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Iceland Glacier Hike


Hiking back from the top of the glacier, with another blizzard off to our right.

The wind was storming through town, blowing the still falling snow into piles that were quickly redistributed by the next gust. Dark outside at 9 a.m., we walked like we were on a tight-wire across the ice-covered parking lot to scrape off the rental car. As we pulled out of the hotel, the lane markers on the highway were doing their best to lead us in the direction of the glacier. In our 50 feet of visibility, we saw headlights, on the side of the road, facing the wrong direction. “The roads aren’t bad; I just can’t see,” my husband, Geoff reassured me.

Leaving the hotel parking lot just before sunrise for the drive to the base of the glacier.

Geoff and I had come from southern California to Iceland in February for a winter vacation. We had little hope of seeing the Northern Lights due to a series of winter storms sweeping past us. Instead, we were planning to hike the Eyjafjallajokull glacier. After driving through torrential rains on the only two-lane road that circumvents the island, we had huddled down for a day to let the blizzards pass over us. Today we had a reserved spot on the early morning trek.

Road markers guide us to the kickoff spot for the glacier hike.

At the base of the glacier, our guide, Thio, outfitted our group of four couples with helmets, harnesses, and 2” spikes sticking out of crampons. Thio paused at the sign, “Danger! Do not proceed further!” He explained that after the recent rain, the river below us had risen ten feet higher than where it was now. This created freshly severed slabs of ice. Yesterday’s snow would offer us a chance to break a new trail to the top of the glacier. Thio led the way by poking a ski pole into the snow to make sure we had solid ice beneath our boots. We followed single file careful to step only in his tracks. I didn’t feel cold, just the pain of blowing snow hitting my face and the excitement of trekking up a glacier through virgin snow.

Geoff with ice ax in hand and blowing snow in the background.

While catching our breath on the way up, I looked into an aqua-blue, vertical wall of ice. The ice was mostly clear with bubbles and a streak of suspended ash from a 1910 eruption. As we got closer to the top, the route got steeper. We used our ice axes to climb through the waist deep snow between recently exposed slabs. On top of the glacier, the sun appeared below the clouds offering us a religious experience. The rays hit the flat, snow-covered glacier and bounced off the surrounding mountains. The jet-black volcanic rock beneath the white snow created a landscape that silenced even me.

The clear glacial ice of a recently exposed wall was bluer than a coke bottle but with the same transparency.

We stood silently on the top until Thio reminded us of the next storm off in the horizon. Marching in the footsteps we had created coming up, the blizzard hurled snow in our faces on our way down, but I didn’t mind. When we passed the other tour guides, leading larger groups up the glacier, Thio paused to brag about our group’s accomplishment. This gave us another chance to stand still and bask in the beauty of Iceland covered in snow.

The reward for our two-hour hike to the top of the Eyjafjallajokull Glacier.

Slabs of glacier ice along the way to the top.

Inexpensive crampons are available in most public sites.

Icelandic Mountain Guides advertised the trip as appropriate for all levels but required ice axes at times.

Live video shots at key locations along the road. Our glacier was between 3 and 4. This was considered "winter conditions."

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