The Land of Fire and Ice
Originally published in WildJunket Magazine Issue 5 (Winter 2012)
eft, right, ice sticks in; Left, right, feet up. First sling each axe into the wall of ice, then kick the foot spears into the wall. It looked easy enough when our guide Røbert Halldorsson scaled up the solid glacial wall like spiderman on ice. But once I got on that vertiginous wall, it was clearly mission impossible. The chunky ice cliff stood at a humble height of approximately 32 feet (10 meters), but getting up there was no easy feat.
“Find hard pockets for support,” Røbert advised. I had no clue what he meant. My lungs were burning, my shoulders were screaming, and my mind tried to concentrate on what lay ahead of me. I plummeted my ice axes into a patch of cracked ice and pushed my body upwards with all my strength. I couldn’t hear anything, except for the crunch and the swish of my poorly orchestrated movements.
All that followed was a blur as my world spinned 360 degrees in fast- forward motion. Thank goodness for the harness – I ended up hanging mid-air, in the safe hands of Røbert.
My first attempt at ice-climbing and it was a complete failure; at least I overcame the rush of pounding nerves and got myself mid-way up the wall. Thirsty for some adventure, my husband Alberto and I were here to explore the outdoors and Iceland was proving to be quite a challenge.
No Man’s Land
Marooned just outside the Arctic Circle, Iceland is a Nordic island nation that’s barely three hours away from London by plane – and yet anchored within its own world of raw and untouched wildernesss.
Volcanically and geologically active, the country is a land of extremes: its coastlines are fringed with jagged fjords; its interior is speckled with lava fields, bubbling mud pools, erupting geysers, active volcanoes and topped with larger-than-life glaciers. Thanks to its location on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge – the dividing line between the Eurasian and North American continental plates – Iceland is a potent concoction of geological formations.
Our journey started in the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik: a small and artsy city buzzing with activities, sprinkled with Scandinavian huts and a cluster of bars and museums. But beyond Reykjavik, Iceland puts on quite a show with its sweeping landscapes of ice mountains and tundra plains.
This natural, rugged wilderness was the side of Iceland we were eager to explore. Fortunately it is all easily accessible from Reykjavik. On board a rented 4WD jeep, we headed out to the southwestern coast and seemingly entered a different world.
Despite its very chilly name, Iceland really is green – its landscapes smeared in 50 shades of emerald, putting Ireland to shame. We wound through rolling hills covered in tundra carpets and gushing waterfalls that trickled down jagged cliffs. Sapphire- blue rivers snake through verdant green valleys, where herds of beautiful Icelandic horses roamed free.
After a two-hour drive, we pulled up at the base of Sólheimajökull Glacier, an ice mountain that cloaks the semi-active Volcano Katla, one of the highest volcanoes in Europe at 1,512m (4,961 ft). Coated with layers of black volcanic sand, bluish-white chunks of ice piled up one on top of another, stretching high into the sky.
With our crampons firmly latched onto the glacier, we slowly made our way up the slippery slopes, carefully jumping over giant cauldrons, and criss-crossing waterways and deep crevasses. If I fell, it wouldn’t be to the ground. It would be into that crevasse with its death-blue tinge and promise of an icy coffin. I needed to focus on what lay ahead and continued trudging up the slopes.
By the time we reached the top of the glacier, the sky had cleared and the sun was coyly poking through the thick clouds. From this vantage point, the glacier and the sea stretched into the near distance, their colors of blue and gray played against the sunlight, while the dramatic ocean danced a ferocious tango with the black volcanic sand.
The next morning at the crack of dawn, we made our way farther down Iceland’s southwestern coast to the base of Eyjafjallajökull Volcano. They don’t call this one of the ‘Angry Sisters’ (the other being Katla) for nothing. It’s a name that none if us can pronounce or spell, but we all are extremely familiar with.
Just last year, this explosive monster made its name worldwide with a ferocious eruption, spewing hundreds of tons of ash into the sky and severely affecting air travel in Europe. The whole world watched as gushes of molten lava and ice flashed across televisions around the world. Families living in the area were evacuated out within 24 hours, and over five weeks, layers upon layers of ash descended upon Iceland.
Our guide for the day, Tómas Magnússon, was one of those who were severely affected – he and his family spent weeks clearing ash off their house, repairing water pipes and most of all, getting their business back in shape. Tómas leads hikes up the volcano for adventure-seekers, but had to suspend his tours after the eruption.
But for him, it’s a way of life. Iceland is one of the most active volcanic regions on Earth, with a volcano erupting about every five years on average. Eleven volcanoes have erupted between 1900 and 1998.
When I asked if he would ever move because of the danger involved in living near an active volcano, he said, “I will always remain here, this is my home,” adding, “I grew up here and spent much of life living beside this volcano. This is my playground,”
Fortunately, his business revived once the ash cleared, with tourists arriving in bulks to climb this monster of a volcano. The last time Eyjafjallajökull erupted was in 1823, and then again in 2010, but nobody knows when it would explode next – and it was this thrill that brought us here.
Under clear skies, Tómas drove us to the base of the volcano on a sturdy 4×4 Superjeep, weaving past waterfalls and moss-filled green slopes before reaching the layers of solidifed ashes that had been churned out from the center of the earth. We plunged and lurched for over two hours, scaling a height of 4,900 feet (1,500 meters) on the treacherous jeep trail to get to the start of our trek. From there, it was a short but steep one-hour hike up to the volcano’s crater.
But as soon as we ascended above the clouds, the sunshine was abruptly replaced by a thick curtain of fog and rain. The wind was howling like a wolf and snow was raging in all directions. In the bleak midst of gray ash and white ice, the setting resembled a scene straight out of a disaster movie. With the icy frost whipping across my face at lightning speed, I could barely open my eyes nor fight the strong gust. With less than 300 feet (100 meters) up to the crater, we were now stuck in a snow storm. Taking shelter behind a huge tuff rock, Tómas had to make a decision: should we continue up the volcano or turn back before we got into serious danger? Safety was our priority, but we also had a strong urge to reach the volcano’s summit.
“I think we should respect nature.” Tómas said. He was right, there was little we could do in this inhospitable climate. Luckily the winds slowed just for a minute; we jumped on that short window and hurtled down the volcano for shelter, leaving the summit at our backs. And although we never made it to the top of the volcano, we were content to have to have experienced its sheer power and ferocity.
Over the next few days, we cruised around the Golden Circle, a 190- mile (300-km) circular route that passes through Iceland’s most famous attractions and just a short two-hour drive from Reykjavik.
Our first stop was Gulfoss, Europe’s largest waterfall. We heard it before we saw it: a thundering roar engulfed us as we walked through the mist clouds surrounding the hammering falls. It was a sight to behold: thousands of gallons of gushing water plummeting down a 105-foot (32-meter) double cascade, into the churning Hvita glacial river. The sun cheekily peeked out from the clouds just for a few seconds, lighting up the rainbow across the golden-brown water – that was clearly how it got the name, “Golden Falls”.
Nearby, the geothermal waters of Iceland put on quite a show. We wandered around the walking trails, past steaming vents and colorful mud formations in a bizarre Mars-like setting – but we had come to see the star of the spectacle, Geysir; the one single geyser from which all other geysers are named after.
Unfortunately, it has become somewhat shy in recent years and only spews once or twice a year. Thankfully we spotted the nearby Strokkur spouting 100-feet water jets almost every five minutes. We watched as the orange-blue pool bubble up, releasing steam and foam into the air, before exploding into a light blue jet of steaming water. It resembled a magic show, except that the magician in this case was Mother Earth. We spent the afternoon hypnotized, watching Strokkur work its magic, our amazement not the least fading with every shot of water.
On our final day in Iceland, we headed out to Þingvellir National Park, to trace the root of all these volcanic activities. This is where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge lies – an area where new earth is constantly formed by the movement of the North American and European tectonic plates. But it’s not just a place of geological significance; the first parliament in Iceland actually took place here in 930 AD. The chieftains could hardly have chosen a more appropriate place: nowhere in the country is there a landscape that better epitomizes the geologic history of Iceland.
With the past behind us, we went in search of the rift. By virtue of its location in the largest freshwater lake in Iceland, Silfra contains sparkling clear, cold water that attracts scuba divers from around the world. Besides its geological importance, it is also considered one of the best dive sites in the world, promising visibility up to 1000 feet or 300 meters (in clear glacial waters fit for drinking) and an underwater environment found nowhere else.
Despite the sub-zero temperature, the opportunity to swim between continents beckoned. Dressed in nothing more than a bulky dry suit, airtight hood and gloves, we plunged beneath the glacial waters, into an alien world.
Sunlight pierced through the clear- as-glass water, lighting up the entire water channel in an Avatar shade of blue. Giant boulders flanked both sides of the narrow channel, with lime green algae lifelessly swaying in the still water.
Our guide Hössi reminded us, “Remember where you are. On your right is America,” he paused for effect, “on your left, Europe.”
As we meandered farther, I could see beyond the narrow channel as it opened up to a wide waterway and deepened to depths of 300 feet (100 meters) and beyond. It was easy to see why some divers experience vertigo here – the water was so clear and motionless that it felt like we were floating in space.
In the stillness, there was complete silence and a pristine sense of peace. I thought back at what we had done in the past week – from ice-climbing on formidable glaciers to trekking on roaring volcanoes and swimming between tectonic plates – it felt like we had leapt across continents and centuries.
With a hot-blooded yet attractive personality, Iceland had thrown us off our scales with its unpredictable temper yet won us over with its unique charm and seductive beauty. It was one hell of a challenge – which was exactly what we’ve come to experience – and most of all, we had conquered it.
The author traveled with Discover the World on a self-drive tour.
Want to read more about Iceland?
- Whitewater rafting in Northern Iceland
- Husavik whale watching
- Swimming between tectonic plates
- Ice climbing on Sólheimajökull glacier