My alarm blared, indicating 5am had finally come. It had been a long and restless night, waking up every half an hour and barely getting back to sleep. I struggled with my suitcase, urging it up the stairs and into my boot with tired muscles. I blasted the heaters and swept snow from my car, warming my hands on a cup of tea as I set off on the four hour drive. In the darkness of night, it was easy to see how ominous and surreal this landscape could be. Paling white clouds of steam or fog oozed up from the ground, as if a mass of spirits had ascended from beneath the earth. I didn’t see another vehicle for about an hour and enjoyed the solitude as I made my way across the south coast. Snowploughs started to emerge and I saw the heavy cloud covering the horizon. Before long, I was enveloped by the snow once again, and watched powder whirl up in my rearview mirror as I carved out some fresh tracks.
Nearing the coastal town of Vík, the wind gusts got up to 80mph, snowdrifts and blizzard mixing together, pummelling the side of my car. It was unrelenting for another hour and a half, and I sighed in relief as I got away from the storm. The sun had risen fully by now, the sky unbelievably different, bright and blue as I reached my destination. I ate some Skyr and started to layer up with my snow gear and before long, Ryan and the group had arrived. I was thrilled when I heard back from Hidden Iceland as I knew they were not only passionate about the landscape, but about preserving it too. They hold a number of small and private hire trips, showing off some of the most remarkable and breathtaking places around Iceland, whilst informing us about how quickly things are changing too. Ryan’s passion really shined through with the sheer wealth of knowledge he held, his energy and enthusiasm contagious. He’s recently written a piece about the effects of climate change on glaciers, you can read the full article here.
“When our company, Hidden Iceland, runs our two-day trip towards the Vatnajökull National Park, our clients admire the sunrise, snap photos of icebergs, and hike across the glacier, but we understand the importance of framing this experience in a critical and significant way. This is a fragile and ever-changing environment demanding respect and expertise. Our glacier guides are safe and experienced but also acutely aware of the glacier’s past and uncertain future. Everything you have experienced today will be different tomorrow. Changed by next week. And maybe gone by next year. Today is just for us.”
We were all given helmets, a harness, an ice axe and a pair of boots with some crampons before we started. Ryan told us how he’d already noticed a difference in the time it took to reach the foot of the glacier then when he first climbed it some years back. Falljökull has shrunk around half an hours walk in the past 20 years alone, losing more ice in the last two decades than it had in the previous 150 years. As a result of this, the lagoon has also become much bigger and deeper, almost doubling in size. On this particular morning, the surface was completely frozen, and Darroch tried to skip a rock across the ice. A high pitched, alien-like sound reverberated back to us and we started to shout excitedly, skipping small rocks by the lagoon, listening and laughing at the strange noise as the sound waves travelled between solid and liquid. We crossed over a small stream that ran out from a huge ice cave and watched as small chunks of black rock skittered down the huge mounds of volcanic ash. We reached a section of level ground and mounted our crampons in slow succession, and Ryan checked everyone had pulled them on tight enough. I noticed a patch of bright blue amongst the black ash. To me, it looked like peeling turquoise paint and I scraped at it with my foot, confused, before realising it was actually glacial ice.
As we continued upwards, Ryan told us more about Falljökull, letting us know the main danger would be an avalanche, as they can happen quite frequently. As if on cue, we heard a distant rumble and were pointed in the direction it came from. Fortunately, it was beyond the highest peak, Dyrhamar which sits at a height of 2119m. There were several other glaciers within the immediate vicinity, one of which was used by Game of Thrones for a filming location. According to Ryan, this specific glacier is now on the verge of collapse and nobody can use it; reaffirming the fragility of this environment. I felt incredibly lucky and privileged to share the surreal experience with such a great group and I stopped frequently to take some more photos. We didn’t want to fall down a sinkhole or crevice and break a leg (or worse), so we cautiously followed in our guide’s footsteps and listened to him closely as he recounted some of the previous accidents that had occurred on this glacier. We followed him down some ice stairs which had been carved out by different glacier guides as they’d hiked along with their group, and found ourselves enclosed by huge ice walls on either sides. The turquoise colour reminded me of the Adriatic Sea that I’d swam in last year, and I looked closely at all of the frozen textures on the inside. Reaching out to touch the ice, I was surprised by the satin smoothness that greeted my cold fingers. We continued upwards and spotted a black raven flying overhead, landing next to us as we took a break for some food. Trying to sit down on the ice seemed a trickier task then walking on it, and one of the group slid downhill a couple metres as she tried to feed the raven. We found some crystal clear chunks of ice and I crunched down on them, enjoying how cold the water felt in my mouth as it melted.
The glacier was a lot busier now, and we could see a group practicing ice climbing a couple hundred metres from us. They scaled up some seracs, or as I called them, Shark Fins, and I felt a little envious of the exhilaration they must have been experiencing. Hidden Iceland also run Ice Climbing tours, and I promised myself I’d come back to try that out too. We all had an air of sadness about us when we started to make our way back down the glacier, stopping frequently to check out where we had come from and delaying our departure. I spotted a small stream that wasn’t there at the start of the day, and we all took turns drinking from it, hyping each other up about how old this fresh glacial water would be. Just as we made it back to the lagoon, we heard a bigger rumble and I saw a puff of snow towards the top of the glacier where some ice had broken off. We found some sink holes along the shoreline and cleaned our crampons in the water before making our way back to the van. I parted ways sadly with Ryan and the group once we reached the service station, but my energy levels were still buzzing from an amazing day as I continued to drive east towards Höfn, where I’d stay for the night.