Sólheimajökull is an outlet glacier of the mighty icecap of Mýrdalsjökull on the South Coast of Iceland. It is one of the most easily accessible glaciers to reach from Reykjavík, just 158 kilometres (98 miles) away.
Photo above by Adri Ramdeane
For those who are based in Reykjavík, it is by far the favourite spot on which to take a glacier hike, competing nationally for popularity only with Svínafellsjökull in the south-east. It is also an optional trip or otherwise visited on many self-drives and holiday packages, such as this 6-Day Guided Vacation. Those who rent a car can drive to and approach it, but not climb it unless on a guided excursion.
About eight kilometres long and two kilometres wide (five miles long and just over a mile wide), Sólheimajökull is an impressive feature. Due to the way it descends from Mýrdalsjökull, however, without a clear distinction between the two, it appears much bigger.
Mýrdalsjökull itself has many other outlet glaciers; overall, it is the fourth largest ice cap in Iceland. Beneath its thick surface is one of the country’s most infamous volcanoes, Katla.
The nearby Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010 causing widespread havoc at European airports. Throughout history, eruptions in Eyjafjallajökull mean that Katla will also erupt, and so the volcano is due to go off soon. However, volcanoes and all seismic activity in Iceland is highly monitored, meaning that it is perfectly safe to travel around the area and even take an ice cave tour in the glacier above.
Sadly, like all the glaciers in Iceland bar one, Sólheimajökull is shrinking rapidly. A glacier lagoon at its base reveals how quickly it is receding: the length of an Olympic swimming pool every year. It seems like this change is already an irreversible consequence of climate change, and it may be gone within decades.
Visitors to Iceland should, therefore, make sure they witness the ice-cap while it is still with us.
Sólheimajökull has several distinctive traits that separate it from other glaciers. Firstly, it is incredibly easy to find, laying just off of the Ring Road that encircles Iceland. Secondly, it is not surrounded by tall mountains, meaning those who ascend it can attain incredible views of the South Coast. Thirdly, it is home to many walls of ice that can be climbed up with ice axes on certain tours.
There are also crevasses that snake across the surface, spectacular ice ridges and formations, and a vivid colouration that dances between a gleaming white, electric blue, and ash black. Occasionally, you will even find an ice cave, though these can never be guaranteed.
A river runs from the meltwater of the glacier tongue, called the Jökulsá á Sólheimasandi. This river runs through a glacial outwash plain - otherwise known as a black-sand-desert - of Sólheimasandur to the nearby ocean.
Many day tours run from Reykjavík to Sólheimajökull, for glacier hikes or as part of a greater South Coast tour.
Greater South Coast tours include visits to other features, such as the incredible waterfalls of Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss, the black sand beach Reynisfjara, and some even reach Vatnajökull National Park and the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon.
Hidden crevasses and ice caves, slippery surfaces, and the threat of rock- or ice-falls all pose dangers on glacier hikes, but glacier guides have to pass several training courses to deal with these eventualities, making the activity quite safe for those in a fit state of health.
All guests are equipped with helmets, ice axes, and crampons, and should arrive wearing warm clothes and sturdy hiking boots.
It is forbidden to ascend glaciers without the correct equipment or training, for your safety and the safety of others. There have been injuries and deaths on Sólheimajökull before, and glacier guides have had to risk their lives to rescue those who flouted the rules.