Travel Report: Into the Glacier Langjökull, Iceland (Jan 2016)

Finally, the promised travel reports begin. In this instalment, I make it to Reykjavík, and the promptly leave to go up into a glacier.

Reykjavík

When I travelled to Vancouver in 2012, I didn’t go straight there. For one thing, I had to get to Murray‘s wedding in Georgia, because I was the best man. I opted to stopover in Iceland, and I really enjoyed it. Icelanders have a certain grounded disposition that I quite enjoy.

This time, on my long journey round to New Zealand, I decided to follow a roughly similar path, again starting in Iceland. Last time I visited, it was the middle of summer. This time it would be the middle of winter. I had hoped to catch the Aurora Borealis (northern lights) while I was there, but no such luck. Low solar activity and cloud cover conspired to dash that hope. Nevertheless, it was a satisfying short stay in one of my favourite countries.

I spent a bit longer in Reykjavík itself than I did last time, but at this time of year it’s a  bit of a party town. I don’t like parties because I’m an anxious, shy, boring, old fart. I mostly like to walk around and look at buildings, mountains, rivers, rock formations, and shipping containers.

Not being able to drive is a proving to be a nuisance at this point in my life, but luckily Reykjavík is well-served by bus tours. I had booked a day tour of the south coast, which included a glacier hike. Due to stormy coastal weather the tour was cancelled by the time my plane landed. I decided instead to go for a tour called Into the Glacier, which promised a drive up a glacier in a massive truck and then a tour inside a man-made tunnel and cave system inside local glacier Langjökull. It was more expensive, but when am I going to get another opportunity like this, to see a glacier up close?

Into the Glacier

After donning my new boots and winter-lined trousers, and a quick hop by minibus to the Reykjavík bus terminal, I made it onto the bus in time for 9AM. After a couple of late passengers showed up, the bus set off on a trip to the highlands north-east of Reykjavík. It was still dark. Our guide gave us a little background on the city and Iceland’s history.

As the sun was rising, we were passing through Borgarnes. First stop was Hraunfossar and Barnfoss, a couple of small unusual waterfalls close to one another.

Hraunfossar, which is a bunch of waterfalls pouring out of a lava field called Hallmundarhraun. That’s just how Iceland do.
For early January, in Iceland mind you, not that much snow or ice. And this is a decent drive inland.

Barnafoss has a lovely folktale attached to it, in which two children tried to cross but instead fell into the waterfall and died. Again, that’s Iceland.

This is part of the river Hvítá at Barnafossar.
Long exposure taken with a gorillapod wrapped around the railing of an iron bridge people were crossing. Went through a few fuzzy exposures before I got these.

Around noon we had a quick stop at a hotel in Húsafell for lunch and a toilet break before transferring to Into the Glacier’s converted NATO missile trucks. With eight-wheel drive and huge tyres, these monsters are well suited for driving up a glacier even in the middle of winter.

This would be an alright place to live.
These trucks used to carry missiles. Now they carry tourists.

Before long we were driving up through a huge snow field littered with moraine and debris from the glacier.

View from Langjökull, a glacier.

It’s hard to explain the vastness of the view from the glacier, I don’t think any of my photos could ever do it justice. You look into the horizon above the mountains, and you see weird black dirt floating in the clouds behind them, then you realise that’s not cloud, that’s actual snow. That’s a glacier. It’s not even that high up, it’s just so wide and so open.

People on a glacier.
People on a glacier.

After a quick stop at a tiny base camp station with snowed-in toilets, we headed up to the ice tunnels. The entrance was rather inconspicuous – also buried in snow. Our guide, I believe his name was Gunnar, invited us inside.

Down a yellow tunnel into a blue LED-lit tunnel.

The first stretch of the tunnel is reinforced with wood, and lit by a string of fairy lights. It’s actually quite welcoming. Inside the air was chilly, but not nearly as bracing as outside.

Some crampon instructions: dig your heels in.
Some crampon instructions: dig your heels in.

We strapped on some crampons for safety, and continued on into the tunnel system. The tunnels are lit with LEDs throughout to prevent melting, something that wouldn’t have been possible until recent years.

Gunnar explaining some background to this particular glacier, and its layers.

Gunnar showed us some of the features of the glacier, including layers of ash from volcanic eruptions of recent years (you remember Eyjafjallajökull surely), and several huge and unnerving crevasses.

Here, you can see a layer of ash from Eyjafjallajökull.

The tunnels form a long circle, with various caves and features along the way. One of these is an ice chapel, with a really nice natural reverb. They are expecting to host weddings in here eventually. Gunnar asked us all to sit in the pews, and he stood at a podium and sang an incredible traditional Icelandic song. I wish I’d had my field recorder out, because it was something else.

Traditional Icelandic singing inside a glacial chapel? I’m in heaven!

There was an English couple on a honeymoon, I took a picture for them, kissing in front of the podium, it was very cute. There was another chamber where the water had melted into a pool. Gunnar walked knee-deep through it. His waterproofs must be strong.

The section under the largest crevasse is reinforced with a wooden bridge, which was a little scary. But actually, everything felt completely safe throughout.

“Hey, don’t worry, this place is absolutely structurally stable. Nothing to worry about. Incidentally though, if you look up, here’s a gigantic crack we found that stretches several storeys high…”

Due to the immense pressure of the snow and ice above, these tunnels are solid. They were bored out over the course of several years using mining drills.

On the left hand side there’s a side-tunnel, and I happened to catch a person’s foot in the photograph as they were walking into it. Well, you’ve heard the story of the Sufi weaver, right?

We finally emerged from the ice tunnels back through the fairy light corridor to the windswept glacier’s surface.

Lights, lights, lights. My god it’s full of lights.

I quickly hopped on the truck, as the wind blew frozen snow into my beard (one of my favourite feelings in the world), and ate a tasty Icelandic fried dough thing, and a carton of chocolate milk with a dumb cartoon cat flexing his bicep like a boss.

This cat is going to mess you up, boy. #kokomjolk

A photo posted by Paul F. Ferguson (@gildermershina) on

Finally we headed back down to Reykjavik to be dropped off at our hotels/hostels, but due to the late booking switch the previous night, mine was missed due to an oversight. They offered to send me off in a mini-van, but I decided to take the walk. It was a nice cool evening after all.

Next stop: Akranes!

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