It’s easy to dismiss a glacier as a big, boring slab of ice. I get it. But you will never again think that way once you’ve stood on one. You hear water rush under and over it. You’ll hear the groans and cracks of its movements. You’ll never truly fathom how dynamic glaciers are until you spend time near them.
I can’t replicate the experience here … but I can give you some of the flavor with these photos of scenes from a glacier. I hope you like what you see enough to visit someplace where you can spend a day on a glacier. I promise, it will exceed your expectations.
In these photos, you’ll see FalljÃ¶kull, a glacier on the southern portion of VatnajÃ¶kull, which is the largest ice cap in Europe. It’s also near Skaftafell National Park, which is a must for any outdoor adventurer planning a stop in Iceland.Â Glacier Guides guys Gisli and Robert equipped and led us. Click any photo to get a closer look.
Here we are starting our approach to FalljÃ¶kull. This means “falling glacier,” and you can see why as it tumbled down this mountain. By this point, we’re wearing crampons and harnesses … and we have ice axes!
Here, I’ve aimed a 200mm lens at an icy outcrop. All the gray stuff you see is probably soot from the then-recentÂ EyjafjallajÃ¶kull volcano eruption.
A little bit more ice. Just imagine how many gallons and gallons of water this one glacier contains.And it’s just a baby as part of the larger ice cap.
My advice – don’t fill up on water before you go to the glacier. Just stick your bottle or hydration bladder under some flowing water for some of the tastiest glacier meltwater you’ll ever drink
Water and movement carve out incredible nooks from the nice. This one is just one of my favorite scenes from a glacier.
Another cranny carved by nature.
I love all the stripes in the ice, along with all the ripples and folds.
White ice with streaks of blue, with the darkness of rock in the background.
Looking back toward the flatlands and ultimately the ocean. My camera faces south in this photo.
Our hike didn’t go up high into the folds and spires, which was a bit disappointing. The glacier guides say it’s too dangerous up there.
Sarah, a German hiker and Robert from Glacier Guides.
But looking back at the posts, I could’ve done better. I want to take another shot at it. So let me swing back to the glacier hiking on Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand.
Look, I really want you to go to Franz Josef Glacier. I think you’ll take something incredible from the experience. If you’re fit enough, sign up for an all-day session on the ice (You can’t just go glacier hiking on Franz Josef unguided – I was skeptical of the need for guides at first. But you need them, for real).
Part of what amazes me about this is that Franz Josef is one of the few places on the planet where you can go from hiking through a tropical rainforest to glacier hiking in, oh, about 30 minutes. That’s right.
This isn’t a very technical glacier experience. You won’t need training or ropes or anything crazy. At some point, you’ll strap crampons to your feet. A short way into the day, you’ll need ice axes. And you’ll always need to mind your guides to the letter and keep your wits about you.
OK, I have that out of the way. But here’s the really big deal about glacier hiking: It’s a chance to see the Earth -- alive, changing, noisy, real. And to feel something about it.
I am convinced that every person needs this sort of connection to the world. Think about how many of us live among concrete. It’s all so static, so dead. It’s easy to see how a person can forget that we’re on a giant ball of interlinked organisms and matter. It’s easy to see how a person can just shrug and say "screw the environment."
Here’s my promise: If you stand on a glacier, you will change. You’ll hear the water rush under you. You’ll feel the vibration as ice grinds against rock. And you’ll desperately wish that most of the world’s glaciers weren’t disappearing. And just maybe, you’ll think about ways you can help reverse the process.
If you’re like me, you’ll spend some time feeling like a hypocrite. I drive too much. I fly too much. I wish I rode my bike to work more.
But hey, maybe you’ll do something smaller and less grand -- and it will start to add up.
When I look at my day glacier hiking on Franz Josef, that’s the real takeaway. It’s far important than the beauty – though I promise the views will captivate you.
Now, go. Take a trip to New Zealand. Book your tour. Come back, and tell me what your day at Franz Josef Glacier did for you.
It’s not easy to rattle Icelanders. But I’ve just figured out how to get a sure-fire rise out of an Icelandic glacier guide while hiking on FalljÃ¶kull: Tell them you’ve been on New Zealand’s Franz Josef Glacier.
"People die there!" Gisli exclaimed, sounding dismayed that we’d go there.
How’d this come up? Well. I’d guess it was my polished crampon and ice axe technique. And maybe knowing a few tidbits about glaciers – like what makes the ice turn blue. After talking to me for awhile, Gisli’s fellow guide Robert said something like "you’ve done this before."
Darn tootin’, we had. Nearly five hours on the ice at Franz Josef. That thing’s a monster. Apparently, a tourist-eating monster that just weeks earlier had claimed a few more lives. To be fair, it’s not the glacier’s fault. Don’t do stuff your guides tell you not to do.
So far, the crew at Glacier Guides had found Sarah and I to be pretty much model glacier hikers. We take care of our gear, we pay attention to their instructions and we have one helluva time. (See more info about Glacier Guides at the end of the post).
It’s easy for us to have a great time on a glacier. We loves the things. This time, we were on FalljÃ¶kull (pronounced Fall-yuck-cultl), which means "falling glacier." That’s because of the way it seems to spill over the nearby mountain, plunging down the cliffs. It’s a seriously beautiful glacier, with an epic, sweeping view of the landscape. I could’ve sat in the same place all day and just looked at the landscape.
We were also pretty enthralled by the rushing water pouring over FalljÃ¶kull. You could drink it and enjoy some of the purest water you’ve ever tasted. Most of the guides had carabiners duct taped to plastic water bottles – they started the trip empty, and just filled them on the glacier. Silly me for showing up with a full Camelbak!
As you can see in the photos, it was actually warm on FalljÃ¶kull. It wasn’t what I’d call physically demanding. At the high point of the route, we ate the lunch the guides packed for us and headed back down. Yet again, Sarah looked sad when she handed her ice axe over.
Soon, we were back at our old school bus. We boarded and headed fromÂ FalljÃ¶kull toÂ JÃ¶kullsarlon, where we’d take a boat ride in the famous glacier lagoon. This was more fun than I expected. The lagoon and its icebergs will blow you away. And it looks different every time, too. So you won’t see the same bergs and growlers, but a whole new set.
And maybe your guide will fish a hunk of glaicer ice form the water and break it into chips for everyone to taste. It was a cool experience -- sucking on a thousand-year-old ice cube.
There’s also a place to grab a snack. Go for the seafood soup if it’s a chilly or windy day.
After about 45 minutes in the lagoon, we boarded the school bus for the trip back to Skaftafell National Park. There, we gathered our packs from the Glacier Guides office, pitched our tents and caught up on our sleep. Some nearby backpackers also kept us entertained by singing Joan Osborne tunes. It was a most magnificent day on the glacier. I’d call it an essential part of anyone’s visit to Iceland.
About Glacier Guides: This is a very friendly, competent guide service. They gave us a lift from Skaftafell to Hof the previous day so we could get to our guesthouse (our bus didn’t go there). Then they picked us up for the FalljÃ¶kullÂ hike the next day and stored our backpacks while we were out having fun. They were accommodating and informative. I highly recommend Glacier Guides. If you see an Icelandic sheep dog named Hekla with one of the guides, give her a scratch between the ears and tell her Sarah and Justin say hello.