Alison MacNeil

Alison is a musician, writer and artist from Canada. She's lived in Reykjavik since 1999. 

5 minute read07 Mar 2017

Inside the Glacier

There are some experiences that you can really only have in Iceland. A trip that combines snowmobiling on a glacier and a trek into an ice cave definitely qualifies as such an experience.

Photos by Gabrielle Motola.

Our ride to the top of the glacier was a modified rocket launcher

I’ve lived in Iceland for almost two decades now, but I’ve actually never been up onto the glacier until very recently. Somehow, since I was so busy with making music and living life in the city, I didn’t really experience Iceland in the same way as people who come for a visit and only stay a few days. So I didn’t know what to expect of the day in terms of activity and how much energy I was going to need. I stocked up on extra food at the local Krónan grocery store before heading over to the Reykjavik Sightseeing (RSS) office. There, I joined the rest of the people going on the tour and one of our writers, Gaby, who would be some pictures during the trip.

The crowd was very friendly, mostly composed of people working in the tourism industry who were trying out the tour to get a better idea of what we were going to be offering to our customers. People were introducing themselves and the company they were representing. Shortly afterwards, we all piled into a massive Mercedes Benz tour bus and made our way from the capital to Húsafell on the west of Iceland, which is about an hour and a half away by car. Tablet computers supplied by RSS provided us with some helpful information about the area while we made the trip. I learned about the sagas and how they figured into the area where we were travelling, which was quite interesting.

Our view of the glacier from inside our super jeep.When we arrived in Húsafell, we split the group into two different vehicles and I rode up to the snowmobiling base camp in what I would call a monster truck (but they called a super jeep), which handled the slippery roads up to Langjökull without any difficulty. The tour we were taking was a combination of a few different companies’ tours, with the Mountaineers of Iceland supplying the snowmobiles and a different tour operator supplying the ice cave tour. The view of the glacier on this particular day was spectacular. The guide told us that we still had to be quite careful however, since the glaciers have their own weather systems and this being Iceland, we could expect the unexpected. It was hard to believe that the skies were going to be anything other than clear and blue for the rest of the day, but they assured us that anything is possible.

Our snowmobiles, which we would be taking the rest of the way up the glacier.

When we reached the base camp, we changed into helmets and snowsuits and got a crash course (maybe a bad choice of words) in how to operate a snowmobile. I opted to be a passenger for the trip and let Gabrielle take control of the skidoo, since her experience with operating this type of equipment was more substantial. However, it was clear that just about anyone in the trip was capable of operating the snowmobiles. The guides explained how to steer into the turns and how to shift your weight to avoid any tipping.

What would we find inside the glacier?After about a half-hour of riding snowmobiles around the newly fallen snow on the Langjökull glacier, we arrived at the entrance to the ice cave, which reminded me of the science lab in the John Carpenter movie “The Thing”. Try as I might to push the memory of that movie out of my head, it plagued me for the rest of the trip as we made our way deeper and deeper into the core of the glacier. What would we find down here?

Walking into the glacier with crampons, special equipment that fits over the shoes.The Langjökull ice cave is dug out by a special sandstone driller that has been repurposed for the creation of this spectacular tour. The temperature inside the cave is always around 1 degree Celsius and you need crampons over your shoes to be able to move around on the icy surface. These are provided by the tour guide at the beginning of the tour.

The singing guide in the chapel in the center of the glacier.There were a few times during the tour that I found myself so overwhelmed with what I was seeing that I accidentally ignored the warnings not to wander off on my own. One such time was when we reached the chapel in the center of the ice cave. Having been raised in a family that attended church every Sunday, I found myself wondering, when would people ever attend a mass in a glacier, until someone mentioned “weddings” and I understood what the chapel was for. Apparently, they had had four such events since the cave was opened two years ago, but many more proposals.

In the echoes of the chapel, our guide sang a song in Icelandic (video to come later of that particular treat) and then joked with us about how many times he had given tourists a fake story about what the lyrics meant, something he was unable to do with us since we were “local”. In all fairness, he probably could have fooled me.

As we made our way deeper into the cave, the guide explained that they used water pumps to keep the icy water from filling the caves, since otherwise the glacier would be working to fill all the gaps with fresh water. Speaking of which, Iceland gets its drinking water from these glaciers, which will very likely be completely receded in the next 100 years due to a naturally occurring cycle of glacial erosion that has been accelerated by human industrial activity.

Taking selfies with the crevasse.At the deepest part of the cave, we got to see the crevasse in the glacier, which was affectionately referred to as the “mother crevasse”. It was an astonishing sight and the whole crew immediately began taking pictures of themselves with the mother. Predictably, the photographer in the group took pictures of people taking pictures of themselves with the crevasse.

Relaxing after a long walk.At the end of the trip, I found my own crevasse to take a nap in before we would make our way out of the tunnel and back onto the snowmobiles.

A crow waits for us at the entrance to the glacier tunnel.A single crow was waiting for us at the entrance to the tunnel.

We hopped on the snowmobiles again and toured around on the glacier for another half-hour or so. I was just starting to get the hang of shifting my weight on the snowmobile during this latter part of the trip. I also started to feel a bit hungry and realised that I had left all my snacks on the tour bus.

A scene right out of Star WarsWe made our way back to base camp on a converted rocket launcher that looked, from where we were sitting, like something out of Star Wars. We had some sandwiches and beers on the way back and even stopped for a bit of sightseeing at the lovely Hraunfossar before making the trip to Reykjavik again.

On the main trip that some of you might be taking, they also stop at the hot springs on the way, but this was not a part of our tour on that particular day since we got a late start. All in all, I can certainly recommend this tour as an excellent way to see some of the more peculiar landscapes that Iceland has to offer.

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