Anxious Adventuring: Glacier Hike
Iceland offers an endless array of opportunities for adventure. Unfortunately, I only had a few days in Iceland, so I had to prioritize what I wanted to see. I packed a lot into each day but had to determine what I would do on my final day in the country. I narrowed it down to something related to volcanoes (such as lava tube exploring) or glaciers. In the end, I chose a glacial activity since volcanoes will be around for a while but glaciers are in critical global decline. Hence, I decided to go on a southern coast day tour of Iceland which included a glacier hike. The tour company that I used for the day trip was Gray Line, but there are many day trip tour companies in Iceland. The glacier that I visited was Solheimajokull, which is part of Mýrdalsjökull an ice cap that sits on top of the Katla volcano. I was informed by the guide that as a result of climate change, there will not be any glaciers in Iceland in 100- 150 years. Visitors to Solheimajokull can see how much the glacier has retreated in just the last ten years and it was melting as we walked on it.
I was not particularly anxious about the glacier hike, even though I have never been on a glacier before. My primary concerns were that it was going to be cold, slippery, and physically challenging. About five people from our larger South Coast tour opted for the hike, with the vast majority continuing on for more sedate adventures. When we arrived, we were outfitted with a harness, crampons, and ice axe. The instructions did not feel quite as intense as the snorkeling instructions at Silfra. We were told not to shuffle our feet, to trust the crampons, and how to hold the ice axe in a stable manner (i.e. not impale ourselves or others). With those instructions, we set off towards the glacier. It was about a fifteen minute hike from the parking lot to the beginning of the glacier. Once we were close enough, we strapped crampons onto our boots. Thus, a person would obviously want to pack hiking boots for this particular adventure (though, I believe they can also be rented).
The first part of the glacial hike involved climbing up and down small hills. In some parts, there were makeshift steps carved into the ice and snow. Other parts required straddling small rivers of melting water and stepping over minor crevices. From a cardio perspective, this was sometimes a little challenging, or at least got my heart rate up. This is important to note because I was worried that the glacier would be cold. After all, it is ice. However, the giant mounds of ice broke up the wind and I actually felt pretty warm once I got moving. I quickly shed layers and realized that I was wearing too much (fleece lined water resistant pants with leggings underneath and two sweaters + a jacket and wool headband). On the other hand, I was not wearing a water proof jacket. So, I got soggy as it rained for most of the hike. When we stopped to look at the scenery, I became cold and tried to put on layers again. Rain jackets can be rented for about $10 before the hike commences, which would have been a smart idea. However, at the beginning of the hike, there was only a small drizzle, so I didn’t think it would be an issue. Based upon this experience, I would suggest that the cold is not the major weather condition to worry about- rather rain, sweat, and moisture in general.
When we reached the glacial plateau, we stopped to take in the scenery and got a closer look at some larger holes in the glacier. We used a rope to lean in for a safe view of a large moulin, or a circular shaft in the ice carved by water. There was time for photos and the guide taught us a little about glaciers. After about 20 minutes of hanging out, we turned back…down. This was where things went down hill for me. I came upon a gentle, but icy slope that I didn’t feel comfortable going down. I had a hard time trusting that my feet were not going to slip or that I would not simply tumble forward. I hesitated, got a little stuck, and stumbled a little. I didn’t fall or even loose my balance, but it was enough to make the guide uneasy and keep me towards the front of the group. Yep, so like the snorkeling adventure, I got to be the guide’s sidekick. From then on, I felt very self-conscious and over-thought each step. I did my best not to shuffle, so I over exaggerated my steps. At one point, I lost my balance for a moment- but immediately caught myself without incident, falling, or any stumbling. However, since the nearest hospital was over an hour away and the guide mentioned that people had died hiking on the glacier, I remained haunted by a mistrust of my feet and sense of balance. Like anything, over thinking can be paralyzing. In the end, I never fell or came close to falling, but I definitely felt happy when it was over. Unlike the snorkeling, I ended with a diminished sense of self confidence. I mean really….why can’t I trust my feet?!!
The glacial hike, like the snorkeling, is a beginner’s adventure- and as such, most anyone of reasonable health and balance should be able to complete the hike without incident. Since I often hike or go for long walks, I didn’t enter the activity with much anxiety. Really, it was not until the hike back (with more walking down hill) that I felt uneasy about the activity. I am not sure what I could have done differently, except maybe to make sure the crampons were more secure on my boots- since they seemed a little too loose on the way back. Once I started thinking too hard about each step, I seemed more prone to faltering- but- it was impossible NOT to think of each step since I didn’t want to stumble! Overall, I would say the hike was worth it. The three hour activity passed quickly and it was pretty neat to traverse a glacier. While there probably isn’t much I can do to overcome my discomfort of going down slopes, at least I learned how to better prepare for such a hike in terms of what to wear. I felt disappointed with myself for not being better at descending from the glacial plateau. On the other hand, only five people out of over 25 people on the larger tour, went on the glacial hike…so I can be happy that I at least tried it! I feel fortunate to have the privilege of visiting a glacier, as future generations are unlikely to have this opportunity if the necessary changes to our economic system are not made soon.