A glacier hike seemed so far-fetched that it didn't cross my mind until Ragnar brought it up when we'd already come to Iceland. After choosing a glacier hike over an ice cave tour, we booked the earliest available tour with Tröll. Getting ready before 8, we drove eastward for a couple hours along the main road on the southern coast of Iceland to meet our tour group in the car park at the foot of Skaftafell.
The group consisted of about 20 people, split into two separate tours. Under a drizzle, we were each given a helmet, straps, crampons, and a pickaxe. A bus took the lot of us to Virkisjökull, which is one of the many glacial tongues that gradually flow from the Vatnajökull icecap. The bus could only take us so close. From a distance, the light-grey glacier seemed to come from the distant sky, clearly distinguishable from the black cliffs surrounding it.
Walking about 20 minutes on a gravel path around a brown glacial lake and crossing a small wooden bridge across a stream, we arrived at the bottom of an enormous wall of ice. Up close, ice appeared light-blue and was covered with a thin layer of ash. The tour guide explained that the ash was deposited from the famous eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, which caused the closure of air space across much of Europe. We climbed onto the ice, and were taught to put on our straps and crampons, overlooked by a handful of curious black crows. It was hard to contain my excitement of finally being on a glacier, a dream I never thought I had!
A glacier is different from regular snow cover in that it has been accumulated and compressed for so many years that it has started to flow downhill under its own weight. According to our tour guide, the ice we were standing on was formed about 800 years ago and is now about 100 metres thick. As we began our journey uphill, he told us to always walk in single file and warned us never to step on fresh snow, as it could be a thin cover over a fatal crevasse.
The group marched forth. All we could hear was the wind and the scraping of crampons on hard ice. Everything below us and in front of us was a beautiful light blue. To my surprise, there was no predetermined route up the glacier—the ice shifts every day, and every tour is different. Our tour guide would often use his pickaxe to carve stairs out of a smooth ice slope to help our ascent. Sometimes we would walk in a narrow gap between tall walls of blue ice. The drizzle continued, and clouds lay low, obscuring most of the upper parts of the glacier.
The weather forecast did not look good, and our guide was not sure if we'd make it to the highest point of our planned tour. As we paused on a flat surface to marvel at the endless vertical cascade of ice of all shapes, the wind picked up, carrying a shower of frozen rain. The tiny pellets of ice hit hard on our faces, forcing us to turn away for a good few minutes.
Once the wind settled, our guide taught us how to use our pickaxe as support to drink directly from a small stream of melted glacial water. After a good hike, the spotless water tasted absolutely refreshing. The clouds started to clear, and we ascended further onto the glacier, reaching our resting place at the highest point of the tour. As we sat to eat the lunch that we brought, a few hungry crows, which had been following us, paced around us, expectingly. Against the bluish white ice, the crows' pitch black feathers appeared especially shiny.
It was time to descend. We followed a different path downwards, carving new ice stairs and ducking under ice tunnels. With much of the glacier towering behind us, we could see the brown glacial lake and a vast black wetland in the distance, leading into the ocean. Our guide told us that the glacier used to cover most of the wetland, but just 50 years from now, it will retreat and disappear completely due to manmade climate change.
As we traced our gravel path back to the bus, I couldn't help but contemplate how insignificant I felt, overlooked by the solemn and seemingly eternal glacier; with one misstep, I could've been a nameless sacrifice to Nature. Yet collectively, humanity has declared victory over this defenceless blue giant, spelling its inevitable doom.
We returned to our car after this extraordinary experience, soaked from the earlier rain. We changed our clothes and hiked to two waterfalls, Hundafoss and the more famous Svartifoss. Svartifoss is located at the end of the trail, in a small cove surrounded by inverted hexagonal columns of lava rock.
With the clouds parting and the sun illuminating the great plain, we followed the glacial stream back to our car, ready to move on to the next wonder of nature.
Driving for about 45 minutes to the east along the coast, we arrived at a small suspension bridge over a strait connecting Jökulsárlón, a large glacial lagoon, and the Atlantic Ocean. Unlike the brown lake under Virkisjökull, Jökulsárlón was a clear dark blue. A wide glacier spanned the entire valley between two large mountains, with a thick black strip leading deep into the glacier, painted by tour buses over the years. Large icebergs and smaller chunks of ice, which broke off from the glacier, floated on the lake and through the strait.
The icebergs were not lost forever once they flowed into the ocean. As the waves crashed onto the beach, they broke up the icebergs and brought large and small chunks of ice back onto the shore. The black sand beach was adorn with countless pristine blue crystals, giving it the name—Diamond Beach. As snow and ice were compressed in the glacier over the centuries, every remaining bubble of air was forced out, forming the most spotless and transparent ice.
As the sun set, we watched a chain a birds fly into orange clouds over jagged blue ice on the black sand. This was a satisfying conclusion to a showcase of the marvels of the Vatnajökull ice cap—glaciers, waterfalls, a lagoon, and Diamond Beach. We spent the night at a small BnB about 20 kilometres east of Jökulsárlón.