24 08 2012
The South of Iceland is packed with so many natural wonders you hardly get anywhere before you have to stop and stare. But if there’s one thing worth parking up for, it’s the glaciers that cover much of this volcanic landscape and help give Iceland its strapline of ‘land of ice and fire.’ We just had to get ourselves onto one…
I’m not convinced my boys need a pick axe. They do quite enough damage to each other without giving them weapons. But I’m underestimating the novelty of their surroundings. Today they have a much more interesting target. An ice tongue coming from Vatnajökull; the biggest ice cap outside of the North and South Poles.
Demolishing a glacier with only two small axes requires concentration. They take a small hole and make it bigger. They take a ring of ice blue water and make space for more. They pick at a rift and push their weapons down to see how deep it goes. It becomes clear they don’t see a glacier at all; they see the potential for another crevasse.
An icy welcome
As if there aren’t enough crevasses round here. Drive three hours south of Reykjavik and without even veering off the ring road you are greeted with a parade of glacier tongues, slowly and imperceptibly creeping down from Vatnajökull. Today we are walking up one of its offshoots, Oaefajökull. The glacier isn’t quite falling off the mountain like it used to. “The path we are walking on used to be under the glacier only 40 or 50 years ago,” explains our guide Jón Heider Rúnarson. Global warming is of course, responsible for the change.
We’ve walked in some extraordinary places in our month in Iceland, through shining rhyolite boulderfield, through pock holed lava field, and desolate farmland with grass clinging on against the wind for dear life. But I thought it would be rude to leave Iceland without taking a hike on ice. And luckily Glacier Guides at Skaftafell, (part of the Arctic Adventures family) were happy to oblige, providing guide, crampons and an old school bus to take us there.
It feels strange to walk vertically on ice and it takes a bit of getting used to. But the kids strap on crampons as though they were born wearing them and throw the axes over their shoulders like they’re off on a play date with Snow White.
A moving classroom
We reach an ice tunnel which Matthew and Cameron desperately need to enlarge. Our guide seems fairly relaxed about this and looking around I begin to understand why. It’s not like these tiny humans with their little picks have any real impact on their environment. The glacier goes back tens of kilometres and down hundreds of metres. Lofty 10 -15 metre columns push up to the sun and deep crevasses make it a scary prospect for the uninitiated.
A glacier is constantly moving, forming and reforming, depending on the temperature around and within it. The access areas up to it are all shifting sands too; Jón spent the morning digging a new path up to the glacier as the old one deteriorated during the week. And although he has been head guide here for three years, he has never stepped foot in this ice tunnel before. Ten days ago it was merely a hole in the ground.
A glacier is a geography lesson on the move. We learn about how the melt-water runs underneath, finding the easiest way many metres below the surface. We learn how the spiky columns come to be. We hear about the teams of international scientists monitoring it. We hold the strange mossy glacier mice that roll down slopes where even Arctic foxes fear to tread. And despite its enormity, we learn how the glacier we can see in front of us is only an ice cube compared to what lies above it on the ice cap.
The boys still have a crevasse to make and they only have half an hour left on the glacier. While they chip away at a pristine area of ice, Jón holds the rest of us in turn by the waist as we peer into a hole that nature made without an axe. Then the guide grabs a stone and lets it drop into the depths with a boom.
“I love the sound it makes. I managed to count to five seconds the other day before I heard that,” he says gleefully. While Jón answers questions about the history and movement of the glacier, and how the Grimsvötn Volcano turned the green valley on the south of the ring road into wasteland with a glacial flood in 1996, I have a different question.
“Do all ten year old boys do this to your glacier?” We look at the boys, wiping sweat from their brows as they continue to chip away.
“All of them. All the time.” he replies. “But then I love doing it myself. And everyone has to throw stones.” He picks up another rock and chucks it into the hole. His smile says “Did you hear that?”
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