On my list of things to do in Iceland, climbing one of the country’s many glaciers was at the very top. Glaciers are fascinating to me – mammoth rivers of ice and rock formed over hundreds, sometimes thousands of years. Trust me, the first glacier you spy in Iceland will momentarily take your breath away. They just appear on the distant horizon as these huge white mounds, making you question where the ice ends and the sky begins. As someone from a country that never experiences snow, they are eerily beautiful.
Mýrdalsjökull is located in Southern Iceland, about 2.5 hours drive from Reykjavik and near the small coastal town of Vík. The glacier lies to the east of Eyjafjallajökull, made famous in 2010 for its eruption which caused widespread air traffic disruptions across Europe. Of more immediate concern for Icelanders is the active volcano overdue for an eruption that lies just beneath Mýrdalsjökull’s icecap. Katla has erupted regularly throughout Iceland’s history, most recently in 1918 when it’s laharic flood increased the coastline by 5kms. As of 2015, Katla has remained relatively silent for 97 years, it’s longest period of inactivity.
There are a multitude of operators hosting a range of tours up onto the glacier, including walks, ice climbing and snowmobiling. We ultimately decided on latter option, purely because we wanted to cover more ground and see more of the glacier itself. We went with Arcanum (http://www.arcanum.is) who offer tours onto Mýrdalsjökull throughout the year. They even offer super jeep tours into the interior, which is definitely on my list for next time!
After meeting at Arcanum’s base camp (conveniently located just off the Ring Road), we don our snow gear and jump into a jeep for the ascent to the base of the glacial zone. Our guide’s name is Einar, and after a steep and bumpy (very bumpy) drive to the top, we reach the foot of the glacier. After a few minutes of instruction on how to operate our snowmobiles (acceleration, braking, steering and the kill-switch) we are off! Zooming at 50 km/h up the well-worn path, the ascent to the summit probably takes around half an hour. The noise of the engine, the smell of petrol and the cold offer little distraction to the breathtaking white snowy landscape that surrounds us.
Reaching the blind hill of the summit, the distance we travelled becomes immediately clear. Stretched out before us is a panorama of ocean, plains, mountains and ice. Shutting off the engines, we suddenly realise how quiet it is, and how high we’ve climbed – the clouds hover just below us, and soft white powder surrounds us. In the crisp, surreal air it’s hard to fathom that under our feet, under 600 metres of ice, a volcano patiently snoozes. A volcano that could erupt. At any time.
Einar teaches us about Mýrdalsjökull, using ‘snow castles’ to illustrate the geography of the area. In the event of a major Katla eruption, he tells us, the magma would melt the glacial ice cap in about three hours. Einar predicts that would give us just about enough time to evacuate back down the mountain before the Ring Road is washed away by the massive glacial outburst. For Icelanders, he continues, volcanic activity is a fact of life. They are well prepared for the eventual eruption of Katla, which could make the 2010 eruption of neighbouring Eyjafjallajökull pale in comparison.
After playing in the snow, which at this point is still a novelty for us Australians, it’s time to begin our descent, and it suddenly doesn’t seem fair we have to leave this vista of white. We turn the keys and suddenly the quiet, windy summit is drowned by the sound of our engines. We turn around and follow the our trails back down, bobbing over hills and speeding along at a brisk 60 km/h.
The descent down feels more exhilarating, more exciting – I’ve gotten used to the roar of the motor and that slight fear that I might just flip the snowmobile when taking a sharp turn. I push the snowmobiling to terrifyingly thrilling speeds, careening over the tracks left by the next mobile in our snowy caravan. The feeling in my gut after eachh bump is a feeling I won’t ever forget – zipping along in the rolling white ice-hills.
And then sadly we’re back at the jeep. We park our noble petrol-guzzling snow steeds and say goodbye to the glacier. The descent back down the rocky escarpments is even bumpier than before and we can’t help but imagine what the super jeep tours in winter would be like. We arrive back at the base camp and peer up at the imposing fortress of white we’ve just climbed. Don’t worry Katla, we’ll be back.
Check out the full Icelandic road trip adventure itinerary here!