An Unconventional Birthday Part 2 – Hiking a Glacier in Iceland

Hiking a glacier in Iceland

Our unconventional birthday celebration wasn’t quite over.  My now ten year olds had a glacier to hike!  While hiking a glacier was not high on the list of one birthday girl (who really wanted to ride Icelandic ponies on this celebratory day), birthday girl number two had bought into the excitement.  After all, who wouldn’t want to don a pair of crampons and yield a pick ax the day they hit double digits?

The initial plan was hiking Skaftafell – Vatnajokull the second largest glacier in the world.  It was a short drive from Ingofsholdi where we spent the morning seeking the illustrious puffin.  We arrived in a wet mist that was getting heavier every moment.  While it was the rain that appeared to be shutting our outing down in actuality it was the mass hoards of people that appeared seemingly out of nowhere in this land that had appeared solely ours for days.  Most were there just to get a quick peak at the glacial tongue and not actually venture onto the glacier itself.  Regardless, it made for a chaotic parking lot and a nervousness that we couldn’t proceed.

After inquiring at both companies that take clients on the ice and finding they were sufficiently booked for the day we had to head to the smaller but equally spectacular Solheimajokull glacier a mere two hours away.  While initially disappointing, as with most things, this ended up working out in our favor as a huge storm was hitting Iceland and turning back was in the general direction of our departure two days later.

So, off we set, racing against time so to speak as we had to arrive by 3:30.  As we set out we were again reminded of the vast geological wonderlands that make up Iceland.  With the glacier behind us we continue driving through Katla Geopark.  Katla GeoparkThis section was a flatland of sorts that, as the kids say, “looks like something barfed on the land”.  In actuality it’s volcanic rock that spewed out during a volcanic eruption two hundred years ago and the moss that subsequently grew on top of it over the passage of time. Katla Geopark 2

It’s a bizarre but beautiful and mystifying site as far as the eye can see until abruptly it ends dumping you into stark, vast emptiness – the carved out after effects of a glacial river.  I’m telling you, as I’ve told you before, and will probably keep reiterating because it is non-stop amazing – Iceland is a geological wonderland.  All this from a mama that never found landforms anything spectacular and frankly was dead bored in geology class.  We spent hours marveling at the land wishing my geologist friend Nancy was here with us to fill in the information gaps – surely she would know and we wouldn’t have to guess!

So time was ticking and the kids were getting a little tired of my exclamations over landforms (afterall, even I can admit it got a little redundant for the kids – especially since we had covered this stretch two days prior) – so, much as I hate to admit it, I let them pop in the first movie of the trip (I know, I know – but it was a birthday, right?  Surely there must be allowances for that).

I’m driving through the heavy rain thinking “are we really going to go on a glacier in this?” and also, “surely we must be there soon” when I finally found it – Road Number 221!!  So Road 221 quickly turns into a gravel road – of which I signed my life away at the rental agency that I wouldn’t take our “forbidden to drive on gravel roads” rental car….but what’s a mama to do?  So, nervously, and only with slight hesitation, we pressed onward.  So, up and over and around we went, wondering how long the tires on this little rental car that could would really last.

Ten minutes later, in pouring rain, through potholes and over what was bigger than rocks but smaller than boulders, we arrive.  At this point I’m wondering how well this is all going to work.  I’m really starting to doubt this birthday celebration thinking we all might end up with pneumonia and I’ll never live this gift down.  As every parent knows, jumping around in rain is great for about the first 5 minutes….until everyone realizes how cold and miserable they are and then it turns south quickly.  I figure I can buy us a little more time due to added excitement over crampons (which, sounding remarkably like tampons – leading to fits of occasional giggles and the accompanying potty jokes) and icepicks!  After all, when would this mom let her children wield a sharp, pointed, fairly heavy object that could easily be used as a weapon?  Fortunately Icelandic Mountain Guides was well prepared and quickly suited up with excessively large, somewhat (well, not really) waterproof rain gear and after a brief introduction, off we went!DSC02001

We then gathered obligatory 15 minute lesson on crampon fitting, instructions on how to wield an icepick and, along with “expert mountain guides”, off we went.  Setting foot on the glacier was, for lack of a better word, so fun!  What struck me however was the changes that were occurring to the glacier with every step we took.  It’s entire form was changing more rapidly than normal as the rain beat down.  You could see the crevasses being carved every second.  The hike was spectacular.  Said “expert mountain guides” informative, interesting and funny.  We received explanations on why a glacier was blue, were instructed on reading the lines in a glacier like the rings of a tree, and could see the volcanic activity of the past in this over 2000 year old glacier – well we couldn’t, but theoretically, an expert can – [Insert, again, the brilliance of traveling with my friend Nancy who knows all about this stuff – this must be what she does when she studies ice cores-and where is she now?!]

So, finally, with only one slight mishap of birthday girl 1 almost stepping into an endless crevasse on this spectacular birthday day- yikes! – We made it to the top!….well, not really the top (it’s miles away) but to the top of where we were going…and in the dense fog and pouring rain it looked like the top…sooooo, we made it to the top!!DSC02007

Breathtaking, spectacular, a sight to behold!  I was wishing for fantastic lighting so I could appropriately photograph the scene around – but at the same time was so soaking wet and cold as there was a fairly steading stream of water rolling from my back straight into my underwear and down my legs into my too big borrowed hiking boots that I really couldn’t care less about the photos…well, I kind of did…but there wasn’t much to be done!DSC02007

And as all this is happening I’m thinking this must be an amazing 10th birthday because we are drenched and freezing but I haven’t heard one single complaint, which, as every parent knows, is a sign of a very successful day!  Liam is happy successfully altering the landform with his pickax as he’s been taught by “expert mountain guide” as the girls are happily chatting away with fellow glacier hikers until all photos have been taken and information has been provided when it’s time to descend.

As one can probably imagine, down a steep rain covered, rapidly changing, slick glacier is way trickier than going up which is all good and grand if one has the perspective to realize that there is quite some danger involved so one needs to take it slooowww.  Being shy thirty plus years of “down gives great momentum” and fast isn’t necessarily always more fun, my children were slightly tempted to start heading down at quite a clip.  Fortunately “Fantastic Mountain Guide” took my bulls by the horns and reined birthday girls plus one in and expertly encouraged while not insulting their natural instinct to bolt!

After we got the hang of walking downhill in crampons we were able to chat with new friends on the way down.  We were able to discover other people’s stories, where they were from, why they were visiting.  It’s single handedly what I love most about traveling.  The people you meet, locals as well as other travelers; they open your eyes to the world, encourage and question and leave you wishing for more time to discover.  We weren’t the only ones there that day choosing to experience this amazing site as part of a birthday celebration.  So, happy birthday to Krush’s husband.  We trust your special day was as memorable as ours!  We expect to hear similar stories in a few years of you and yours on similar adventures around the world!!

We descended quite rapidly and that’s when I heard it all….freezing hands, soaking wet, shivering bodies.  Yep, they were as miserable as I yet had been so enthralled with the experience and surroundings that they too were able to thoroughly enjoy each and every moment. In it’s own way, a spectacular day.  It’s one I hope my now ten year olds can appreciate and cherish – and wouldn’t trade for anything in the world!

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