Another World: Into Iceland’s Glacial Caves

The ice in that photograph is more than 1000 years old, and was formed before anyone lived on the island. It moves forward in the Vatnajökull Glacier, slowly encroaching on the sea. Surprisingly, the last glacial maximum for Iceland was only about 110 years ago!

We drove out of Hvergardi after our first night in Iceland, through the tiny village of Vik and to the middle of nowhere. The ring road was not finished in this area until the 1970s, and completed the circle around the tiny and yet vast country. Iceland’s ring road drives through microclimates and fairytale landscapes, with constantly changing weather. The day we arrived, it was raining. The next, perfect conditions for climbing into the belly of the glacier. Frozen, bright, and dry.

After our three hour drive, we arrived at Hotel Skaftafell. We could see it for fifty miles on the horizon, at the edge of a massive glacier that glowed blue in the perpetual twilight. Tiny, twinkling lights that grew only slightly bigger as we approached.

The hotel is nothing too special, but it reminded me of the hiking hotels in the Rockies that I grew up with and the ones in the Alps I visited on my solo visit to Switzerland in 2009. Deathly soft, warm beds. BBC Northern Ireland. Warm shower. All you need, and the warm welcome of staff who seemed surprised that we had chosen to stay three days in the middle of winter.

We got up and dressed in what would turn out to be a few too many layers, and tied our weatherproof boots on tight. A 45 minute drive into the expansive, white desolation awaited us. We passed tiny villages with names posted, some of which seemed to be little more than a farmhouse. Could it be that the name of the family that lives there is on the sign?

The mountains to our left were lit up by the time we arrived at Jökulsárlón, the Ice Lagoon. The glacier breaks off and runs wildly into the sea, leaving 1000-year-old shards on the black sands of the beach. It was exactly 0 degrees C outside, and the gravel was frozen solid. IMG_6425 IMG_6433

I tried to follow Russell up that gravel mound on the left there and found my GoreTex boots were poorly suited to the task. The only way to get back down was to slide on my butt on the frozen gravel. All the way down. About 40 feet of sliding. I ripped my brand new travel pants and my base layer when I dragged my butt across a jagged rock.


It was a small price to pay for the sheer beauty of the place. IMG_6435 IMG_6439

Black sand ice beach, Jökulsárlón, Glacial Lagoon
Black sand ice beach, Jökulsárlón, Glacial Lagoon
With the sea
With the sea
Like glass
Like glass

We met up with our guide, Oscar from Ice Guides, and the other ten or so people ready to clamber into his giant rig. He told us that the conditions cannot get any better than the ones on that day. The caves are very sensitive, so they react badly when it rains. IMG_6492

We drove in the giant van for about 20 minutes, turning early off the ring road and into the middle of apparent nowhere. Down huge banks of a frozen river, and across the ice of the river itself. The glacier loomed huge and blinding in front of us, and we pulled up to the entrance of the ice cave. Oscar left his driver’s door wide open and helped us into some basic pull-on crampons. Helmets on, and we were ready to go.

I’m gonna step aside here and just let the ice cave speak for itself.

It’s like no place we’ve ever been, and we’ve been a fair few places. It was magical. Ephemeral. The glacier is changing, and every time I’m in a polar region I feel like it might not be at all the same the next time I’m able to come by. The ancient ice is receding, all over the world. More rapidly than anyone thought. We were incredibly lucky to be in the right place at the right time, and the tour was worth every króna. It was special. A huge travel experience for our honeymoon.

When the ice cave tour was over, we wandered down to the glassy water of the lagoon at sunset. The oddly-placed ducks who filled some areas of the lagoon came over, wondering if we had bread to share. We continued on, and some mother seals lazily wound their way through the giant icebergs, playing in the light reflected off the surface while their babies rested further away. Russell had a whole conversation in snorts with one of them, who reminded me of the many hundreds we saw on the Norfolk coast last year. They had reign over the lagoon in the afternoon, all the tourists safely packed back into their busses and rental cars.

As of today, the glaciers are a part of an eruption on Iceland. The stripes indicate areas that are no longer safe for hikers or drivers. The star is where the Ice Lagoon is, and the oval is roughly where Hotel Skaftafell falls. 

Screen Shot 2015-02-08 at 20.50.37

The ice cave tour was easily worth it, and the best thing to do in Iceland. Once the sun began to set, we headed back to our hotel and had a traditional Icelandic dinner of head cheese, hard rye bread, whale blubber, sheep testicles, and Hákarl (fermented shark). A pint of Viking lager was needed to wash it all down, but we felt ready to pillage some villages after such a fatty meal. A perfect, magical day in Iceland. 

Next Time: The long drive back to The city. A preview…


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