Finding myself in the ice cave, surrounded by ice on all sides, with the clear ice mixed in with different shades of blue.
The day started off well, with an incredible sunrise and a bit of blue sky appearing through the clouds as we started the journey from Vík to Skaftafell. A huge difference from the thick and constant snowfall we had driven through the day before to get to Vík! Iceland’s alien landscape spread out for miles on every side, a white desert speckled with black volcanic rocks and glaciers and mountains in the distance.
Arriving at Skaftafell, we met our guide Franzi and we did a short round of introductions. We got all kitted out with harnesses and helmets (safety first, kids!), picked up our ice axes and crampons and headed out towards the glacier. We were going to be hiking on Skaftafell jökull, an outlet glacier of the mighty Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier.
We followed a winding path from the visitor centre out to the start of the glacier. Along the way, we were treated to some awesome views of the glacier stretching into the distance, deep blue tinges appearing in patches beneath the heavy layer of snow covering the ice.
At the base of the glacier we fitted our crampons and Franzi gave us a quick safety briefing. To my surprise, the ice axe isn’t just used for carving your name in the ice or waving around pretending to be a viking – it’s mainly used as a kind of walking stick to help keep your balance on steep slopes. I still waved it around and pretended to be a viking though!
I marvelled at the landscape as we started our hike across the glacier, over ridges and through narrow crevasses. The guides go out on expeditions at the start of winter to find safe routes that they can take tourists on. It’s especially dangerous in snowy conditions as a thick layer of snow can easily cover a hole and a 10 metre drop!
We arrived at our ice cave, and Franzi told us that it had just formed in September – this is the reason the tours are only run in winter. The guides scout out new caves as well as safe routes on their expeditions. Because the glacier is constantly changing – advancing and melting at the same time, new caves can appear as old ones melt away and become unsafe.
She explained what a glacier is: the ice is formed by layer upon layer of packed snow rather than just frozen water so that means we were in fact standing on ice that’s probably around 800 years old! Despite its age, it is also extremely pure water. In fact, all tap or bottled water you find in Iceland is pure, clean glacier water!
Finally, the moment we’d all been waiting for had arrived: we headed into the ice cave! It was a breath-taking moment, finding myself surrounded by ice on all sides, with the clear ice mixed in with different shades of blue. It was a surreal experience, from the insane colours to the absolute silence in the cave.
Another highlight was the basic photo opportunity – you know, the one in all the travel brochures, where you’re gazing up in awe at the ice with your headtorch shining on it. I think I nailed it, to be honest.
Before leaving the cave, Franzi asked for a volunteer for another picture. Of course, it had to be me! As I mentioned, the glacier is an everchanging landscape and this was a perfect example: one wall had started melting away, and there was a large enough gap for me to slide under the chunk of ice for another cool photo: tiny head Dave – not my best look, but I have to admit that it is funny.
Leaving the cave we carried on hiking over the glacier, making frequent stops to admire the scenery as well as take pictures.
One of these stops was in front of a mysterious looking tunnel twisting downwards which, unfortunately, our guide wouldn’t let me jump into. She did however explain that as the glacier advances and changes, this could become an ice cave that tourists will be able to go inside. Maybe next time I’m back in Skaftafell.
We were treated to an amazing sunset as we left the glacier and removed our crampons, then walked back, laughing and joking the whole way.
An absolute must-do if you’re planning a trip to Iceland in the winter time!