Earlier this year I was very lucky to be invited to take part in a training course on glacier exploration in Iceland, thanks to the University of the Highlands and Islands' School of Adventure Studies. The course was part of a larger transnational initiative known as ADVENT (Adventure Tourism Vocational Education and Training). This project involves partners from Scotland, Iceland and Finland sharing their outdoor learning approaches and knowledge, and developing new ways of training people to work in the outdoor industry. Iceland is an extraordinary country, just outside the Arctic circle. It is known as the Land of Ice and Fire due to its unusual combination of glaciers and volcanoes. In recent years, Iceland's tourism industry has undergone unprecedented growth. Not only have tourist numbers increased but also the number new tourism experiences being offered. Only about 30 years ago, glaciers were viewed as dangerous places that were more or less off limits to tourists. Today we have witnessed multiple glacier tours on a single glacier and even visits to ice caves underneath the glacier. One of our guides, Einar, was the first person in Iceland to lead tours to glaciers and ice caves but now it is a mainstream part of the tourism industry. About 20 years ago I spent three months as a biologist on Raleigh International project in Chile, living right next to the mighty San Rafael glacier. We were told the glacier was dangerous and to never go onto it. I was therefore intrigued by this opportunity in Iceland to learn skills for reading glaciers and travelling on and even under them! Our basic safety kit included ice axe, crampons (to give grip to our boots on ice), helmet and harness. We learnt that the most hazardous places were often the steeper areas between the head of the glacier and the flatter areas of the icecap. This was because they contained the deepest cracks (crevasses) where it was easy to fall and get trapped. The main reason we wore a harness was to provide a way out, if we should fall into a crevasse. We were taught about ascending steep slopes, ice axe arrests (if we were to slip on the ice) and I even had a go at vertical ice climbing.
Leon ice climbing at Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier, an outlet of Vatnajokull Glacier, near Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, Iceland
One of the highlights of the trip was visiting ice caves. Ice caves form when meltwaters drill their way down through the glacier and hit the bedrock. There they flow deep under the ice eroding a channel. During the winter when the waters usually freeze again caverns are left under the ice. These are clearly dangerous places but with careful assessment it is possible to enter. Ice caves can be incredibly solid but you need to be wary of cracks especially near the entrance and look for signs of recent subsidence. As winter passes and the melt begins ice caves become no go areas due to water flow and erosion.
During our trip I had the rare opportunity to spend the night inside an ice cave. This is a really new experience in Iceland and our guide estimated we were among the first 50 people to take part. I have to say that ice caves are stunningly beautiful - patterned blue ice, frozen waterfalls, icicles and amazing tunnels and ice bridges. I am used to bivvying out in icy conditions on my trips to Sweden but with just a sleeping bag and mat sleeping under an ice shelf it was a unique experience. We talked about the need to preserve and minimise our impacts on these beautiful natural wonders. It was fascinating to look at the crystal-clear, compacted ice at the base of the cave and realise that it fell as snow on the top of the icecap maybe a thousand years ago. Preserved within the ice were patches of volcanic ash from the same period. The recent (2010) eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull volcano had similarly deposited ash on glaciers in southern Iceland and this was partly responsible for the accelerated retreat of the glaciers. This is because the dark ash absorbs the sun's radiation better than the reflective snow. One thing I noticed about the ice cave was that it had a stable temperature of around 1 degrees C which at the time was warmer than the outside temperature. Also with the cave being enclosed there was no wind chill. In many ways it was a useful natural shelter in this harsh environment. During the day we were lucky to watch two massive chunks of ice (the size of house) calve off the front of the glacier into the lagoon. It set up a wave train that threatened to flood the beach.
At the end of the 5 day course I stayed on for a few extra days to do some solo hiking. I stayed quite close to Eyjafjallajökull volcano which erupted in 2010 but is now quiet. I also visited the magnificent Stogarfoss Falls. One of the highlights was visiting the Reykjadalur hot springs river about 45 km from the capital Reykjavik. It was another sunny, clear day and as I hiked the snow covered mountain trail I was surrounded by geothermal activity. There were big plumes of steam billowing out of the ground creating a slightly sulphurous smell in the air. In places there were patches of bubbling mud and boiling pools of water. These are known technically as "fumeroles" which are defined by Wikipedia as "thermal springs and gas vents where magma or hot igneous rocks at shallow depth release gases or interact with groundwater". In these areas the main hazard would be to wander off the path and fall through the crust into a hot pool. Fumeroles also emit toxic gases (sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulphide and hydrogen chloride) which in high concentrations can be harmful. Eventually the trail descended into an upland valley with a small river running through. The water there was quite warm at first and then as you moved upstream got to a bath-warm 40 degrees C. I joined a handful of other travellers bathing in the hot river - it wasn't especially deep but an extraordinary experience to lie in a natural hot bath in the heart of the mountains! I actually got too hot and it was a relief to walk on the snow in the crisp mountain air before getting dressed. From a survival point of view Iceland provides some unique challenges and learning opportunities. In winter it is known for its cold, stormy conditions which can quickly lead to cold injuries. Glaciers can be formidable and dangerous obstacles to cross, especially without the right equipment and knowledge. Geothermal and volcanic areas can be fascinating but there are various hazards - some more obvious than others.
Since my return I have felt really inspired to create a Wildwood expedition to Iceland. i have already started a discussion with a local guide. The aim is to create a summer course in 2020 learning about stunning geothermal and glacial areas. It will really be a unique trip, led by a local guide but with my input on survival perspectives. If you would like to know when this trip becomes available please get in touch with us.