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Travel Guide: Glacier climbing in Iceland

8th Nov 2011 1:53am | By Editor

Iceland's Sólheimajökull glacier stretches for 10km - climbing it is both treacherous and inspiring, says CONAL HANN

Our expedition set off in the pre-dawn light. Not that this was an achievement. We were in Iceland, less than a fortnight before the winter solstice, and it was 10am as we drove towards Sólheimajökull glacier. This was trekking at a reasonable hour.

But what we gained by way of a sleep in, we lost in terms of comfort. On arrival at the glacier we spend the next half an hour kitting up, with windproof jacket upon fleece upon thermal, helmet on top of beanie. Hardest to get used to, though, was the safety harness that sat like an uncomfortable nappy, and the crampons attached over our boots.

Iceland is renowned for its glaciers. One of them, Vatnajökull, is the largest in Europe. The Sólheimajökull outlet glacier, which we're hoping to conquer, stretches for 10km towards the coast from the far bigger Myrdalsjökull ice cap, some 30km across. Glaciers represent just one aspect of Iceland's enchanting barren landscape. We were parked 7km from the coast and yet, with volcanic rocks the only thing dotting the landscape in between, the sea was easily visible.

Once Karl, our guide, has shown us the basics of using a pick axe and walking with crampons (keep the soles of your feet parallel to the surface), we're all tied together in a line. Not a way of persuading stragglers to keep up, the idea of the system is that if someone slips, they're being held up by the people in front and behind them in the line. It's a difficult exercise in teamwork, as it requires concentration not to let the rope in front or behind you get too taut or slack.

Still, it's better than the alternative. Setting off up the glacier, it's not long before we see our first sink-hole, which has been carved into the ice by meltwater running down the glacier. That's the thing about glaciers, they're permanently in a state of flux, as conditions above and below the surface, where Iceland's geothermal springs run, alter the shape of the landscape.
This, Karl says, is the greatest joy of glacier climbing. I never get bored of coming up here," he says. "Every time you do, it's different. It means new challenges for climbing, and a new take on the scenery."

It's also why glacier climbing can be so dangerous. Today, we're blessed with near perfect conditions, with a light layer of snow covering the ice, which makes it easier to walk on, but not so deep to make hidden crevasses an issue. "The classical danger [of climbing a glacier] is falling through an unstable surface layer of snow into a crevasse or a sink-hole carved by meltwater," Karl says. "On Sólheimajökull, though, the biggest danger is usually falling on the slippery surface and sliding into a deep sink-hole or a shallow crevasse."

Climbing the ridges the scenery is distractingly pristine. The bluest of winter skies overlooks smooth white hills in all directions, giving the impression we're the first to climb this wondrous landscape - well, since the latest snowfall, anyway. As the ridges we're negotiating become narrower, however, attention is quickly turned back towards the rather important task of keeping balance. Following a zigzagging route between crevasses, I'm quite glad it's Karl leading the way. He admits that even the most experienced glacier climber must remain alert.

"Going down requires even more patience," he says. "When you're going up, you never have to go any higher, but when you're coming down, you have to find a way. You can often come down to a point where there's no way through, and then have to go back a long way [to find a new route]."

After a morning spent avoiding crevasses, Karl decides it's time we spent some time exploring one, with a spot of ice climbing. He finds a sink-hole shaped like a squished U, which makes it possible to walk in from one direction, and provides a steep 10-foot wall to climb out of. Wiping the snow from the crevasse walls, the deep blue colour is beautiful, and reminds us we've spent the past couple of hours walking on a giant block of ice.

Unlike rock climbing, where you're looking for existing holds to help pull yourself up, ice climbing requires creating your own, through the use of two pick axes and your crampons. It's hard work, as it requires a short, sharp blow to chip the ice. Keeping three sturdy points of contact, as Karl recommends, is easier said than done: while I'm concentrating on chipping the ice with my axe, one foot comes loose and I'm suddenly scrambling for grip. Although I recover and eventually haul myself up, with only minimal help from Karl, it's clear from the ache in my muscles that this sport requires some hardcore training.

Likewise the glacier climbing business, as legs becoming noticeably tired on the way down the ice cap. Trudging footsteps result in a couple of slippery moments, but thankfully, no one comes a cropper. By the time we're back on the bus, though, trying to readjust to life without crampons, I'm quite glad to see the sun setting by 4pm. I could use an early night."