Ice Ice Baby…. Adventures in Vatnajökull National Park

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View from the hotel room

From the rattling window of our dogdy overpriced hotel the morning dawned brightly with vivid pinks and a sparkling blue sky over the vast snow filled landscape, the evening of high wind had smoothed out all the snow forms. The rooms at the Fosshotel Nupar were clean and basic …. the view made up for the terrible food and lack of facilities… but not perhaps the exorbitant prices… the choices are extremely limited in the area despite the many attractions! We were definitely not keen on lingering in the hotel….

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The not so pretty to look at Foss Hotel Nupar

Our first destination was the Vatnajökull National Park, to the The Skaftafell visitor centre, from there we did a beautiful 7km hike up to to the viewpoint at Sjónarnípa, where we had a great view of Hvannadalshnúkur (2119m), Iceland´s highest peak.

We continued on the trail in calf deep snow, and wound around the other side of the ravine to the beautiful Svartifoss waterfall, which is hugged by magnificent columnar basalt. The Viking had brought his ice axes with us; it made him happy, and me think I had better not whinge too much…. apparently you never know when an ice pick will come in handy!! We walked with some good quality ice spikes (a wise investment), which made navigating the icy areas of trail much easier. Once we made it to the waterfall… the Viking took my camera and had a burst of creativity and a desire it seemed to ruin the one other photographer on locations shots… he was like “Where’s Wally” popping out under the waterfall at the most inopportune times… I could here a lot of muttered curses from said photographer. But there was no stopping the Viking…. he had an axe and an expensive toy… as you can see below…. fun was to be had….and some fantastic shots!

 

Skaftafell is a popular destination for visitors in Iceland. Visiting in winter means less crowds, no leaves on the trees & the outlet glaciers that crawl down to the lowland change their colour completely from white to blue. This change in colour correlates with fewer daylight hours. All the provided information suggested this was worth bearing in mind as you don´t want to be caught by the darkness when hiking …. unless you are with a Viking who just figures darkness adds more excitement…. but I shall return to this salient point shortly….

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A teaser … Jökulsárlón Glacier… stay tuned for more pics!

After the beautiful hike we headed off on the 45minute drive to the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon ( I will post photos of the beautiful lagoon in a seperate post…). I had booked an afternoon Ice-cave excursion with a typical local tour company; Glacier Guides- leaving from the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon at 1pm. Despite much trawling of the internet I had had no luck trying to find a small tour, this particularly tour was with 25 other tourists and involved a spectacularly large large tyred mini bus trip and 1/2 hr  with 25 foreign tourists in the Crystal Cave. I was a little worried about the Viking behaving amongst the tourists… he has a little bit of a rebellious/independent streak to put it lightly. But the lure of the spectacular ice caves that are only accessible in winter was too strong, we did not want to miss them. Unfortunately when we arrived the tour was over booked, the Viking took one look around the bus at the faux fur & metallic shiny quilted jackets of our fellow tourists and swiftly decided we would sacrifice out spots and try and get to the caves ourselves, generally you need a special vehicle with incredibly massive tyres… The Viking was game and wanted a crack at the particularly gnarly track into the base of the glacier where the caves were situated. After a quick chat to the driver who was fairly sure we would not make it the whole way down the track to the cave,  we headed off. Our trusty jeep and Iceland’s Stig ready for what was to come… well sort of.

The “road”/track to the cave was unmarked;  high piles of snow on either side of some wheel ruts was all there was to show it was a popular track. To me it looked fairly impassable for our trusty little jeep; but the Viking had his steely blue gaze fixed on the snow ahead and sexy stubble covered jaw clenched with determination…. We ploughed on, quite literally, through thick snow and some deep water logged pools, which seemed to hide large holes…. where I was quite concerned we would leave our sump or even worse… We navigated the path for about 10mins, before we came across a large pool with a steep entry… and got stuck!! Lucky for us another larger private vehicle with more suitably sized tyres was not far behind, and like every good Icelander came equipped with everything needed to swiftly pull us out and leave us to ponder our options. Our choices were to hike the unknown distance (probably about 4kms) to the cave in deep snow and high wind, or undertake a noble retreat, regroup and reassess. After pondering the fading light and the unknowns… luckily the Viking decided it would be somewhat foolhardy to attempt the hike to the cave and we headed back to the Skaftafellsjökull glacier where the Viking had other plans…..

 

On our way back towards Skaftafell, the Viking noticed a car down a similar road to the one we had been down that looked very stuck… apparently it is a national sport pulling out tourists from inappropriate places… with over 1.5million tourists and 300,000 locals…. the locals are kept pretty busy… even lumbered with the occasional rescue of one of their own!! 😉 We found a sweet Korean couple had taken a rather random detour, only to be helped by some french tourists… who were helping more with moral support than any practical aid. The Viking swiftly found the manual for the hire car, found the tow point, sorted everything, and then the Koreans and French all smiled nicely and refused to get in the car… so I had to jump in the driver seat wait for the viking to drag us back on to the tracks, and reverse it the 1km down the road.

Back on track we headed back to the Skaftafell Visitor Centre where in the fading light we set off for the Skaftafellsjökull glacier. I was expecting us to walk to the base of this magnificent glacial tongue and admire its magnificence, the Viking had other plans.

This glacier tongue is an outlet of the immense Glacier Vatnajökull, and the ice is 1,000 years old. Glaciers are made up of fallen snow, not frozen water, the weight of the snow compresses the snow below as it keeps accumulating. The ice eventually gets so compressed that most of the air is forced out of it. This is what causes glacial ice to appear blue. A glacier is a river of ice, it flows, the highly compressed layers of ice are very flexible. At locations where a glacier flows rapidly, giant cracks called crevasses are formed. This is why it’s so dangerous to walk on a glacier – the crevasses get sometimes covered over by snow.

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We hiked swiftly to the base of the glacier, to a vantage point and a sign that didn’t fill me with confidence… it seemed to be illustrating the variety of deaths available; with pleasant notes like “Fatal Accidents have occurred due to collapsing blocks of ice, falls into crevasses, and hypothermia. Some have never returned from a glacier walk, their fate still unknown”.  We headed off the track towards the glacier to an area which was usually a lake, but now hopefully solid ice. With instructions to tread gently in the footsteps of the Viking we gingerly made away across the not as frozen as I had hoped ice to the base of the large blue waves of ice. At this point the Viking armed me with an ice ax and instructions on how to clutch it to my chest and lock my arms if I happened to fall down a crevasse or off a steep section.

We climbed steadily up the rolling ice waves, sometimes using the axe to pull ourselves up, and depending on our trusty spikes to stop us slipping on the hard blue ice. There was a sizeable amount of squawking and whining on my part… not being super enthusiastic about heights, or having much of an idea of glaciers… and still a little concerned about becoming a “fate unknown”. It was like being on another planet once the sun slipped away and the twilight took over; with the fading glow of the sunset turning the distant mountains into candy pink coloured peaks looming behind the ocean of rolling waves of turquoise ice .  The texture of the ice was amazing, pitted and patterned. Hopefully the photos below will give some idea of the beauty, vastness and scale of these giant ice forms… After a small exploration up on the glacier, we headed back  down the glacier, trying to follow our paths.. I must admit to feeling a sense of relief when we made it back to the well worn marked paths and back to the car, as the last of the light slipped away. Hungry and tired we headed to the nearest food venue… a burger joint at the petrol station… for some much needed sustenance before heading back to our salubrious hotel to rest before another day of adventures.

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