This is the Svínafellsjökull glacier in Iceland. Have fun trying to pronounce that! In Icelandic, ‘ll’ is pronounced something like tl, with a flattened tongue and a click in the back of the throat. So I guess you’d say ‘SVEEN-a-FETLS-yok-utl. Or just start confidently with ‘Sveen’ and then tail off. They’ll probably get what you’re referring to.
Anyway, be grateful you’re not trying to say Eyjafjallajökull, which is the volcano that erupted in 2010 and ruined everyone’s holidays with its ash cloud. It took me about a week to learn how to pronounce that one properly. But I digress, and I haven’t even started! Where was I? Oh yes, the Svínafellsjökull glacier.
The Svínafellsjökull glacier is one of 30 outlet glaciers flowing from the Vatnajökull ice cap, which is the largest ice cap in Europe by volume and the second-largest in area. It contains 3,100 cubic kilometres of ice. I have no idea how many G&Ts you could make with that, but I suspect you’d have to have your stomach pumped a fair few times if you tried to drink even a fraction of them.
The glacier is about 4 hours’ drive from Reykjavík, along the southern ring road. I took a 2-day tour from the capital with Extreme Iceland which took in many of the most amazing places to visit in Iceland along the way, but the main focus of the trip was the glacier hike itself.
What happens on an Iceland glacier hike
We were transferred from our comfy minibus into this bright yellow ‘off-road’ bus that took us up to the glacier. We were supplied with helmets, a harness, ice axe, and the all-important crampons.
For a first-timer crampons can be a little tricky to put on. You have to make sure they’re properly fitted to your boots and then you have this ridiculously long strap that has to be wrapped round and over and across in a particular way to make sure the crampons don’t fall off. You also have to make sure you tie the strap properly so it doesn’t come undone and trip you up. Our group had to concentrate very hard to get it right.
But once we were all securely cramponed-up, we were off for our Svínafellsjökull glacier hike.
Is it dangerous to hike on a glacier?
We had to walk in single file and pay careful attention to where we walked. The Svínafellsjökull glacier is riddled with cracks and crevasses, many of them covered over with snow, so you could easily fall in one if you weren’t paying attention. And although we were wearing harnesses we weren’t actually roped together – we had the harnesses in case of emergency and as somewhere to sling your ice axe if you wanted to put it down to take a photo. Unless of course, you want it IN the photo!
What can you see and do on a glacier walk
Up close, glacier ice is astonishingly blue. I know, we all know that glaciers look blue: you could see it from a distance. But this stuff is INCREDIBLE! It’s just about the bluest thing there is. Bluer than a bluebird wearing blue jeans and eating blueberries while riding in a police car with its lights on, on a blue-sky day. And it’s not just any blue, it’s a very pretty shade of blue too.
I think the pattern of ice crystals below could be a print for a very nice dress or maybe a feature wallpaper. Any designers reading this, I’ll happily licence it to you (for a reasonable fee!).
And now for the science part. The blue ice is formed from snow which fell on the glacier aeons ago. Over time, the weight of the snow on top compressed the snow and forced out all the air bubbles. It’s the air bubbles in normal ice that make it look white. But in a glacier, the pressure causes the air bubbles to be squeezed out and larger ice crystals to form. The glacier ice is much denser than normal ice and so it reflects blue lightwaves and absorbs every other colour of the spectrum, making it look blue.
This is Jon, our guide. I chatted to him a lot because he was very friendly and interested in photography. Also the majority of our group were Korean and didn’t speak a great deal of English. Jon was happy to let me take his photo, and I thought he looked great with his red jacket and orange helmet against all that blue.
We walked for about two hours, exploring the surface of the Svínafellsjökull glacier, squeezing through narrow passageways – and stopping a LOT to take photos.
There were about 15 people in our group, plus guides, and we had the entire glacier to ourselves. Almost. I did spot these four striding purposefully across like they had somewhere important to be. I like how they’ve co-ordinated their equipment into primary colours and they’re all walking in step… apart from the straggler at the back.
In spite of all the warnings, once you got used to walking on the ice it didn’t feel scary or dangerous at all and it wasn’t all that tiring. More like a nice scenic stroll somewhere totally unlike anywhere I’ve ever walked before.
What to wear for your glacier hike
As you can see from the photos, you’ll need to wear the same sort of clothes you might wear to go skiing. The trick is layers: even on a mild day it can be quite chilly when you’re surrounded by all that ice. You’ll need baselayer top and bottoms, maybe a mid layer if the weather is especially cold, and on top you’ll need a down jacket and padded or waterproof trousers. Don’t forget a hat, gloves, and sunglasses to protect your eyes from the glare off all that ice.
Of course you won’t be wearing ski boots – instead you’ll need to wear proper hiking boots with thick socks underneath. You’ll attach your crampons to your boots, so it’s important to be wearing proper boots and not trainers.
A small backpack is useful to put your camera and extra layers in, and maybe a snack or two depending on the length of the hike you’re doing.
If you like this story, why not try some of my other Iceland posts?