly down the side of a mountain, probably with a few woolly mammoths or saber-toothed tigers that just slipped under the radar somehow. But how many people can say they’ve been on an Iceland glacier and understand the sheer magnitude of what that means? Probably very few.
Ever the early bird, I signed up for the first tour of the day. The meeting point was the Skaftafell Visitor Center in Vatnajökull National Park, home of Iceland’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull.
My physical and mental stiffness from a night of tossing and turning disappeared as soon as I started getting suited up with some seriously technical gear. The harness and helmet were standard enough, but the ice axe and crampons (think Yaktrax’s bigger, tougher, badass older brother) were certainly not. You could do some serious damage with those things!
After a short bus ride and a hike past an Iceland glacier lagoon, we arrived at the ice where my guide for the day, Bronwyn, instructed the group in the nuances of crampon use, and the somewhat-curious way you have to walk when you have 10, inch-long spikes on each foot. To get them to bite, you must “stomp like an angry teenager.”
Then we were up, stomping our way across the vast sheet of ice. Behind were the lagoon and the jagged cliffs, ahead was the icefall. This particular glacier is called Falljökull (literally, “Falling Glacier”) and it’s easy to see why. Visible from all the way from the bottom was a jagged wall of ice — white streaked with vibrant blue. Bronwyn explained that this icefall, particularly striking among glaciers, maintains its appearance as huge blocks of ice break off high above with loud thunderclaps and tumble down the wall. And we were going to go right up to the edge.
To get there, we had some ways to go. Bronwyn led the way with a monstrous 4-foot axe, swinging it liberally to carve out and clear the winding trail up the glacier. At points the path descended into deep crevasses. (Oh yeah, crevasse. Not crevice – what is this, amateur hour?) The deep fissures in the ice were sometimes only a few feet wide – too narrow to walk normally, and were equipped with ropes to use as holds and even man-made stairs. This was a 5-star glacier.
As we neared the icefall, Bronwyn paused to tell us about a sediment called “glacial clay.” The fine silt is produced by the movement and erosion of glaciers, and apparently does wonders for the skin. At that, two of the young women in the group smeared it all over their faces. Still haven’t gotten a verdict on that one.
Finally, we reached the main attraction: the icefall. It’s impressive in pictures, and it certainly was from the base of the glacier, but only standing at the bottom of the fall and gazing up can give you a sense of its true majesty. Chunks of ice the size of houses littered the steep face, as if they were nothing more than pebbles. Deep, pure blues signaled newly sheared pieces. It was an incredible sight. Before we headed down, Bronwyn showed us a few more hidden secrets of Falljökull. An arch, ice-blue inside, and a cave large enough to stand in, though we didn’t.
All the while, Bronwyn explained how dynamic and fragile this amazing landscape is. She explained that the arch we saw today would be too dangerous to visit in a week, but that maybe they would find a new one in a few days. She constantly went ahead to check the path and make sure the ice was still as strong and safe as usual. Bronwyn also discussed the threats we humans pose to these behemoths of nature. Iceland’s glaciers, like those all over the world, are retreating. Fast.
Bronwyn explained that Falljökull had extended to the end of the lagoon, a distance of over 100 yards, just 20 years ago. Many scientists estimate that Iceland’s glaciers will be gone within decades if current melt rates persist.
It’s hard to understand how such a massive object could just disappear, but the evidence was right beneath my feet. It was humbling. After all, what is Iceland without the ice?
Ready to scale an Iceland glacier yourself? Check out the tour!
Still feeling adventurous? Try conquering the cliffs in Croatia.
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