Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Day 6, Part 1 - Into the Icy Heart of Vatnajokull

(This is part of a series of posts about our 2011 trip to Iceland. Here are the first, secondthirdfourthfifth , and sixth posts.)

Glacier Hike terrain.

While I am certainly fine with light hiking and car camping, there are some times when I really want a day of challenges and remote wanderings without all the amenities. Day 6 would be that day. And then some.

We had booked an early morning 5 hour glacier walk the day before, and so we made our way over to the guide cabini after an impromptu breakfastii. The guides were cool in the easy-going, effortless cool way of pretty Nordic people in the outdoors. I could not help but feel a bit awkward stumbling about in crampon-ed boots and a helmet that felt Vader-sizediii.
Guide House, Glacier Guide, Glacier Warning

A short drive along the valley floor later, and we came to somewhat-close-to-the-base of our glacier. Unfortunately, actually getting to the glacier involved a fairly long walk overly the decidedly less picturesque piles of dirt and stone at the front of the glacier.
approachHike to
Skaftafell panoramic – ride to glacier, Glacier Approach – scenic dirt piles, Hike to Glacier.

Once we actually got onto the glacier, things got a hundred times cooler, literally and figuratively. A quick lesson in using one’s crampons to avoid the embarrassment of falling to one’s icy death lateriv. I like crampons almost as much as I like ice axesv. Which is a lot. Along the way, the guides pointed out many of the unique and beautiful ways to die on a glacier, including moulans, massive crevasses, and fields of ice shards.
Icefall Shards, Moulan (i.e. holes to fall in), Ice Axe!

As we hiked up the glacier, the vista opened up in front of us, giving us a view of the unbelievably massive “ice-fall” where the glacial sheet came down over a ridge. Yet again my pictures fail to show the colossal scale of this towering frozen wave of ice shards above us. On the way we passed a myriad of subtle forms in the ice..water slides of glacial melt, places where the pure blue heart of the glacial ice opened up like an underground sea, and transient arches already melting in the sun. At our guide’s urging I drank handfuls of icy glacial melt water when no one else stepped forward to volunteer to do sovi.
patterns (B&W)Glacial
ChannelShards of
What lies
Icefall, Glacial form, Melt waterfall, Glacial patterns, Melt channel, Shards of ice, Glacial forms, What lies beneath

Our hike continued through the massive twisted ice forms at the base of the ice-fall, and then back along our route to the base. Along the way the guides took us to an ice cave, which was a highlight of the whole experiencevii. Throughout the hike, the guides had alluded to showing is “glacial mice”. The naturalist in me was pretty enthused, and I spent no small portion of time wondering about the ability of the somewhat inhospitable environment to support mammalian life, concocting elaborate musings about the nutritional value of lichens and mosses, and potential insect life on a glacial surface. As it turned out, “glacial mice” is just a term given to moss covered rocks that “migrate” down the glacial surface as a result of physical properties and affect on localized melt rates. I laughed at the revelation, but part of me was admittedly a little sad at the lack of actual glacial miceviii. All in all it was a humbling experience to be such a small speck on such a vast landscape, no matter how transient…
Lunch on the
landscape (B&W)
Through the
looking glass
Glacial forms
(B&W)Ice Cave
Glacier Hike
vista (B&W)
streamWater and
Icefall, Final Ascent, Lunch on the Glacier, Ice walls, Icefall landscape, Through the looking glass, Glacial forms, Ice Cave, Glacier Hike vista, Nonlinear progression (ice anstract), Glacial Mouse!, Melt stream, Water and Stone

(to be continued in Day 6, Part 2)


i Which was pretty damn cool as tourist huts go. Green roof of mosses, and the inside looked like some very authentic mountaineers spent some very authentic mountaineer downtime on its strewn couches. I did not feel like I Was cool enough to be in there. Especially when I had to rent boots (since I had inadvertently left mine at home, see day 1). I expected a withering scowl of disdain from the …whatever the guide equivalent of barista is, behind the counter. Instead, it turns out she was from the US, and was super friendly and helpful. She also had about the whitest, straightest teeth I’d ever seen. It was amazingly distracting. Like talking to a freshly painted picket fence.
ii My eating style differs a bit from my compadres. I tend to prefer extremes…either eat a cliff bar and some water on the run, or have a good hearty breakfast. The rest of the group was very set on having a defined breakfast, but also often on doing it with camp foods (musli/skyr, etc.). This is fine, and a matter of personal preference, but for me, a breakfast on the run frees up time for more exploring, or conversely, a hearty breakfast gives you more opportunities to explore local eateries. Doing the middle option of eating so so camp food, but taking time to do so grates at the impatient kid in me Viva la difference, I guess.
iii I think the self-consciousness spawned by goofy rental gear is how guides, in their slick pro gear, establish dominance and herd control over us hapless tourists. I for one welcome our outdoorsy overlords.
iv Which, in Iceland, I think is not just a tragedy, but a social faux pas equivalent to, say, wearing a navy blazer to a black tie only affair. “He fell into a crevasse because he couldn’t figure out crampons? How GAUCHE.” I’m sure, like an illigetimate child in days past, hangs as an embarrassment over the family of the clumsily departed for years. “The Hakarlussons? Oh yes, nice family. Nephew fell into a glacier though, so know.”
v When one is faced with a massive sheet of ice and stone that dwarfs you and challenges your sense of scale, perspective, and largeness in the universe, it is somewhat comforting in a puerile way to have several inch long daggers strapped to your feet by which you stab the source of your existential crisis with every step. “Take THAT inexorable geologic forces! *stab* *Stab* *stab*. I admit for a brief while, I was more gleefully overcompensating with foot-stabbing than was probably warranted. Ice axes are less satisfying, but go along with the whole Viking mythos. “Today I shall be climbing aloft mighty Skaftafelsjokull, across whose icy fields I will stride with my might ax across my shoulders…”.
vi Coming from an area where excessive bacteria counts in ambient water are an almost ubiquitous constant for all water bodies, this took a quick mental adjustment. However, this was about as pure as water gets, a little silt notwithstanding.
vii And though common courtesy prevented me from pointing it out, vaguely shaped like vulva inside, leading to all sorts of metaphoric contemplations I won’t elaborate on. On seeing pictures, one less inhibited friend asked, “Hey, what’s with the giant ice vagina?”.
viii I suppose I had it coming, after years of catering on tour boats in the St. Lawrence where we told gullible tourists they could see the international boundary line on the bottom of the river if they looked over the boat when we crossed into Canadian waters, and telling children visiting our local park here that the sound of our resident Moorhens (raucous chicken-like birds with vaguely simian calls) were actual Swamp monkeys. 

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