A little over 11 percent of Iceland is covered by glaciers, and it’s impossible to miss them. Sticking their tongues out at us from various vantage points on the Ring road (they really are called glacier tongues, by the way), glaciers beckoned with the promise of fun, adventure and great photos.
It was my first time to ever see a glacier, so I could hardly resist its call. As I soon discovered, there are many fun things you can do with glaciers in Iceland, such as:
1) Walk on a glacier. As a decidedly non-athletic person of a nationality that hates walking, this to me is the pinnacle of all the things I could conceivably do involving a glacier. Skaftafell, the gateway to the Vatnajökull National Park, seemed like the perfect place to give glacier walking a try. Vatnajökull is the largest glacier outside of the polar regions, but that wasn’t very relevant to me; I mean, I wasn’t about to walk the entire thing. Instead, Marlon and I signed up for a 2.5-hour easy glacier hike with Glacier Guides—a 1-2 out of 5 on the difficulty scale, which seemed just about my speed.
For 6,900 ISK (47.50 EUR or 58 USD), Glacier Guides outfitted us with an ice pick, hiking shoes (because mine were not very sensible)…
… and crampons, metal contraptions that you step into and strap onto your feet for traction on the ice.
Our Icelandic guide Jon (which must be the most common name in Iceland) took us in this big yellow bus…
… to a point where we started a 20-minute hike over sandy, shifting and rocky terrain towards the Faljökull glacier. I felt like such a wuss, because I fell several times during the hike, not to mention huffed and puffed so hard on my short legs that I felt like I was going to die. This was really not a good look, especially when everyone else seemed to be taking to this terrain like young mountain goats.
The only thing that kept me going was how embarrassing it would be to bow out of the glacier walk… before the glacier walk actually started! It later turned out that there was a very good reason I struggled with this hike, which I will share later on.
Mercifully, the torture ended after 20-25 minutes as we stopped to put on our crampons and take our first (slow) steps on the ice. My first few minutes were spent staring at the ground to make sure my crampons were chomping into the ground, which looked like this: crackly blue and white ice, covered by a thin layer of asphalt.
I somehow expected the glacier to be this perfect pristine whiteness, kind of like an Olympic figure skating rink. Well, it’s not!
When I got used to it, I finally trusted that my feet would follow the general direction of my nose, and looked up. Seeing this glacier looming in front of me was when it really started to become fun. My tired legs found new energy to stomp into the ice with each step.
So what is there to do on this seemingly featureless landscape? Follow the path of water.
It sounds very Zen, but seeing water at work leads to the interesting features that break up the endless expanse of ice, such as crevices formed by the glacier melting from within…
… or moulins (as in the French word for “mills”), holes or shafts that draw water from the surface of the glacier to deep within. I was rather worried about falling through the ice until our guide reminded me that we were standing on hundreds of meters of solid ice. “You just have to watch out for the moulins,” he remarked, “and those are pretty obvious.” So they are.
Following the path of water leads us to another fun thing to do with glaciers, which is…
2) Drink from them. Here you have the dainty, girly option—and the macho option, which involves hacking your ice pick over a little stream and doing a pushup to drink from it. Obviously, Marlon did not want anything to do with the dainty, girly (and sane) option.
As you would expect, glacial meltwater is freezing and tastes pristine.
3) Observe the wildlife. Do note that this entire experience is Glacier Lite; this far inland, the wildlife does not include polar bears or penguins or anything quite so exciting. It does, however, permit you to encounter the adorable critter known as the glacier mouse.
“Glacier mice” are actually just rocks that gather moss, thereby disproving the adage “a rolling stone gathers no moss.” They don’t feel rock-like at all— quite soft and cuddly actually, and they look cute in pictures. They are also quite inedible, which (judging from the look he’s giving me) the guy behind me doesn’t know that I know.
Aside from lying there and sticking their tongues out at passersby, glaciers also melt and break off into smaller pieces called icebergs. And those are fun too! The fun you can have with these smaller glacial pieces make up the second part of my list, which I’ll put up tomorrow.