At last, I joined a glacier hike tour on Sólheimajökull glacier in South-Iceland. As even though I have lived here in Iceland my whole life I had never gone glacier hiking before. I have been inside the ice cave tunnel in Langjökull a couple of times and visited the ice-caves - and walked to the edge of several glaciers, but never really experienced a glacier up close and personal until now.
Sólheimajökull, which translates into Sun World Glacier, is an icefall or glacial tongue which extends down from Iceland's fourth largest glacier, Mýrdalsjökull ice cap. Hidden beneath the ice cap one of Iceland's most notorious volcanoes lurks - Mt. Katla, which is due to erupt!
The tour I joined started in Reykjavík and several stops were made on the way by the beautiful waterfalls on the south coast. Here we drove below many a notorious volcano, like Eyjafjallajökull glacier.
I am sure that its name rings a bell to many people, as it erupted back in 2010 and its huge ash-cloud caused havoc in air traffic around the world. The name, Eyjafjallajökull, also proved to be a tongue twister for everybody but the Icelandic nation ;)
Before we started on the glacier hike on Sólheimajökull glacier we were provided with sturdy glacier crampons, a harness, and an ice-axe. Everybody was fitted for the right size of crampons and off we went in two groups towards the edge of the glacier - some 800 meters away from the parking lot.
It took us some 20 minutes to reach the edge of the glacier, where we got a lesson in how to strap on the crampons. We got good help from the glacier guide as it is very important that the crampons fit you right. We then hiked upwards for 20-30 minutes until we reached the more even part of the glacier.
The glacier hike is moderate in difficulty depending on how fit you are - I was a bit out of breath during the upward hike, I must admit. And I have heard from other travellers that they found the upward hike to be a bit difficult.
We had to form a single line and follow the guide closely. We stomped along like the 7 dwarfs holding an ice-axe in one hand all excited about actually hiking on a glacier; the ice-axe giving us the distinctive air of being experienced glacier hikers :)
What help these glacier crampons were. Without them, we would have slid and fallen over and not been able to ascend the glacier at all. When we reached our destination on top the glacier was much whiter and evener. I was in awe of the sheer beauty and contrasts of the white glacier and the surrounding mountains.
Around us we saw other groups of tiny colourful people either ascending or descending from the glacier - this gave me a sense of the massive size of these glaciers, even though we were only exploring a very small part of it.
I was glad when we stopped for a couple of minutes to have a look back at the glacial lagoon and wait for the other group. Here we could take our first photos, as on the upward hike we had to concentrate on where we were stepping and follow the guide closely.
You will notice that the first part of the glacier hike is through a blackish area - this is lava ash and it came as a surprise to me how much ash there was on this first part of the glacier.
Again we are talking about the Eyjafjallajökull eruption back in 2010 with tonnes of lava ash from the eruption going into the air and covering the surrounding areas, including Sólheimajökull glacier.
And of course, there are ash layers in the glacier from different volcanic eruptions through the centuries.
In many places, we had to jump over small creeks which came streaming down from the melting glacier. And in several places, I spotted blue ice! I love blue ice and tried to get a glimpse of it during our glacial walk, without putting myself in danger though.
The guide told us that the ice on the glacier might be up to 500 years old with the blue ice showing the oldest parts of the glacier.
The guide was very informative and told us about the geology of the volcanoes and glaciers and how the glaciers are shrinking more and more with each year. I learnt a lot on this hike and was much wiser when we descended from the glacier.
In 2018 according to an unofficial study by students in Hvolsskóli, the glacier shrank 110 metres in 2018! In 2010 there was no lagoon in front of the glacier and since then the glacier tongue has shrunk some 379 metres. And the glacial lagoon has a depth of some 60 metres!
I was getting so warm from the upward hike and the warm September sun (10 degrees C) that I shed the layers of clothing I was wearing and stripped down to my T-shirt. It is only a couple of centigrades colder on the glacier than down-below, and with the reflection from the sun, it was relatively warm. Always dress warmly though for glacier hikes as the weather can change in a jiffy.
Seeing that this was my first glacier hike I was a little bit afraid of being on top of an actual glacier. We Icelanders are brought up to fear the dangers of the glaciers - especially the glacial crevasses. And during the whole time of the glacier hike I was subconsciously humming an Icelandic nursery rhyme, "Sofðu unga ástin mín" which we learn at school, part of which tells us about the shrieking sounds of the deadly glacial crevasses!
These shrieking sounds are real as the icefall glaciers are on the move and sounds can often be heard from them as they slowly but constantly move under their own weight! So utmost care must be taken on the glacier hikes and one should NEVER ever venture on a glacier hike without a trained glacier guide, many of which are a part of or have trained with the Icelandic rescue teams.
A 25-year old Swedish photographer ventured alone on Sólheimajökull glacier back in 2011 and fell into a shallow crevasse and was found dead 4 days later! I reiterate the dangers of going alone on a glacier - we locals know about the dangers and want our foreign guests to be safe in Iceland. So always go on a glacier hike in a group with a trained glacier guide and stay safe.
The trained glacier guides know the glaciers well and they know where the deadly glacial crevasses and black holes are to be found and stay well away from them. Falling into a glacial crevasse has killed too many people in Iceland, including a schoolmate of mine, who lost her life on Langjökull glacier. So let's respect the glaciers and never take any chances here.
In one location the glacier guide allowed us to look into a glacial crevasse while holding tightly onto us - I opted out and took photos of the others instead. The guide took photos of the inside of the glacial crevasse for me - see my photo above. I can live without looking into a glacial crevasse ;)
At one point I noticed a small glacial waterfall - brown with glacial debris, but pretty all the same where it cascaded into the glacial creek and complemented the black, white and blue colour of the glacier.
By this small waterfall, we stopped for a while to try out ice-climbing, and that is when the ice-axe came in handy. We got instructions on how to manoeuvre and use the ice-axe and up the sturdy glacier wall, the group went, one by one.
Ice-climbing is not included in the Solheimajokull Glacier Hiking and South Coast Tour-Easy Difficulty, but we got to try it out all the same as this was an introductory tour. Ice climbing is, on the other hand, included in the South Coast day tour - Waterfalls, glacier hiking, and ice climbing.
There are many various combinations available for the glacier hike on Sólheimajökull, f.ex.:
Walk through Ice and Fire - Glacier Hiking and Hot Springs - Medium Difficulty (which will take you to the popular Reykjadalur valley where you can bathe in a hot river) and
Sólheimajökull sporting a beautiful rainbow
I often take my foreign visitors to the south-coast and include Sólheimajökull glacier in the tour. I then just walk with them alongside the glacier lagoon to the rim of the glacier and back - just to show them what a glacier looks like.
I am happy that I was finally able to hike on the glacier after having been so many times so close to it. It is a totally different experience standing on top of the glacier looking down!
We spent all in all 3 hours on this adventurous hike. It is important to dress warmly before entering the glacier and wear good hiking boots. Wear waterproof clothing and a cap and bring something to drink. Boots and rain gear can also be rented from Icelandic Mountainguides.
The tour I joined is called the Sólheimajökull glacier hiking & South Coast Tour with transport from Reykjavík. But you can also rent a car in Reykjavík and drive to Sólheimajökull glacier on your own and join the Sólheimajökull glacier walk tour by the glacier itself (parking lot).
Ice climbing can also be included in the glacier walk, which departs at 10:00, 12:00 and 14:00. There is a new tour out Full Day Glacier Hike | Departure from Solheimajokull Glacier. And you can even go kayaking on Sólheimajökull glacier lagoon now!
Also, check out the Katla Ice Cave which is open all year round.
Sólheimajökull glacier is situated some 158 km away from Reykjavík, which is around 2.5 hours of driving with many, many interesting stops on the way.
Have a lovely time on the glacier hike :)