Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Blue Ice - Hiking and Ice Climbing on Sólheimajökull Glacier

Today was a long day - mostly due to the amount of driiving. We started the day at 9am by driving about 2.5 hours to the edge of the glacier. It was a very interesting drive, with beautiful landscape. On one side of the van was mountains, volcanoes and waterfalls. On the other was flat land all the way to the ocean - however we were far enough away that we couldn't see the water. It looked like we were in Saskatchewan, except there were only hay fields.

On the way to Sólheimajökull (the glacier), we were able to see Eyjafjallajökull (the volcano that erupted, interrupting air traffic in 2010), which was really cool. Apparently volcanoes go off in Iceland almost every year, but most are under glaciers and out of the general populace, so instead of resulting in widespread ash they result in flooding of generally unused land. Interestingly, there was a volcanic eruption in Iceland about 3 weeks prior to Eyjafjallajökull - small eruptions that were of little consequence outside of driving in additional tourism. Also interesting is that when Eyjafjallajökull erupted, it didn't read on the seismologist's radars, so they didn't believe the farmer that called it in. He eventually took a picture on his phone and sent it to them, which is the famous picture of the eruption today:

According to our tour guide, while the volcano erupted for over 2 weeks, 'life as usual' resumed for the farmers in the area after about 3 days. The owners of the white farm are one of the largest dairy farmers in the area, and needed to get back to their cattle!

The hike on the glacier itself was absolutely mesmerizing. The formations of ice are absolutely gorgeous. It is unbelievable however how much the glacier has shrunk in the last 35 years. Where the glacier reached the parking lot 35 years ago, it was now about a 5 minute walk to reach the base. Ridiculous! I can't say whether this is a result of global warming or simply the volcanic activity in the area. 

While it was a beautiful day in Reykjavik, glaciers facilitate their own ecosystems, where it is almost always raining. As luck would have it, we were there on one of those rainy days - it was pouring rain almost the entire time we were on the glacier. Lucky for me, I had just purchased a new coat that is completely rainproof, and was wearing my waterproof pants and gortex hiking boots, so I stayed nice and dry. Gilles was wearing a rainproof sweater and his gortex hiking boots, unfortunately however his pants were not the least bit waterproof and he was thoroughly soaked by the end of the day.

To ensure that we managed to get the ice climbing in before anyone's hands were too frozen to attempt it, we walked on the glacier only a short while before trying out ice climbing. The guide helping me asked where I was from, and then said "Oh, it's really flat there right?" and I confirmed that. Then he told me to lean over the edge to start rappelling down. Having no climbing experience, I didn't realize that I first needed to plant my crampons (ice picks on shoes) into the ice before doing so. Before I knew it I was hanging head first from the rope! With the assistance of the guide (and Gilles grabbing the pick-axes I was holding) I was quickly able to right myself. From there, rappelling down was a breeze! 

The way back up however, was not as easy. My main problem was that try as I might I could not bring myself into a position where my legs and hips were right up against the wall and only my upper body was leaning back - I basically crawled up the wall and couldn't seem to get myself out of that position.

Gilles looked much more pro in both instances (although the guide had to tell him twice not to pull on the rope while rappelling down), and had no trouble getting down or climbing back up.

As I have about a hundred gorgeous photos from the day but no storyline to speak of to put with them, here are some of my favorites:

The peaks are formed where the ice is insulated by ash and does not melt as fast, while the weak spots or sinkholes are formed where a rock has landed on the glacier and heated up in the sun, slowly creating a funnel, which eventually acts as a water-release when it rains like in the photo below:

A couple of panoramic shots just because I can:

On the way back from the glacier we were able to make a quick stop at Skógafoss waterfall, which was breathtaking in its sheer magnitude and power. (Or as one of our guides put it 'gravity doing what it does best').

Tomorrow we will take a ferry out to Viðey Island and spend a couple of hours there before heading back to the mainland and then going whalewatching! Hopefully luck will be on our side.