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I just had to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory didn’t I? My first steps had been hesitant but I had gained confidence throughout the two hour walk. It was perhaps during our final 300 yards when I suddenly tripped over my bulky footwear and fell most ungracefully, face forward. While I survived with only a slight scratch on one hand and two bruised knees, the worst was that the crampons I was wearing, together with the three layers of trousers to keep out the cold meant I couldn’t quite get my feet back onto the ground. A couple of fellow travellers had to unceremoniously haul me back up to vertical else I would probably even now still be rolling around on the ice. Such is life walking on a glacier in Iceland.
What to do in winter in Iceland
Winter is not nominally the best time for outdoor activities in Iceland. In December, there is a scant four hours of daylight with the sun barely creeping over the horizon. While Iceland isn’t as cold as you might imagine (daily temperatures on the coast average at around the freezing mark), there is often rain and a howling wind to contend with. However as intrepid travellers we were determined to do something other than hang around the temptingly trendy bars of Reykjavik during our short Iceland visit.
Our first trip was spectacularly unsuccessful; despite boasting an 80% chance of seeing Whales in winter our bay trip bobbing around on a small boat was both notable for the lack of whales and for the -8 temperature. Standing outside in a survival suit for 3 hours looking at the waves bobbing up and down wasn’t my favourite moment of the trip.
How about getting close and personal with some ice?
Icelandic Mountain Guides offer a fully accompanied trip to take an ice walk up a glacier; given that this is something we can’t do in Yorkshire (even on the most inclement days), it was a must do experience. What we had failed to account for was the long journey by coach through the Icelandic slush in the dark for two and a half hours to a spur of the Sólheimajökull. While the bus driver tried valiantly to keep us awake with recorded tales of the thermal electricity that Iceland enjoys, I perhaps unsurprisingly fell asleep almost instantly only to wake up at light and near our destination. The return trip was the same; an experience I describe as "magic bus". The bus was modern and (as my sleeping pattern can confirm) comfortable.
At a local service station we were invited to buy lunch (as it happened lunch was carried around the glacier with no opportunity to stop and eat it, but I’m sure it enjoyed the journey in my rucksack) and be fitted for our crampons. On our arrival we could see how the ice had been in retreat; the car park and bus stop prepared a mere 5 years or so ago stopped about a half mile before the edge of the glacier. Our coach took us up a track smoothed out of the volcanic rock so we didn’t have too much of a walk.
At the edge of the ice walk, I got rather frustrated with the fiddly crampons, the ice pick and a rope harness we had to wear. Together with rucksack, camera, gloves and all the rest of it, I felt I needed the hands of an octopus to manage it all but eventually all went OK.
The first step is the scariest
Having broken my wrist falling on ice before now I wasn’t too confident in just stepping on out there, but helpfully being rather rotund was a benefit as I discovered the teeth of the crampons attached to the soles of my boots had no difficulty in cutting into the ice. The tiny Chinese woman of about 5 stone in our party of 6 had to stomp around like Corporal Jones in Dads Army so as to avoid sliding off the glacier to potential oblivion. Snigger? Only perhaps 50% of the time.
The glacier itself is a strange mix of clear and clouded and covered in places with snow, ash or both. If you are lucky you can look down over a cube of clear ice some feet thick, and we also appreciated the different hues of the ice (the bits with little oxygen are the bluest).
In terms of walking in crampons, just imagine you are John Wayne or you have some kind of horrid and painful scab on your testicles (it’s probably easier for men to imagine the latter). A wide gait helps no end. There are different techniques for going downhill (try and lean slightly backwards from the knees – as my tumble attests; this wasn’t as easy as going up) and traversing a slope (lower foot sideways, which I managed fine). It’s important to wear gloves as otherwise you could more easily cut your hands, and make sure you keep a keen eye out for your crampon ties undoing themselves as you walk around.
We found time to look down into a few holes in the glacier, although unfortunately as snow had fallen that morning some of the best holes were covered in a layer of snow. Beware of walking on bare snow as they can hide the deepest crevasses. The deepest hole we walked by was around 40 metres deep so it is easy to wander off and get yourself into serious trouble, although in fact they have only ever had one death (a solo traveller a few years ago who slithered an impressive way up the glacier without crampons, and then died of exposure as he couldn’t then get off it.
We were also lucky to see the site in brief sunshine; it made a real difference to the glacier and we could see the different hues of blue and brown in the ice. Of course a photograph never really gives the site justice, and given the wet weather, restrictive gloves, and slightly difficult walking conditions I was carrying just my “snapper” rather than my SLR.
Although our walk sounds rather adventurous I have to say that as long as you have a reasonable level of fitness and have the ability to lift your legs quite clear (so as to give the crampons better grip) then you will manage this walk. We wandered over the glacier for about two hours, and on top there was some slow time allowing us to get ready for our walk, and then a bit of time listening to instructions.
Our day trip cost in the region of £100 including the bus trip out of Reykjavik, the guide and equipment hire. As it was a full day out, we felt the tour presented reasonable value (particularly as Iceland is not the land of veritable bargains) and it certainly offered an experience I couldn’t get anywhere but in icier climates.