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And Finally, We Climb a Glacier

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Almost inconceivably, we had lived in Iceland for three months without having been on a glacier. These massive chunks of ice account for over ten percent of the country’s surface area, and exert an enormous influence over life on the island. Had we neglected them, our exploration of Iceland would have been incomplete. And so, on our final excursion, we struck off across the ice.

Skaftafell Glacier Walk

We arrived at Skaftafell bright and early on a Saturday morning. Yes, I said “bright”. In stark contrast to the previous couple weeks, the weather today was outstanding. Iceland had apparently decided to send us out on a high note.

Our trip was organized by Glacier Guides, an operation based in Skaftafell which specializes in glacier tours. After meeting the other members of the group and our guide, Helen, we hopped into an old American school bus. Soon enough we were at the foot of Falljökull, which is a southern outlet glacier of the enormous Vatnajökull. In Iceland, even the glaciers have glaciers.

We affixed crampons to our boots, tightened harnesses around our waists, strapped helmets to our skulls, grabbed ice axes and began our ascent. Right away, I realized how much fun this was going to be. In the abstract, “walking on a big chunk of ice” doesn’t sound like anything special, but the reality is exhilarating. The ice crackled satisfyingly underneath every step of my metal-bladed shoes and the sun made even a light jacket strictly optional. Though a glacial landscape looks smooth and monotone from a distance, it’s amazingly diverse close up. We tramped into ice caves, peered down into glacial crevasses (one of which was 30 meters deep) and drank from streams of ice cold water running down the glacier’s surface.

Throughout our ascent, Helen kept us entertained with glacier facts, figures and stories, and faster than I could believe, we had reached an impenetrable wall of jagged blue and white ice. It looked just like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, and marked the end of our trail. Which was fine. We had marched eight kilometers across the ice, and I would suffer for it the next day. But the fact that I hardly noticed the distance is a testament to the beauty of the landscape.

Volcano: ✓ Hot Springs: ✓ And finally… Glacier: ✓. We had an incredible time on Falljökull, and were only upset that we hadn’t gone on a similar hike earlier during our time in Iceland. It was something I’d have been happy to experience more than once.

Glacier Guides – Website

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November 2, 2013 at 8:16 pm Comment (1)

Fimmvörðuháls – Fimmvörðuskáli to Þórsmörk

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The first half of our 25-kilometer hike from Skógar to Þórsmörk had been dominated by waterfalls, barren mountain vistas, and an unending uphill climb. But after passing between the two glaciers of Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull, our path would start its descent, and the clouds which had been plaguing us all day would clear up, revealing the valley of Þórsmörk below us: one of the most stunning landscapes we’ve ever seen.

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After passing the Fimmvörðuskáli hut, we emerged into serious glacier land, and were forced to trudge across huge banks of snow. The terrain was surreal. Between the snowbanks were fields of lava, strange tiny cones of ash and sinister black craters. At one point, we noticed that the land was smoking. The ground here was still super-heated from the 2010 explosion of Eyjafjallajökull. I reached down to touch the soil, digging down before yanking my fingers back. It was a little much for my mind to process… was I supposed to freezing here, or burning?

Once we had the smoking landscape of snow and lava behind us, the sky cleared up and Þórsmörk came into view. This valley is one of the most beautiful areas in Iceland. In fact, when we asked locals about their favorite places, Þórsmörk was the most common answer. And I can see why. Having it laid out before us from the mountain heights was absolutely magical.

With the valley visible below, we figured the final few hours of our hike would be easy. Nope… nothing like it. This was by far the most challenging stretch of the day, requiring extremely steep descents on tricky terrain, at a point when we were already physically and mentally fatigued. Some sections even forced us into scooching along the ground on our butts, terrified about kicking loose a stone and tumbling down.

But slowly, slowly we made it. Our tent was waiting for us at the campsite of Básar, and we had just enough energy left to set it up before collapsing into our sleeping bags. It had been quite a day… we’ve done a lot of hiking in different places around the world, but I don’t think for sheer, majestic nature, anything holds a candle to the Fimmvórðuhals.

Locations on our Map: Fimmvörðuskáli Hut | Básar

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September 17, 2013 at 8:32 am Comments (8)

Fimmvörðuháls – Skógar to Fimmvörðuskáli

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Second Part Of The Hike

The 25-kilometer Fimmvörðuháls, or Five-Cairn Trail, leads from the Skógafoss waterfall, up and between two glaciers, and into the valley of Þórsmörk. One of Iceland’s most popular hikes, it’s often done over two days, with a night in the Fimmvörðuskáli hut, but we pushed ourselves to complete the whole thing at once. Ten amazing hours.

Iceland Fog Waterfall

The Fimmvörðuháls is considered to be among the world’s best “waterfall” hikes, and begins defending this reputation immediately, with a steep climb up the side of the amazing Skógafoss Falls. This was the roughest ascent of the day, and we were happy to have it done with right away. From here the path levelled out, following the Skógá river uphill into the interior.

Skógafoss was just the first of many waterfalls we’d encounter. During the slow ascent along the river, we saw at least twenty, each of them magnificent. Usually, they would appear very suddenly. You’d be hiking along, lost in your thoughts, when BAM another waterfall. The Skóga River seemed to be showing off, daring us to tire of the spectacle.

After our third hour of hiking, our path departed from the river and we entered into more desolate territory, approaching the pass between the glaciers of Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull. The weather wasn’t optimal during this stretch, and we trudged through the fog and an increasingly-snowy landscape without wasting a lot of time.

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At the midway point of our hike, the huts of Baldvinsskáli and Fimmvörðuskáli appeared on the horizon. These cabins are available for rent through the hiking organization Utivist, but you have to book them way in advance. Up to a year. Most of the beds are reserved for tours and groups, and camping isn’t allowed. So stopping here unfortunately isn’t an option for those of us who have the tendency to plan everything at the last minute.

The waterfalls were great, but the second half of our hike, north from Fimmvörðuskáli to Þórsmörk, would prove to be even better. Craters, glaciers, lava fields, dangerous descents, unforgettable views and hot red soil, still steaming after the 2010 explosion of Eyjfjallajökull.

Practicalities: We took the Stræto Bus #51 from Reykjavík to Skógar, which pulled up directly to the waterfall at 11:20. At a moderate pace, the entire hike took us just over ten hours. We had our tent and sleeping bags delivered to the Básar campground by Reykjavík Excursions (having dropped them off at BSÍ the day before), greatly reducing our load while hiking. The bus back to Reykjavík left Básar the next day at 15:00.

This trail is not for beginning hikers, nor anyone who’s not reasonably fit. You need to be well-equipped and prepared for everything; unpredictable weather can make this hike dangerous, and even deadly. Should you want to do this trail, but are unsure about tackling it yourself, the guys at Arctic Adventures run a two-day guided tour. Regardless of your skill level, it’s worth talking over your plans with an expert. And always make sure that someone knows your schedule. The free 112 Iceland smartphone application, which allows you to check-in and contact emergency services with your location, is also highly recommended.

Locations on our Iceland Map: Skógarfoss | Fimmvörðuskáli

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September 16, 2013 at 5:42 pm Comments (4)

An Aerial Tour of Iceland

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You Might Also Like Our Flight Over The Westfjords

As amazing as it was to stand on the cliffs of Þingvellir and survey the rift valley where two tectonic plates are separating, it was even more amazing to fly over that same valley. I think I know why so many birds spend their summers in Iceland. The views are hard to beat.

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Aerial tours of Iceland are a booming business, and it’s not hard to understand why. Most of the country is inaccessible by car. Only a handful of roads crisscross the ungovernable interior and even these can only be traversed with 4-wheel drive jeeps. And even then, they’re dangerous, requiring river fording, and are completely off-limits during the winter. There are a lot of spots in Iceland which you have to see from the air, if you want to see them at all.

Our first aerial tour brought us from Reykjavík to the Langjökull Glacier, over Gullfoss, then around by Geysir and Þingvellir, and onto Hekla and Eyjafjallajökull. The country’s astounding geological diversity is truly evident from the air; we passed over fertile valleys, icy glacial expanses, still-smoking volcanoes, and steaming fields of geothermal activity, all within minutes.

This was my first time in a small propeller jet, but I was soon at ease. The flight was smooth and I was too engrossed staring out the window to remember my fears. The plane was a Cessna, a four-seater, and we were allowed to open the windows to get some spectacular shots from above. An unforgettable experience.

If you’d like to take a similar tour, get in touch with us. We have an excellent contact, who will be able to arrange a personalized tour from Reykjavík.

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August 15, 2013 at 8:04 pm Comments (15)

Hiking around the Western Snæfellsness, Part 2

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Our excursion into the Snæfellsjökull National Park was the first big hike we’d embarked on in Iceland, and was an incredible introduction to the country’s nature. By the early afternoon, we had already seen an old Irish well, an amazing crater and a lava-field. But the second part of our day would prove to be even more action-packed.

Snekkjufoss Waterfall
Snæfellsjökull, always in the distance, led us on

A long walk from the Saxhóll Crater brought us to its sibling, Rauðhóll, which we circled along a nicely-marked path. Circumnavigating the crater took about an hour, and the scenery was stunning. Here, unlike at Saxhóll, the vegetation has largely returned. We were all alone, within sight of both the sea and the Snæfellsjökull Glacier, and fell completely under the landscape’s spell. I don’t think we talked at all. It would have been wrong to interrupt the natural, silent harmony by blurting out some idiocy like “Gosh, this sure is pretty!”

We continued up a dirt track in the direction of the glacier until reaching two waterfalls: Klukkufoss and Snekkjufoss. Both were lovely. Smaller Klukkufoss fell over basalt columns, while Snekkjufoss thundered into the valley. The river powering through Snekkjufoss was fed by the Snæfellsjökull Glacier. A shining white beacon always visible on the horizon, the glacier was our companion throughout the day.

After the two waterfalls, we hiked up the third and final crater of the day, Sjónarhóll, and enjoyed an unparalleled view of the valley. A field of lava stretched out in front of us, Hellissandur and the beautiful Ingjaldshóll Church were visible in the distance, while the Atlantic Ocean claimed the horizon beyond.

Now we had the task of getting back to our tent at Hellissandur. It was already late in the day, so we chanced a shortcut along an unmarked trail past Burfell Mountain. Note: when a trail in Iceland is described as “unmarked”, that’s exactly what it means! There was neither track nor stake to lead the way, and so we just kept heading north, up and down huge hills, over agonizingly bumpy terrain, past concerned-looking sheep, and across rivers which started small but were becoming unnervingly larger as we distanced ourselves from the glacier.

Eventually, it had to happen. At the foot of Burfell, we found ourselves ringed in by uncrossable rivers. The summer’s glacial run-off was in full swing and these rivers, which on the map looked like tiny streams, were raging. We followed the tamest river east, downstream, searching for a fordable spot, only to encounter another river joining in from the south. And now we were completely hemmed in, and had to move south, 180° opposite of our goal.

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After an hour of hiking in the wrong direction, we found a relatively shallow spot, and stripped down to our undies. At this point, we had been going for thirteen hours, so the freezing water was actually a helpful way to revive. It took another hour before reaching the coastal road. We weren’t anywhere close to our campsite, but a road means cars, means transportation, means hitchhiking. Luckily, hitchhiking in Iceland isn’t just safe and convenient, but can be a real life-saver. We were picked up by the very first car which passed.

In all, we had walked over twenty miles. Way more than planned. We managed to get our tent erected, then collapsed into our sleeping bags. The next morning, we awoke in utter agony, but the experience was worth the pain. Snæfellsnes is home to some seriously amazing nature, and this hike introduced us to a lot of it.

Locations on our map: Rauðhóll | Klukkufoss | Snekkjufoss | Snæfellsjökull

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August 9, 2013 at 5:44 pm Comment (1)

Jökulsárlón: The Glacial Lagoon

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Our first excursion out of Reykjavík was a day trip to the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon on the country’s southeast coast. With its powder blue icebergs floating, bobbing and flipping atop the water’s surface, Jökulsárlón has become one of Iceland’s most famous sights. Justifiably so.

Jökulsárlón

Our trip to Jökulsárlón was organized by Iceland Guided Tours, a company based in the heart of Reykjavík which concentrates on the southern coast and the capital area. The drive out to the lagoon was long, about five hours, so it was nice to be traveling with a knowledgeable guide who could point out geographical features along the way and answer any questions we had.

Jökulsárlón’s icebergs are supplied by the Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier, which looks unfathomably huge looming behind the lagoon, but is actually just a small part of the much larger Vatnajökull Glacier. Although it’s been retreating since the late 19th century, Vatnajökull still covers 8% of Iceland and is Europe’s largest glacier.

As Breiðamerkurjökull shrinks, giant chunks of ice break off and tumble down into Jökulsárlón, where they float listlessly about the water’s surface. By a quirk of nature, the icebergs don’t melt, nor does the lagoon freeze over. This is because a natural river connecting Jökulsárlón to the Atlantic creates a mixture of salt and fresh water; cool enough to keep the ice mostly intact, but salty enough to prevent the water from freezing. Eventually, the icebergs do melt away, but the process can take years.

Boat Tour Jökulsárlón

The view of the lagoon is spectacular from the coast, but a reasonably-priced boat tour can provide a close-up look. The icebergs come in a variety of styles, from white streaked with charcoal-black soot, to crystal-clear formations resembling glass, to gorgeous chunks of powder-blue. The colors vary in accordance with the age of the ice, and where on the glacier it originated. The most dazzling are those formed of the densest, oldest ice; blue is the only color in the spectrum which water doesn’t absorb, which means that the most compressed ice has the bluest hue.

A completely unique location, Jökulsárlón has proven irresistible to filmmakers, appearing in movies like Tomb Raider and Batman Begins. Most spectacular was its appearance in Die Another Day, the otherwise awful 2002 Bond flick. At an enormous expense, and for less than a minute of footage, the filmmakers blocked off the river for months, preventing salt water from reaching the lagoon which caused it to freeze over.

Across from Jökulsárlón, where the river empties into the ocean, there’s a black-sand beach which is also worth a look. Here, some smaller ice chunks have floated down the river and come to rest on the sand. Also nearby, though only accessible with your own transportation, is a second glacial lagoon called Fjallsarlón. It’s less colorful than Jökulsarlon, and lacking access to the ocean, but the glacial flow behind it is even more dramatic.

If you’d like to visit Jökulsárlón, either rent a car or get in touch with the guys at Iceland Guided Tours. It’s a long trip from the capital, but worth the effort. In a country full of unbelievable scenery, this lagoon is among the top highlights.

Locations on our Iceland Map: Jökulsárlón | Fjallsárlón

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July 31, 2013 at 10:24 am Comments (9)
And Finally, We Climb a Glacier Almost inconceivably, we had lived in Iceland for three months without having been on a glacier. These massive chunks of ice account for over ten percent of the country's surface area, and exert an enormous influence over life on the island. Had we neglected them, our exploration of Iceland would have been incomplete. And so, on our final excursion, we struck off across the ice.
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