Glacier Walking & Ice Climbing

I went on a tour offered by Arctic Adventures called “Blue Ice” and had my first intimate encounter with one of Iceland’s glaciers, Sólheimajökull. I´ve seen lots of glaciers, touched a few and chewed some ice off one, but never really played around on one.

arriving to the Glacier

It was pouring rain and grey, but the ice was actually glowing blue. Our tour guide, Valdi, explained that it takes 7m of cubic snow to form 1 cm of blue ice. That´s alot of snow. And Sólheimajökull, “Home of the Sun glacier” is one of the fastest moving glaciers in Iceland, receding about 75 cm and growing 65 cm every year. It is decreasing in size rapidly, mostly from a 10 cm annual height loss, and every day the glacier surface changes dramatically.

cramp ons

New moulins and cones form, with melting ice and lava gravel constantly shaping the topography of it, and lagoons of water and underground streams always thinning the ice layer.

We walked with cramp-ons over the glacier, which makes you feel like a small person with oversized feet, and you never quite trust the ground – the ice looks slippery, and the cramp-ons are supposed to give you adequate grip, but you’re always half-prepared to fall flat on your face. The ice is also transparent, sometimes for a meter or two, and you see the ice bubbles below the surface that could or could not be a thin layer of soon-to-break ice.


Once you get used to stomping around, and figuring out the right angle to place your feet when going up or down hill, you realize you’ve been staring at the ground forever and remember to look up. The view is impressive – a scene from the movie Ice Age. Just blue ice, white ice, and black sand forming a massive landscape as far as your eye can see, disappearing into the grey horizon into what you know to be another, larger glacier.

the ice wall

We did some iceclimbing too, clumsily using two ice picks and the cramp ons to try and crawl up a wall of ice. We went one by one, each attached to our guide by a safety line, and awkwardly tried our best to reach the top while the other 8 tourists looked on. Most of us made it half way or more, but you could see the exhaustion in every person when their legs began to shake (“Elvis legs” our guide called it), and the point when one just had to give up, as they couldn’t muster up enough strength to get the ice pick lodged into the wall for another step. I barely made it to the top, and my hands and toes didn’t feel like they were there anymore. Repelling back down was much easier, and on the walk back to the car, I realized walking on ice seemed like a much simpler task.

Arctic Adventures

It’s amazing to think about the far-reaching effects of the tourism industry in Iceland. We’re a tiny country, 103, and only 306,000 people, but this year, around a half a million tourists came and scoured every corner of this country, seeing more in 1 week than most Icelanders see in a lifetime of living here. You notice this on Laugavegur, Reykjavik’s main street where everyother person passes you speaking a different language, and also on highway 1, the ringroad around Iceland littered in rental cars and some serious campervans shipped over with Smyril’s car ferry from Europe.

Working with Ishestar riding tours and also at the Radisson Hotel in Reykjavik, I get a sneak peek into the lives and plans of some of these tourists, fulfilling life-time dreams of traveling in Iceland, riding horses over snow-topped mountains, icecaving in glaciers, and photographing active volcanoes. There’s a tour company called Arctic Adventures that specializes in all the most extreme types of sport tourism, including snowmobiling, 4x4ing, river rafting and white water kayaking. I went with some river guides and Arctic Adventure staff from Drumboddstadir down a class 2 river, experiencing Iceland as totally adrenaline-filled tourist and enjoying the feeling of taking a vacation in Iceland.

they use old American school buses to transport kayakers and kayaks to the top of the river

I was with Frikki, a doctor who river guides in the summer but also happens to be the chairman of the Reykjavik Hunting Association, so we were on our way to the east for the reindeer hunting trip. He knew all the staff at Drumbo, and we kayaked until nightfall, pulling our kayaks and canoe out of the water well after 10pm. We stopped in one gorge to do some cliff jumping, 5m into the glacial river in our dry suits that didn’t keep us so dry but did bob us like stuffed scarecrows back to the surface immediately. That night we ate chicken masala and tapped into a bottomless keg, exchanged shoulder massages and then went into the sauna together where swimming suits are banned. I discreetly wrapped myself in a towel, but tried very hard to remain casual as 3 naked men posed like Troy all around me.

The next day we drove north to Skagafjordur, where a glacier river called Jokulsa has a west and east arm both great for kayaking and river rafting. We joined a tourist group and took 2 rafts down the class 4 east river, and drifted through the intimidating rapids with names like the Green Room, which was more of a 4+class rapid. We made it through the 3 drops and boiling currents without flipping, but watched in horror as the second boat tipped on the first waterfall and everyone got sucked under and dragged out. Paddles went flying and the safety kayaks had to rescue all the stranded souls, but eventually we were all in good enough spirit to go cliffjumping again.

kayaking is a pretty colourful riversport

We stayed at the staff house again, grilled a few hamburgers, and crashed on the couch. The staff there were from Canada, England, Nepal, France and Guatemala, creating an international hostel vibe in this remodeled barn in the middle of farm country. We were a few kilometers away from Varmahlíð, and stopped at the natural hot pot Fossalaug on our way north. We continued roadtripping our way East, driving out from Skagafirdi to Akureyri through Olafsjordur and Hofsos, stopping in at Frikki’s uncle’s farm to have the best smoked arctic char I’ve ever tasted. We were invited in for coffee and cake, and got to peek into the private life of farming. We also visited his aunt, glimpsing into her arts and crafts life out of a remodeled warehouse where she harvests down feathers from eider ducks and turns them into the clothes as soft as clouds.

To get to Iceland and go on your own Arctic Adventure, its pretty easy to find cheap flights here.