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

Vestmannæyjar: The Westman Islands

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Just a few miles off the southern coast of Iceland are the Westman Islands (Vestmannæyjar). Though the archipelago consists of over a dozen islands, only Heimaey is large enough to support a community. With beautiful nature, relatively mild weather and an exciting history, the Westmans have long been a popular spot for day-tripping Icelanders.

Westman Islands Panorama

The story of the Westman Islands begins with Iceland’s original settler, Ingólfur Arnarson. After murdering his blood brother, a group of slaves Ingólfur had kidnapped from England stole a boat and fled to Heimaey. Vikings of the day referred to British Isles as the “Western Lands” and their inhabitants as “Westmen”, which explains how the islands got their name. The slaves didn’t enjoy their freedom for long, as they were almost immediately found and executed, but the name stuck.

Ever since the settlement, Heimaey has been home to a decent population of Icelanders lured by the rich fishing and bird-hunting. The islands are home to the largest puffin colonies in the world, and the people here have always been, and still are, expert hunters of the little birds. Alone on their island with abundant eggs and fish, the people of Heimaey enjoyed an idyllic existence for most of their history. Until the fateful year of 1627.

In what has come to be known as the Turkish Abductions, a crew of Algerian pirates landed at Heimaey on July 17th, 1627, and brought havoc to the tiny town. 242 people were kidnapped into slavery and 36 were killed. Catastrophic, considering that Heimaey only had a population of 500. Those who managed to survive did so by hiding in caves around the island’s shore.

The next catastrophe to hit the Westman Islands came in 1973, with the eruption of the Eldfell volcano. What had previously been a flowery meadow on the eastern side of town was suddenly a growing volcano spouting smoke and lava. The town was evacuated within 24 hours. Amazingly, only a single person died during the eruption. Heimaey was radically changed as a result: entire blocks of the town had been buried under lava and the size of the island increased immensely. Today, you can still see remains of some of the houses where the lava flow stops, half-buried under tons of rock.

Heimaey is a great place to spend a day or two. Ferries leave frequently from Landeyjahöfn, and take just a half-hour to make the crossing. The town itself is fun, with interesting sights and good restaurants, and there are any number of rewarding walks one can make around the island, including a climb to the top of the volcano.

-Accommadation On The Westman Islands: Hostels And Guesthouses

Ferry Iceland
Fähre Westman Islands
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Westman Islands Iceland
Westman Island Cliffs
Bird Cliffs Westman Iceland
Amazing Iceland
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Iceland Tanks
Puffin Signs
Colorful Heimæy
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Architecture Heimæy
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Fishing Heimæy
Dangerous Heimæy
Castsle Heimæy
Vacation Rentals Heimæy
Geothermal Plant Heimæy
Heimæy At Night
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September 19, 2013 at 6:34 pm Comment (1)

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.

Crossing Rivers Iceland

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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Volcano Snæfellsnes
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Picknick Iceland
Hiking Western Snæfellsness
Rauðholl Crater
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Rauðholl Iceland
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Klukkufoss Waterfall
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Panorama Iceland
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Glacier Dude
River Flows Iceland
Fresh Drinking Water Iceland
Rivers Of Iceland
River Crossing Hiking Iceland
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August 9, 2013 at 5:44 pm Comment (1)

A Concise History of Iceland

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Geologically speaking, Iceland is one of the Earth’s newborns. The island didn’t even exist until after the age of dinosaurs had passed, and it was the last European territory to be settled. Iceland continues to grow, still firmly in its adolescence, but its short history has been a volatile one. Whether they’ve been dealing with abusive Danes, glaciers, the plague or volcanic ash, Icelanders have had it rough. Here’s a rundown of the biggest events in the country’s history.


This incredible topographical map of Iceland can be found in the Ráðhúsið (City Hall) in Reykjavik
20 million BC Iceland is formed by a series of volcanic explosions along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the North American and European tectonic plates are pulling away from each other.
847 AD Norseman Ingólfur Arnarson settles down in present-day Reykjavík. For the next 150 years, scores of his countrymen follow, driven out of Norway by the harsh rule of King Harald the Fair-Haired.
930 The first annual Alþing, or parliament, is convened to govern the fledgling country, and the Saga Age commences. The exploits of Iceland’s founders are passed down orally, and eventually written out in magnificent manuscripts which would become the country’s greatest treasures.
1000 At the millennial Alþing, leaders vote to adopt Catholicism as the island’s sole religion, abandoning the Viking paganism of their ancestors. There are a few fights, but the conversion is remarkably peaceful.
~1000 Around the same time as the Catholic conversion, and five centuries before Christopher Columbus’s voyage, Icelandic explorer Leif Ericson discovers North America, which he calls Vinland.
1262 Iceland cedes its sovereignty to Norway and thus begins a 682-year period of vassalage to foreign powers. In 1380, power shifts to the Danish Empire.
1402 The Black Death arrives in Iceland. Half of the island’s population succumbs, just shortly after a massive volcanic explosion in 1386 which had devastated crops. Unhappy days in Iceland.
1602 Denmark squeezes its vice-like grip on Iceland with the introduction of a trade monopoly. Until 1786, Iceland is only allowed to trade with Denmark, and at absurdly unfair rates, leaving Icelanders in a perpetual state of financial misery.
1786 Laki erupts. What, never heard of Laki? The deadliest volcanic eruption in history, Laki spews clouds of sulfur dioxide that cause famine as far away as India. 25% of Iceland’s population is killed, and Laki is credited with over six million deaths across the globe. The crop loss attributable to Laki is one of the main factors which led to the French Revolution.
1944 World War II may have devastated Europe, but it’s a boon to little Iceland. British and American forces use the strategically-situated island as a base, and introduce roads and airports. On June 17th, 1944, Iceland is finally able to declare independence from Nazi-occupied Denmark.
1975 Iceland engages England in the closest its ever come to a military skirmish, after unilaterally extending its territorial waters to cope with dwindling cod stocks. The Icelandic coast guard cuts nets and rams foreign vessels, and the Brits send in the Royal Navy. The Cod Wars end only after Iceland threatens to close a NATO base on the island, forcing England to back down.
2008 Iceland’s banks had been deregulated in 2001, and suspect banking practices ensued almost immediately, setting the stage for the dramatic financial crisis of 2008. The stock market falls by 90% and customers across Europe find their accounts frozen. The government resigns, and all of the nation’s banks collapse.
2013 and Beyond… Iceland has emerged from its financial crisis just as strong as before, and with a pragmatic vision for its future. Using the landscape to its favor, Iceland has developed its natural geothermal and hydroelectric sources and is nearly energy independent. With one of the world’s most highly-educated populations and lowest crime rates, the country is well-poised to prosper in the future… at least until it’s ripped apart by volcanoes.

Read About The History Of Iceland (Books)

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August 1, 2013 at 6:59 pm Comment (1)
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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