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#Travel: Trekking up a glacier in Iceland

Myths come to life amid the black volcanic mountains, falling snow and clear blue ice.

ht weekend Updated: Jun 08, 2019 15:57 IST
Mohit Khushalani
Mohit Khushalani
Hindustan Times
The black at the Sòlheimajökul glacier comes from the under-ice Katla volcano, which has erupted from time to time for over 900 years, most recently in 1918.(Mohit Khushalani)

Iceland is known as the land of contrasts — fire and ice, black and white. It was into this landscape of extremes, in a summer that is barely summer but is still the best time to visit, that I went trekking in a desert of ice.

It was a bit like being in a manga movie. All you hear is wind, and the sound of your crampons on glacial ice. You’re walking in a landscape of black volcanic rock, falling snow and blue ice.

Trekking up the Sólheimajökull glacier in Iceland, everything is exaggerated — the colours look sharper, the sky larger, the horizon further. All the Nordic myths come to life. Perhaps this is where Odin used the poetic mead he obtained from Suttungr the Giant’s daughter.

The trek itself is reasonably arduous; you spend part of the time grappling up 30-degree slopes of slushy ice, just hoping your crampons will hold. ( Mohit Khushalani )
SURVIVAL KIT: Don’t go trekking in Iceland without…
  • a swimsuit, sunglasses, a bottle of alcohol
  • Lot of treks have hot geysers along the way; in such cases, a swimsuit for the more adventurous.
  • Winter here stretches from September through May. Temperatures average -10 degrees C.
  • This can seem intimidating, but if you layer up right you won’t really feel it. Thermals are a must; as are waterproof pants, and a knee-length fleece-lined coat. Take along a balaclava and be sure to pack waterproof gloves.
  • In your backpack, keep energy bars and chocolates, sunglasses (the glare can be quite extreme), and sunblock. UV light hits you much harder at the poles.
  • Keep small doses of rum on you, to keep you warm at night. Don’t overdo it. There’s nothing more annoying than a drunk or hungover trekker trying to keep up.

The wind is crushing, blotting out most of your senses. Then it strikes you that you are walking on a sheet of ice on an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The glacier will never look like this again; in five years, it may not even be here. As if in agreement, the climate changes from hour to hour — sun, rain, snow. Along the trail on this 8-km-long, 2-km-wide glacier you come upon icy blue crevasses that seem to plunge to its core.

Our day began at 8 am, with a two-hour drive from the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik to the southern tip of the glacier. We started out in pitch dark with the temperature at 4 degrees C and wind chill pushing it down to -1, but as we left the city, the sun started to light up a breathtaking vista of black volcanic mountains to one side and black sand beaches on the other. Here and there, waterfalls appeared, frothy, white, plunging into the black ground.

The black, we learnt, comes from the lava that has been spewed across this landscape by the under-ice Katla volcano, which has erupted from time to time for over 900 years, most recently in 1918.

We pulled up two hours later at a wooden hut full of ice picks, helmets, crampons, and pictures of past treks. Here we were given some much-needed hot black coffee and our trekking gear for the day.

This is when we first got the sense of the mission we’d undertaken, if you like. The sense that, there will be nothing to keep you alive out there but what you were carrying. The first bit of our march added to that sense of the other-worldly. The eerie black continued here, making every curve and crevice seem unsettling; the sky above was overcast and promised rain.

The one downside? No photos you take will do justice to the stunning vistas that surround you on a trek up a glacier in Iceland. ( Mohit Khushalani )

We arrived at the frozen Jökulsá á Sólheimasandi river and I finally realised a Viking fantasy here — in push-up position, I sipped directly from the stream of meltwater. How I wish I had a spear and shield, a bushy beard, or knew at least one Nordic swear word!

Ten minutes into the trek my best friend and I spotted a small ice cave. We had an option of going around it, but we were here for adventure! So we crawled out to the other side, where the wind was whipping and all sound disappeared.

The three hour Sòlheimajökul trek is less climbing and more hoping for dear life that your crampons will hold as you grapple up a 30-degree to 35-degree slope of black-ash-bearing slushy ice. From time to time, the landscape closes in and you’re crawling upward between walls of ice, hammering in your ice pick and hoping it’ll hold. Some of the inclines here are far steeper; as much as 60 degrees.

The real adventure began when it started to rain, about an hour into the trek. After a quick shower the sun came out and suddenly it was like switching to Technicolor. The black became blacker; cool, minty hues of blue emerged around us as the air cleared.

So absorbed were we by this breathtaking beauty that we didn’t realise the trek was done. The sun cheered us as we gathered at the tip of the glacier.

Twenty minutes later, all of us, glacier included, were covered in a fresh layer of snow. Trotting on, with an occasional ice-cold shoe-dip-and-slip, we reached a point where all the eye could see was the vast expanse of the glacier. This was by far my favourite moment.

My least favourite moment was when I got back to ground level and looked at my photographs. Nothing, nothing in them does justice to what we saw and experienced. But we did it, praise Odin, and that’s what counts.

First Published: Jun 08, 2019 15:57 IST