I first had the urge to visit Iceland while watching an episode of the television show, Amazing Race, that aired in 2004. Arriving in Reykjavik, contestants drove through the countryside and camped on a glacier. The next day, as part of a "detour", several racers scaled a sheer wall of ice.
On our approach to Reykjavik on Regent's Seven Seas Navigator, with the help of the ship's tour manager, Katja Bross, I tracked down the outfitter that had handled the ice climbing segment for the show, Icelandic Mountain Guides, and arranged to be met at the pier by one of their guides. We departed the ship on a cool, gray morning in a light rain, and headed into the countryside.
Our guide was Fridjon Thorleifsson, a 30ish native of Iceland who could trace his own lineage back 22 generations. For hours we drove through the fog and the rain as he told us of the geology and history of his country. He was as knowledgeable as any tour guide or ship's lecturer I have heard. He said we would be hiking on a glacier that covered a volcano that erupted on average every 80 years. The last eruption was in 1918, so it was overdue.
We passed towering cliffs and spectacular waterfalls, but as we drew near to our frozen goal, the rain quickened, the fog thickened, and our small pocket of visibility shrank around us.
Eventually, we turned onto a black gravel road, and as we rounded a bend, Fridjon slammed on the brakes. Twenty yards ahead of us, in the middle of the road, two great black birds of prey were closing in on a large white seabird they had forced to the ground. They were gyrfalcons, the largest and most powerful falcons in the world, with bodies two feet long and wingspans of 4½ feet. On rare occasions, these predators have actually killed hikers who came too close to their nests, diving from heights into their heads. This kills the falcon as well, and is generally viewed as a miscalculation, but that is small consolation to the hiker.
As we approached slowly in our car, the gyrfalcons reluctantly backed away from their prey, spread their wings and took off. After a short pause, a very lucky seabird flew out in the opposite direction.
"That would have been a pile of blood and feathers in another two minutes", Fridjon tells us. He warns us that these birds are nesting now, and to keep an eye open. I decided to keep two eyes open.
Another bend in the road and suddenly our glacier was in sight. A half mile in the distance, it rose at a fairly steep angle into low clouds, not yet ready to completely reveal itself.
We stepped from the car into a driving rain, picked up our crampons (frames of metal spikes that are attached to hiking boots for traction on ice) and ice axes and began our hike to the base of the glacier. The path was black volcanic rocks and sand, and it crunched beneath our boots.
By the time we reached the glacier, strapped on our crampons and took our first tenuous steps onto the ice, we were soaking wet. The rain dripped from the brims of our caps, streamed down our jackets, and ran down the backs of our necks. Our blue jeans were soaked through to the skin. The temperature off the ice was in the mid 40s, but it was noticeably cooler on the glacier. Fridjon couldn't help but notice our condition.
"They say there is no such thing as bad weather," he smiled, "only badly dressed people."
Here at the base of the glacier, in summertime, the ice was melting, and a river of black water rushed from underneath, just a few yards away. We began our uphill hike, with the guide setting a good pace, and the chill quickly disappeared. All across the slope, which extended ahead of us for as far as we could see, the surface was broken by crevasses in the ice -- tunnels dug into the glacier by rain and melting ice. Some crevasses were small, twisting holes, others were big, blue tunnels large enough to transport a careless climber deep into the glacier. We approached those openings carefully, and leaning over, could hear the roar of the water rushing underneath the glacier.
We encountered something else that I did not expect to see on a glacier -- jet black, pyramid-shaped formations ranging in size from a few inches high to two-stories high. We scraped the surface to see that they were made of ice, covered with a thin coat of black volcanic sand. The higher we went on the glacier, the taller the formations, until eventually we had to climb over them with great care. In one area, two black ridges ran close together, and between them, there was a stew of wet, black sand and rocks that swallowed our boots. The guide warned that he once sank up to his neck in material like this that had developed quicksand properties. We were again focused on each step.
As we climbed, the visibility deteriorated to less than 50 yards. With no landmarks and no sun for bearings, getting lost was a real possibility, but Fridjon was prepared for anything. He recorded our position on a hand held GPS device.
After 90 minutes of hiking and climbing on the glacier, we arrived at our destination -- a huge, horseshoe-shaped depression in the ice. The walls along the horseshoe were a sheer drop, but at the open end of the horseshoe, the slope was steep but navigable. We would be able to walk into the hole at that spot, without rappelling.
A few feet back from the edge of one sheer wall, our guide screwed a metal tube into the ice, pulled a rope through an attached metal loop and dropped both ends of the rope over the side. Then we moved to the open end of the horseshoe and made our way slowly and carefully down into the hole. At the bottom, we were surrounded on three sides by sheer walls of ice, and at one end, a pool of icy water several feet deep.
Our guide helped my teenage son and I into harnesses, explained the basics of ice climbing, and told us that he would belay us as we climbed, one at a time. We would be attached to the rope, which ran up the wall through the hook and back down to our guide, so if we slipped, he would be able to hold us until we could dig back into the wall.
In no time at all, we were kicking our crampons straight into the ice, stretching to plant our axes as high above our heads as we could reach, and moving slowly up that vertical plane. For both my son and I, the ice axes were easier to plant than the crampons, and several times I found myself hanging from one or both axes as I kicked for a foothold. But with steady-handed Fridjon calling instructions and encouragement from below, there was never any need for panic. Eventually I was able to lift my head over the top of the wall, where my triumphant yell was so breathless only I heard it. I rappelled back down the wall, to wait for another turn.
There were several climbs that afternoon in the fog and rain, then the hike off the glacier and the long, wet ride back into town. Rarely in my life has a hot shower felt so good.
I've been home for three weeks, and it's another sweltering summer day in Houston. But somewhere near the top of the world, Regent's Seven Seas Navigator is sailing toward new discoveries, and a modern-day Viking is leading another group of rookies up a frozen slope. It all seems a thousand years away.
Vacations To Go
Regent Cruise to Iceland, Part 1: The Adventure Begins
Regent Cruise to Iceland, Part 2: Highlights of Bermuda
Regent Cruise to Iceland, Part 3: New England and Canada
Regent Cruise to Iceland, Part 4: En Route to Iceland
Regent Cruise to Iceland, Part 5: The Land of Fire and Ice