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Iceland: crossing the glacier

We need sometimes to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard, in order to sharpen the edge of life, to taste hardship, and to be compelled to work desperately for a moment at no matter what.
-George Santayana

Can you think of a better beginning to a day than to emerge from a tent (after a hellish night of storms) to a world of clear sunshine and still silence? It was particularly welcome on the morning we climbed up onto the Hofsjokull glacier. I am no expert on glacier travelling, but I’mm always eager to have a go at things. The difficulty with this mentality is steering the right line between stifling caution and rash recklessness. This morning’s rare clear skies helped tip the balance.

Climbing the morraine onto the Hofsjökull glacier, Iceland

So I packed the tent quickly, eager to get up onto the ice while the weather was good. I knew that bad weather was bound to roll over us soon: this was Iceland, after all. But if we could get up there, get going, and feel that we were within our capabilities before the rain and sleet and mist returned then we would have more motivation to keep going. For I was anxious that we did not talk ourselves out of trying to cross the glacier before we even began it. I desperately wanted to head up and over it to the headwaters of the Þjórsá River. We could have skirted the ice and joined the river further down. But I wanted to do the job properly, despite my lack of glacial expertise. I really wanted to begin our river from its true headwaters, not halfway down at some easy and convenient spot. My motivation came, as ever, not so much from wanting the experience itself as from not wanting to not have the experience, the challenge, the lesson…

Fitting crampons

We hiked up the steep, rocky morraine to the ice. Rocks and gravel slipped and crunched beneath our feet. We slid one step backwards for each two or three climbed. It was tiring, but we made it to the cold ice at last. Strapping on crampons and digging our rope out from the bottom of the backpack I felt a blossoming of excitement in my gut about this next stage of the expedition. I crunched across the ice to peer over the rim of the first crevasse, and felt a squeeze of primordial fear at the black, fathomless maw gaping up at me.

Crossing the Hofsjökull glacier, Iceland

The ice cap, Iceland’s third largest, was grey and grubby. Ash from Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption had smeared across the whole landscape, robbing us of the stunning blue colours you often associate with ice.

Skiing through sea ice rubble
[ice on the Arctic Ocean]

Crossing the Hofsjökull glacier, Iceland
[ice on the Hofsjokull ice cap]

But the murky grey ice fitted well with Iceland’s murky grey sky, heavy rain, and falling temperatures. But where rivulets of meltwater ran across the glacier’s surface small channels of bright blue had been carved out.

Refilling my water bottle from meltwater streams

We were high above the plains of central Iceland and we looked out over hundreds of silent, empty miles flecked with occasional gleams of sunshine shards slicing through the cloud. Meshes of grey-brown glacial streams flowed out from beneath the ice in all directions. We studied our map to match it to the rivers, gleaning information to bring our map to life. We knew very little about what awaited us when we reached our river. Would it be deep enough to paddle? Would it be too fast or would it be flat and boring?

Crossing the Hofsjökull glacier, Iceland

Chris and I continued across the silent expanse of cold, grubby ice, our crampons crunching with reassuring friction beneath our feet. This was such a different experience, and a different challenge, to climbing up from the green, moist lowlands or slogging across the bleak highlands. And the next phase, paddling Iceland’s longest glacial river, would be different yet again. The variety of this expedition was its greatest attraction.

Crossing the Hofsjökull glacier, Iceland

Crossing to the snout of the Þjórsájökull glacier we saw the maze of small streams that would combine somewhere in the murky distance to form “our” river below us. We thought that the hardest part was now behind us. This is rarely a wise thought to think.

Looking down from the Hofsjökull glacier towards the headwaters of the Þjórsá river

Down off the glacier we removed our crampons beside a narrow but fierce stream that was gushing from an ice cave at the foot of the glacier. It was impossible to know for certain if this was “our” river. Maps were of little use in that ever-shifting, homogenous landscape. The water was grey with silt and freezing cold. The rain continued to fall. But at least this racing water was heading towards the same coast that we were. We had crossed Iceland’s watershed so it was downhill all the way from here.

Crossing the Hofsjökull glacier, Iceland

Now we followed the course of this stream on foot until it became large enough for us to paddle. But we found ourselves in a hellish landscape. Beneath our feet were rocks and gravel. But the going was more like quicksand. Everywhere was saturated. We sank knee-deep into rocky gloop at every stride. We crossed stream after stream, searching for solid ground, silently begging the river to grow, and loudly swearing at the cold, exhausting slop we were wading through.

Headwaters of the Þjórsá river, Iceland

We still did not for sure whether this mesh of little streams was going to grow into a proper river heading the way we wanted to head. Like pioneers trying to read the land we climbed a ridge to peer ahead. There were so many river channels we could follow now. What we had to do was to choose one, and then live with our decision.

Descending from the Hofsjökull glacier, Iceland

In the end we took refuge back up on the glacier, finding it easier to traverse along that than to follow the hellish meanderings of the rocky swamp valley. At long last though the river appeared to be widening, gathering volume from countless other tiny streams gushing off the glacier. We pitched camp beside the river. All of our clothes were drenched with mud. We cooked a disgusting dinner with grey muddy water. It was especially unenjoyable as I had bought all of our dehydrated food at a discount because it was years out of date. Normally this was not a problem but just occasionally we would have a meal that tasted disgusting. Disgusting but we did not have any spare food. So I swallowed it down as fast as I could and decided that this expedition sucked. As I climbed into my sleeping bag, I consoled myself that at least the worst must now be behind us. Tomorrow we would be paddling. Surely that would be fun?

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This expedition was generously supported by:

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  1. Jonathan Pound Posted

    I am regular reader but first time commenter. I wanted to say that your writing is getting better and better – truly top class now!
    Looking forward to the river ride next week…

  2. Tom Jenkins Posted

    Another beautiful piece. Thanks for sharing your stories.
    A quick question – what kind of crampons were you using?

  3. Holy crap you are mad but i think this is just amazing especially the photos.
    my question is how can you find your way on a glacier – is it not all just the same?

    • Hi Susie,
      We did have a map up there (from 1937!). But a map is not helpful for finding your way round crevasses etc. So you use a combination of steering on a compass bearing with using your instinct and common sense too.

  4. Epic expedition. I know it wasn’t as long as your bike ride (but nothing will be I guess!) but I really don’t think that matters. You have found intensity, challenge, purpose, and novelty (i mean that in a good way). You are definitely my favrorite blog on my RSS reader at the moment, so please keep the good stuff coming!
    Can’t wait to see the film from this route.

    • Thanks RobRoy. I’m glad you like it. Trying to find something hard, worthwhile and wild but close to home and in a relatively short space of time was definitely one of my main aims – I am trying to show that adventure / expeditions are accessible to lots of people without much time, expertise or cash.

  5. Jon Bradshaw Posted

    Fantastic Alastair loving your work. Can I ask which pack raft you took with you?

  6. Simon Eiriksson Posted

    Hi Al, thank you very much for sharing your daring adventures with the rest of us. I have Icelandic family and so, i have seen most of the beatiful island. However, I am missing one part of Iceland that I would love to do by foot, and that is the Western Fjords, particularly the national park around Drangajökull.

    I am looking for guidance on how to climb/walk a glacier? Do know any good and reliable source on safe glacierhiking.

    All the best, and keep up the good stuff 🙂

  7. Oliver Steiner Posted

    Hi, great stuff!
    I just got back from Iceland and I am planning on going back next summer and this time, I plan on crossing glacial tongues, because looking at them wasn’t enough!
    How many kilometres/hour were you guys walking at?



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