Iceland Ice Climbing and Glacier Hike [Tour Review]

Driving the Golden Circle in Iceland
Knowing Your Limits: I Quit, and That's Okay

Iceland. It has a lot of ice. What better place than Iceland to try ice climbing?

So that’s just what we did. Now, before going on this adventure, we did question our sanity.

More than once.

See, Jessi and I love indoor rock climbing, and there is simply no better way to both get your exercise and feel accomplished all at once. Climbing a thirty foot wall will do that to even the most anxiety prone of people (me).

Besides, I used to be afraid of heights, and rock climbing is one hell of a way to help fight that fear.

But climbing ice on a glacier, with ice picks and stabby crampons on my feet?

Nothing but a rope and an eight-inch screw anchored into the frigid ice, 30 feet above, keeping me from a nasty fall?

In the middle of an empty expanse of snow and ice, in a remote country, far from civilization?

Yes. This was a bit of a challenge. We like doing this anxiety challenging thing, and we like knowing our limits.

But you know what? I can honestly say it was worth every second.

I want to do it again.

And we’ve got the video to prove it happened.

Want to know exactly how to push your own limits, through Iceland ice climbing? Read on, intrepid trekkers!

Solheimajokull glacier in its panoramic glory. No sound but the cold wind.
Solheimajokull glacier in its panoramic glory. No sound but the cold wind.

Arctic Adventures: Literally, these guys saved our butts.

Our guides on this insane adventure were two young Icelandic gentleman named Thor (I’m not kidding) and Arne, which means ‘eagle’.

So Thor and Eagle, of Arctic Adventures, drove us along the southern coast of Iceland from Reykjavik to the edge of the great glacier Mýrdalsjökull (meer-dals-YOH-kuh-tluh–isn’t Icelandic language awesome?).

 

Image (c) USGS www.usgs.gov/blogs/features/usgs_top_story/surveying-ice-and-fire-mapping-icelands-glaciers-and-subglacier-volcanic-calderas/
Image (c) USGS www.usgs.gov/blogs/features/usgs_top_story/surveying-ice-and-fire-mapping-icelands-glaciers-and-subglacier-volcanic-calderas/

Glacial science and geekery

The little green squiggle labeled Solheimajökull, on the bottom, represents the tongue of the great glacier Mýrdalsjökull on which we hiked.

Glaciers are incredible things. Tons and tons of ice grind along the earth’s surface, ice that remains solid year-round from compacted snow, like a geological ice box. Tongues of ice stretch out from the glaciers along narrow valleys, and each year the melt-freeze of these edges will shrink or expand the glacier’s interminable march across the landscape. In its wake, a glacier can leave huge gouges in the earth from boulders dragged along through the ice, and the pebbles that remain in the wake of glacial activity are often polished so smooth you’d think they’d gone through a rock tumbler.

In Iceland, glaciers are most often associated with volcanoes. That’s exactly the case here in Mýrdalsjõkull and its more infamous neighbor, Eyjafjallajökull. (Go ahead. Try to pronounce that one. It took us a long time! If you give up, it’s here.) During the entirety of our hike and Iceland ice climbing adventure, we were in the subterranean presence of Katla, the slumbering volcano beneath our glacier.

At the glacial trailhead

Before Thor and Eagle were about to let our small, intimate group of 10 or so foreigners tromp around a glacier, we had to get the low-down on our equipment.

We had rented ice climbing shoes and waterproof pants ahead of time through Arctic Adventures’ website, but I will say that while the badass La Scarpa mountaineering shoes are absolutely worth it, the waterproof pants were recommended against for being too constricting and heat-trapping. So, word to the wise, don’t worry about those.

Once we had our rental shoes (can I say again that these shoes were awesome? And retail at 500 bucks) we were handed a pick-axe and two hefty crampons for our boots.

The crampons looked like raptor talons: wicked, curved things that would keep our feet planted firmly into the slick ice.

These would prove invaluable as we tromped along the snow-packed path Thor and Eagle paved for us.

Strapping our crampons to our feet. It was a bit like tying your shoe. Your sharp, point shoe.
Strapping our crampons to our feet. It was a bit like tying your shoe. Your sharp, point shoe.

As we crossed the boundary between the rocky trailhead and the ice of the glacier itself, we were presented with the most incredible ice tunnel. One by one we filed through the wormhole in the ice, which was the incredible, bright blue of pure frozen water.

Along the glacial tongue

Thor scouted ahead and led the way. And we walked, single file, like ducklings outfitted for the snow-pocalypse.

Eagle, true to his name, flitted around us independently. He and Thor had a retractable snow stick that let them probe for hidden spots where the snow gave way to dangerous and invisible crevasses.

Our hike took around two hours before we made it to the ice shelf where we would climb, but it was an absolute blip in time as we marveled at what we were seeing. The hike was moderate and accessible for beginners, so exhaustion wasn’t a problem. We did make sure to keep hydrated, and our sunglasses were absolute necessities in the blinding bright snow.

Thor explaining the geology of glaciers, and how not to die while walking along one.
Thor explaining the geology of glaciers, and how not to die while walking along one.
The icy dips and hills of Solheimajokull. When these form a circular pit, they are called 'moulins' after the French for 'mill'.
The icy dips and hills of Solheimajokull. When these features form a circular pit, they are called ‘moulins’ after the French for ‘mill’.
The basalt lava rocks jut out from the icy glacier surface.
The basalt lava rocks jut out from the icy glacier surface.
The only evidence of our lonely path through the snow.
The only evidence of our lonely path through the snow.
Cliffs of basalt rock, formed from the churning and belching activity of the volcano Katla long ago.
Cliffs of basalt rock, formed from the churning and belching activity of the volcano Katla long ago.

Looking around in that glacial expanse, it was easy to feel like we were on the Star Wars ice planet of Hoth, or in an Ice Age, transported back in time to our primordial state. Something awakens on the ice, a thrill of cold air and the outdoors, and a deep connection to our human past, coupled with the infinitesimal feeling of being at the mercy of the planet and its grinding ice.

Iceland ice climbing at its purest–and most exhilarating

The wall of ice. We're going to seriously climb up that thing with our arms and legs?
The wall of ice. We’re going to seriously climb up that thing with our arms and legs?

With ice climbing picks in hand, and crampons on our feet, we challenged ourselves to push to the top of the ice wall. For those of our readers who have seen the HBO series Game of Thrones, or who have read the books by George R.R. Martin, it felt like climbing a miniature version of the infamous icy Wall. My arms were trembling from exhaustion by the time I made it close to the top. Some force, some gutteral voice of the old Icelandic gods, propelled me forward. Or, in this case, upward!

Making my way up the icy wall, one claw-grip at a time.
Brian making his way up the icy wall, one claw-grip at a time.
Jessi at the top!
Jessi at the top!
On the great wall of ice.
Our amazing friend Brian and me on the great wall of ice.
At the top, it's all about letting go. Quite literally.
At the top, it’s all about letting go. Quite literally.

Thor and Eagle offered helpful encouragement along the way, and they made sure that no one climbed the wall without a thorough demonstration of how best to literally kick, toe-first, at the ice surface. Arms flung forward in sharp arcs, and one-two-three smacks of the ice pick drove the wickedly curved tip into the shiny surface.

Do you like snow cones or shaved ice? Well, flecks of ice flew into my face a number of times as I thwacked at the ice with my picks. Thank goodness for the helmets, which were provided, and again, this is where our own sunglasses were really necessary.

The tour doesn’t make you ascend to the top; you simply go up as far as you feel comfortable, which is a nice opt-out for those who get (literal) cold feet.

Once you ascend, you are belayed back down by one of your guides. And the whole process looks something like this.

The only thing keeping us pinned to the ice was a thick rope, anchored at the top by an eight-inch screw that looked like this:

When used correctly, this baby will hold 10 kN of weight. That's over 2000 pounds, or almost 1000 kilograms.
When used correctly, this baby will hold 10 kN of weight. That’s over 2000 pounds, or almost 1000 kilograms.
Eagle deftly uncorks the ice screw. Just behind him is the thirty-foot drop over which he fed the ropes for us to climb.
Eagle deftly uncorks the ice screw. Just behind him is the thirty-foot drop over which he fed the ropes for us to climb.

Skógafoss – A rainbow waterfall with a dark Icelandic treasure

To round out the trip, Thor and Eagle took us to the beautiful, lichen-fringed Skógafoss waterfall. The falls are on the road back to Reykjavik, near the junction between Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull.

Rainbows are common at Skogafoss, but it was so surreal and fantastically beautiful.
Rainbows are common at Skogafoss, but it was so surreal and fantastically beautiful.
The scraggly, otherwordly lichen scenery at Skogafoss.
The scraggly, otherwordly lichen scenery at Skogafoss.
More lichens! Just because they're so cool. This is a great example of primary succession in biology, where lichens and mosses grow on bare lava rock.
More lichens! Just because they’re so cool. This is a great example of primary succession in biology, where lichens and mosses grow on bare lava rock.

Legend says that the first Viking settler in the Skóga area, Þrasi Þórólfsson, buried his treasure in a cave behind the waterfall. Alas, we weren’t quite brave enough to leap behind the rushing cascade to look for it!

Iceland Ice Climbing and Glacier Hikes with Arctic Adventures: Outbound Adventurer rates it two ice pick-wielding thumbs up!

This is a life-changing experience, and it’s one you can’t miss if you’re looking for some adventure in Iceland. From ice climbing to marching across an arctic expanse, magical waterfalls and good company, Arctic Adventures provides a total blast of a trip. And somewhere along the way, we challenge ourselves. We look deep into our past. And we gain an appreciation for the ancient and silent power of the land of ice and fire.

To book your Iceland ice climbing and glacier hiking tour, book Blue Ice with Arctic Adventures.

Have you ever been hiking or climbing on the ice? What other ice climbing locations should we visit? Got any geology questions? Tell us below!

 

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Driving the Golden Circle in Iceland
Knowing Your Limits: I Quit, and That's Okay