Iceland – glaciers

Iceland – glaciers

Written by: Jessica
Captions by: Diego

Our flight arrived in Iceland after 11 PM. The Reykjavik airport was quiet as we went through the immigration/customs procedure. It was pretty quick, thankfully.

Seeing a wall of superhero drawings from the 80’s and 90’s at nearly midnight was pretty cool

We then headed to the Budget car rental desk as we had reserved a vehicle there.  They tried to sell us car insurance, but our credit card covers car rental. However, most credit card insurances don’t cover damage specifically caused by volcanic gravel and ash, which is all over Iceland, so we did get the cheaper insurance for that ($50 for a little Ford Fiesta). Honestly, by the end of the drive, that was a mixed result. We did get some small little chips on the windshield, but nothing large enough to be noticed or cared about by Budget. Still, it made us feel more comfortable throughout the trip. I’d advise checking with your credit card for specifics on your coverage for rental vehicles, if your card includes such a program.

Once we had our card we drove to a small bed and breakfast style hotel in Keflavik, a town very near the airport. We hadn’t wanted to make the nearly hour-long drive into Reykjavik, the capital, due to the hour. Our room was pretty nice, and we settled into bed.

Icelanders are pretty adamant about removing your shoes before going into someone’s house – it was like this in every hotel/AirBnB we stayed at.
Room was nice, we crashed pretty hard that night.
Much nicer to drive in the morning and very quiet.

In the morning we slept in late. We figured out the showers—the plumbing is very different as to how to set the water temperature and pressure, and the pipes are extremely narrow in Iceland. We periodically needed to turn the water off to let it drain out of the shower pan. Unfortunately, bed and breakfast style didn’t mean breakfast was included.  We assumed it had, per reviews, but they were no longer offering it for free to keep costs down. However, we had slept through breakfast hour for the local recommended café, and the others we tried weren’t open.

So, we determined to have an early lunch in Reykjavik. However, we were struggled to find any open café along the freeway. Instead, we ended up making it to Thingvellir/Pingvellir.  That is a very interesting place as it is the site of Europe’s first parliament and has a lot of history. It is also the site of two tectonic plates meeting which creates unique geography. For fans of Game of Thrones scenes have been filmed at this large national park.

Not as exciting as we had hoped due to all the snow that befell onto it.
And here we see the wild tourists in their natural habitat, scrounging for overpriced and low-quality food. Finding an open cashier, they attack the poor animal in a pack. As is the circle of life.

Following that, we went to a nearby cafeteria and got our first taste of Icelandic food. There weren’t many options, and we ended up with pizza. Iceland seems to have adopted a lot of American and European food. The pizza was not very good and was a bit pricey. The price wasn’t a surprise and we assumed that the taste of the food was due to it being a cafeteria. Still, it was what was available, and we were very hungry by that point.

Our next stops on the Golden Circle were Strokkur Geysir and Gulfoss. The geysers were fairly regular, erupting much more frequently than Old Faithful in Yellowstone, although they were also much smaller.

A cute little geyser. It was interesting to see the little patches of green amidst a see of white snow.
The big geyser – ready to erupt
BOOM! Eruption immediately turned into steam due to the cold winds and temperature.
We’re rocking that sexy snow ninja look, it’s all the rage in Iceland.

Gulfoss was extremely impressive.  Apparently, Game of Thrones has also had scenes of the waterfall filmed, but never used.  This is actually a common theme: several shows and movies have had scenes filmed in Iceland, more on that later. The weather was quite cold, about 32F (0C) with very strong winds, and occasional snowfall.  At the waterfall, the winds of winter were blowing so strongly that you had to hold onto the rails to prevent yourself from being blown backward. I bet, if I’d been crazy enough to open my coat to either side of me, I could have truly been blown away.

Note the two people on the top left for scale. It was very difficult to take this photo. The Winds of Winter were blowing extremely hard and our shots were being overexposed by quite a bit (snow reflections). This is what it looks like when it’s underexposed (darker than normal) and before processing (Photoshop) for correction.
We waddled up to take this photo as my knees froze. This is a highly overexposed picture – easy to tell as it’s all white from the snow and no contrast in the waterfall.

After the geysers and waterfall, we ventured back into the car (it was like hiking up Everest). Our next stop for the day was our cabin for the next couple of nights. Diego drove, and he needed all of his skill at driving in snowy weather in Wisconsin to make it safely to the cabin. I spent my time checking the road map of Iceland, showing road conditions. To anyone ever driving in Iceland, check your online road safety guide religiously. Conditions change rapidly and most sound negative.

Most common conditions (with Diego’s take):

  • Slippery – the road is now ice for miles
  • Icy spots – black ice, good luck seeing where it’s at
  • Snowed – you better have a big vehicle to ford snow banks, Oregon Trail-style
  • Extremely slippery – you’ll be doing 360s on the road

Worse categories:

  • Impassable – Gandalf blocked this road
  • Difficult driving – Only stunt drivers allowed
  • Difficult condition – A cute way to say, “this is suicide”

“Easily passable” was the rarest road condition but the most hopeful to drive through. I had us avoid snowy and difficult roads, and even then, we came to a spot that was snowed over with cars stuck. We made it through, barely, by following a large SUV and not stopping otherwise we would not be getting out. Said road was then listed as “Snow” instead of its previous “Icy spots” after our drive through it. We should note that highways are generally two-way roads. During snowed in roads, most people tend to drive in the middle of the highway unless there is oncoming traffic from opposite direction. This is probably the safest thing you can do because the sides are slush and full of snow, making it really easy to plow right into a bank or lose control of your car.

The road is effectively ice. 10 years in Wisconsin prepared me for these conditions! Also, before the storm and one of the most common types of road conditions. Note how people drive in the middle unless oncoming traffic approaches. The snow plows cannot reach all the roads at once.
More snow! Driving in a Ford Fiesta during these conditions is no joke, I thought we were going to be stuck in multiple places. This is worse than driving in WI. Also, that line is a streak, not a cracked windshield.

We stopped in Vík (small Icelandic town) to pick up groceries and dinner. This is where we realized that Icelandic food just isn’t that great. Dinner was no better than lunch. We picked up some groceries for breakfast and dinner and continued our journey. Darkness had fallen and road conditions were even worse. We saw a tour bus that had gone off the road. We kept the car running for the heater and to prevent frost build-up on the windows. We eventually made it safety to the cabin.

Make sure you return your tray to the bread carts – this is fairly common here.
Bus got stuck. Make sure your tank is at least half full at all times because you never know when you’ll be sitting somewhere, waiting to be rescued, and needing the heater running to prevent hypothermia.
Visibility is for chumps.
The road to the cabin, salvation…I took the photos in the morning when there was more light.
Cozy little living room
The heaters were running nonstop to keep the place warm.
The bedroom had its own heater, I was glad to not be driving the rest of the night.

The next morning, we got up and drive on icy roads to Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon where we met our tour guides for a tour into an ice cave. It was beautiful to see the cave, although the crowds were very thick and it was honestly frustrating to try to get photos and look around when mostly you are seeing other people in such a small space.

The drive in the morning was SO much better. Beautiful sunrise along the way.
Driving through terrain, slick from freezing rain, I must be insane, as I couldn’t wait to take an airplane back to Spain.
I’m just glad I wasn’t driving. We had to use a special vehicle to get through the rough areas.
Entry to the ice cave, not as glamorous as I thought…
A long exposure (about 2″) shot with a tripod. The camera will capture any movement you make (hence my blurriness).
Exiting the cave, most people had already left by then. Sadly, the ice was melting so we didn’t see as much of the blue ice as we had hoped.
The drive back was breathtaking.

The guides tried to convince all of us that the rock formations that look like they have faces are trolls, frozen into rock permanently because they were caught by the sun. They also tried to convince us to believe in elves. Honestly, not sure how much of it was trying to con foreigners for a laugh, and how much was serious. The guides also told us that the “Super Jeeps” some companies drive are worth $400,000 USD! Our company was a bit smaller, but still had an extremely expensive vehicle as that is the only way to reach some outdoor areas. Normal off-road vehicles wouldn’t last very long in this country. Companies buy new trucks (they like American vehicles made to take a beating, no Hummers) and then gut the vehicle. A new suspension, frame, transmission, and just about everything needs to be reconfigured.

A Super Jeep – this thing is a monster. It’s also the only way to get around the terrain. A lifted F250 or whatever would not survive here, the entire body needs to be overhauled.
Jessica for scale. Even with the new suspensions and monster-truck tires, we still rattled around the cabin due to all the rocks and bumps on the ground.

Afterward we enjoyed a look around the Glacier Lagoon and Black Diamond Beach, where small pieces of the glaciers, battered by the rough waves, get spat back onto the beach.

We crossed this bridge to get to the beach, sheets of ice break up and flow into the ocean from here.
A mini iceberg flowing down after it was broken apart – bridge in the background.
Lots of icebergs break up on the beach and chunks remain.
I decided to pose on one of those chunks. It was a terrible idea as my pants got wet and cold – a horrible combo in this country.
Still lovely to see the contrast difference between the volcanic sand and the ice.

Luckily, although the wind remained strong, it wasn’t as cold so we could enjoy the sights for longer. On the way back to our cabin, we stopped to take photos of the beauty along the way. Just about any photo in this area of Iceland, or most of Iceland really, is worthy of a postcard.

We stopped at a cafe for lunch. There was a little hill and a mountain right behind it. We hiked up the hill and was greeted with this great sight.
Jessica was walking the top of the hillside, a little windy that day.
Walking back down and the sun was setting a little. About as close as I could get to a twilight shot.
Continuing our drive, we encountered this nifty-looking hotel with a waterfall right next to it.
Said waterfall.
The sun was setting but we were thankfully close to the cabin – I didn’t want to drive in the dark again.

The next morning, we drove to Skaftkafell, a glacier very near to Jokulsarlon, where we went on a guided hike on the glacier. On the way, we stopped at a strange chunk of twisted metal. Apparently, it had been part of a bridge destroyed by mud flows after a local volcano erupted.

This used to be a section of a bridge – until it was thrashed mud flows after a volcanic eruption.
This shot nearly ended my trip. The ground was effectively ice and I nearly fell in. Thankfully, there was a small section with rocks that I could leverage myself with and started the walk back to the car. Jessica scolded me (for good reason).

Before our hike, we put on crampons (ice hiking accessory for your shoes), grabbed an ice axe (emergency use and photographic prop only, not actually needed), and then our guide took us out onto the Svinfelljokull glacier. Apparently, you are allowed to go out on your own, but it’s not very safe if you don’t know what you are doing. Approximately a week before we were there, someone went out alone, got lost about and died from the cold when he didn’t make it in before dark. The guide told us about this, as he and the other guides form the rescue groups for those who get into trouble on the glacier. It’s also fairly easy to fall into a hidden hole within the glaciers – a 30 to 50ft (10-15m) drop.

Our Irish guide in front. Hikes are the best during sunrise or sunset, you see the warm glow as you walk.
It really was amazing to see all this.
Less wind and slightly warmer that day, still cold though.

Movie note: Interstellar’s ice planet, Die Another Day (007), and Game of Thrones have all been filmed on this glacier, or the connecting ones, including Jokulsarlon, where we were the day prior. For GoT junkies, this was where the icy scenes North of the Wall have been filmed.  During the hike, we were taking into a crevasse in the glacier. If you spot any dark flecks in the ice, those are pieces of ash, forming a record in the ice of volcanic eruptions. The bluer the ice, the more compressed and older it is.  Oxygen-rich ice (fewer years of compression of the snow) is whiter in color. Sadly, due to global warming, they are retreating and slowly disappearing.

At a main stop on the glaciers watching the sunrise. I noticed the smudge on the top right on the lens after I got back to the cabin, more work on Photoshop now 🙁
This is hidden death. That little patch of snow is actually covering a 50ft (15m) drop. You either have a guide, have experience to forge out a new path (it changes frequently), or you maybe get rescued. There are plenty of hidden falls throughout the glaciers, maybe of which you don’t see as easily as this one.
The wall that protects us from the White Walkers.
Sunrise felt really nice.

After the tour, we slowly made our way back to Reykjavik, taking lots of photos along the way.  We stopped at the famous Black Sand beach, which is the most dangerous beach in the country. It is known for sneaker waves that will haul people right into the ocean and to their death, as the water is so cold, rough, and gets deep quickly with a nasty undertow.

There was a little cave on the beach. Stay away from the waves at all times as the 8th waves is a sneaker and can drag you into the ocean. During higher tides, the sneaker waves will reach and possibly fill the cave, turning it into a washing machine and tumbling everything inside into pieces.
The beach is pretty and the volcanic sand is something I’ve never seen before. Not us in the photo.

We also took photos from Dyrholaey point, near the lighthouse (which was closed), and of a very more waterfalls along the way.

We found a little farm and Jessica made a friend.
I petted an Icelandic horse! They have very coarse fur.
The drive back was a sight to see.
A very cool (pun intended) waterfall.
A little river from the waterfall.
Sun was setting and we still had to drive back to Reykjavik. Our last shot before we booked it to the city.

Sadly, none of our nights at the cabin, where we had the best chance away from city lights, did we get to see the Northern Lights.  The weather was horrible each evening—freezing rain, snow, cloud cover.  We could barely spot any stars, let alone have enough darkness for the northern lights to show, if the solar conditions were right for them in the first place. Maybe we’ll get to see the Southern Lights, later in this trip….

3 Replies to “Iceland – glaciers”

  1. Wow ! Spectacular pictures, beautiful sights….and what an incredible adventure! …I also loved the ‘Monster-Trucks’ !
    Looks like Iceland food/gastronomy can not compete against Italy or Spain….
    Next Stop Germany ! Beer and sausages!

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