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Breiðamerkurjökull is an outlet glacier of the larger glacier, Vatnjökull, located in southeastern Iceland. Emerging as a tongue of the Vatnajökull, it ends in a small glacial lagoon, known as Jölkúsarlón. Breiðamerkurjökull is among the largest glacier tongues in Iceland and the flow of ice has a southerly direction away from the main icecap Vatnjökull. Over time, the glacier has gradually been breaking down and receding, increasing the size of the lagoon. Up to the turn of the 19th century, the glacier tongue advanced to within 200 metres from the sea but has retreated considerably, especially after 1930, creating the greater part of the Glacial Lagoon. At the ice calving site icebergs break away from the tongue of the glacier and begin a slow drift in the icy waters of the lagoon. Slowly the ice drifts to the mouth of the lagoon and eventually reaches the ocean.
During a Fall visit to Iceland to scout locations for an upcoming workshop I had the opportunity to take a hike out onto Breiðamerkurjökull with my traveling pal Adam Holston, and led by Haukur Ingi Einarsson, the owner of Glacier Adventure. I contacted Haukur ahead of our arrival and was able to arrange a private hike out onto the ice. To be perfectly honest I was not prepared for what we saw that day. I expected to strap on the crampons and spend a few hours out on the hard-packed ice before heading back in for dinner. I could not have been more surprised as we moved westward towards the blue waters of Jölkúsarlón, arriving after a 4-plus kilometer hike, to an icy overlook adjacent to the blue-green ice seracs that feed the glacial lagoon. The hard-packed, soot and ash covered ice, became a series of long finger ridges that gradually gave way to the serrated blocks of ice. Down below, from our vantage point, the ice ended abruptly, giving way to a rocky beach with finger streams of water draining into the lagoon.
Iceland is a glaciated country and approximately 11% of the island is covered by glaciers. Glaciers in Iceland are dependent on topography, temperature, and the amount of precipitation. Because of these factors they form in highland locations where winter precipitation remains year-round and surpasses summer melting. The snow builds up layer by layer and over time, compacts into dense layers of ice. These layers crystallize, and recrystallize, becoming more dense as new layers are added. Under such weight and pressure the glacier is constantly moving, expanding and contracting, scouring the earth, creating crevices, moraines, and seracs. In order to be classified as a glacier the pack of ice must move. Glaciers can have a profound impact on the landscape as it expands and retreats, striping away the soil, carving solid rock, and picking up boulders, small rocks, and gravel, much of which is ground into a fine sand or mud and deposited at the foot of the glacier. The glaciers also pick up whatever falls on top, such as volcanic ash, and this becomes trapped in the layers of the ice, and eventually released. Iceland’s glaciers have been consistently retreating over the last 100 years. Glaciers and arctic sea ice perform an important cooling function for the earth and their reduction can only serve to hasten the effects of global warming.
Our glacier trip began at the Glacier Adventure Base Camp at Hali, just 10 minutes away from the famous Jölkúsarlón glacier lagoon, where we met Haukur, and laid out the general plans for the hike. After an assessment of our current footwear, we switched out our boots for some stiffer models that would provide better ankle support during our walk. We sized up our crampons and gathered the rest of our gear, including a helmet, harness, and an ice axe. We also had a pack with our camera gear and tripod, plus water and incidentals. I carried a Fuji GFX50s and three lenses, the GF23mm, GF32-64mm, and the GF110mm. I also carried a Leica M240 with a Voigtlander 21mm Ultron which I used to record most of the on-ice images during the hike. All of this went into our big-tire, rock hopping, supper van for the drive out to the head of the glacier. The road quickly degrades into a boulder filled track that had us bouncing and shaking for about 10 kilometers out to the parking area.
Halfway out to Breiðamerkurjökull we noticed some activity along a low escarpment of rock where a family was gathering their sheep from the grazing areas adjacent to the glacier. September is the gathering month when all of the farmers work together to gather their sheep from common grazing lands, called afréttur, and “bring them home” for sorting at réttir (see my last blog post which focuses on the réttir and gathering). We stopped briefly to watch as two young ladies guided the sheep across the rocky track and kept moving. Though only a small gathering I was struck by the harsh beauty of the landscape under an expanding grey sky and the two herders, on foot, without the aid of horses, sheep dogs, or mechanical means, bringing their sheep “home” much as their ancestors have done for a 1000 years. Adam and I would witness a much larger gathering and réttir a week later which put this smaller one into perspective. In some ways this one was more poetic and spoke so much to a purposeful and simply lived life. Of course the two young herders, racing across the volcanic landscape might have other thoughts about that idea.
Once out to the parking area we made a quick gear check to make sure we had everything for the day and headed out through an other-worldly landscape, carved and cut by the receding glacier. It was beautiful desolation framed on the east side by a high ridge of mountains, and to the west an open and expansive landscape of rocks and glacial remnants. Here the land had been pushed up into small ridges as the head of the glacier advanced, and left at is receded. A short walk brought us to the “Breiðamerkurjökull Bridge” (not really its name but I felt the bridge deserved a grand name to match the landscape), and afterwards to the spot where we donned our crampons and went over the basic techniques of walking in crampons–a kind of exaggerated high knee lift technique–and staying safe out on the ice.
Once on the ice our hike began in earnest and we walked steadily towards Jölkúsarlón, across and undulating, and expansive, field of ice. To the south was a rock filled series of moraines and to our north the glacier rose upwards to the snow capped peaks of Vatnajökull. The ice was laced with hairline cracks and small fissures spreading out in all directions, evidence of the intense pressures at play as the glacier moves. We also discovered large holes, or wells, that led into the ice and in some cases connected to ice caves under the glacier. You could hear the water coursing through these slots which became the small rivers draining into the glacial lagoon.
Walking in crampons is not particularly difficult once you begin to trust that the steel spikes will indeed keep you from taking a spill on the ice. Edging on an uphill portion of the glacier, with a toe kick into the ice, does takes some effort and just a modicum of faith - that and use of your trusty ice axe for stability. It is an acquired skill set and we got better at this as the day progressed, but our ankles bore the brunt of our efforts and were quite sore for a few days afterward. Occasionally the crampons required some adjustment and tightening which required an unwrapping, and re-wrapping, of the straps, all in a specific intricate overlapping pattern. By the end of the day we became quite adept in the process.
All of this is just part of the rhythm of being on the ice. There comes a point when your focus on the gear changes to an awareness of the landscape around you. It is vast and intricate and during our visit, windless and silent. After a few kilometers the relatively flat glacial field changes becoming more rugged and ridge-like. And in the distance the color begins to change. As we climbed up to a higher point we gazed over ash coated ridges of ice, that gave way to blue-green ice seracs, and the blue waters of Jölkúsarlón. It is sublime. The sheer beauty of such a sight leaves one breathless and I was truly without words to describe it, and even now I struggle to do so. It is not like any landscape I have ever seen or much less experienced in such a personal way. I just wanted to keep going, to press forward and explore, to burn it into my brain so I would not forget.
We worked along the edges of the ice making a few images and continued to take in the view. Occasionally a small chunk of ice would separate from the larger seracs interrupting the silence. As the ripples of water spread outward the silence soon returned except for the “chink-chink” of our crampons on the ice. I wanted to stay put, but our return trip beckoned us onward and promised yet another surprise. We had to move down to the rocky beach along the edge of Jölkúsarlón and this required a short rappel, and a little more faith in our crampons. Haukur set some ice screws for anchors so he could belay us down and after locking the rope into a carabiner on our harness we made quick work of the descent. The moraine below the ice was a combination of rocky solid ground, laced with a watery, quicksand-like mud, where you would sink in to the tops of your boots. You have to move quickly to regain your footing and find stable ground. The view from this lower vantage point is striking in contrasts. It is akin to standing in a geological laboratory, with a solid vertical wall of ice on one side - the retreating glacier edge - and on the other an undulating moraine of pulverized soil, gravel, and small rocks left by the retreating glacier, and beyond this a vista across the dead calm, frigid waters, of a blue lagoon. Scale here is somewhat lost, or at least can be miscalculated when you attempt to judge it from afar, or from higher vantage points. The moraine field was much bigger than I anticipated, and taller. This became evident as we moved down to a narrow edge of beach along the lagoon. Here the moraine was several stories tall and much easier to walk along after we had removed our crampons.
We crossed several fast moving streams that were draining melt water from underneath the glacier. Here the structure of the moraines and their formation was more evident. In my mind I was thinking of an asphalt paver that lays tar on a road surface, building each layer as it passes. The moraine is simply the deposits the glacier has gathered, distributed back into the landscape as the glacier recedes, and consists of the soil and rock that it scoured as it advanced. We arrived at another melt water channel and moved along its edge to a gaping, arched opening, at the front edge of the glacier. I knew then that we were going inside one of the ice caves. This is not always an option at this time of the year, winter being the optimal time, but Haukur said the glacier, and the cave, was enough stable for us to take a quick look inside. Otherworldly just does not describe it.
Even through the dim light from the cave entrance, the characteristic sculpted forms of water carved ice were evident. Slick, undulating, and cold, the roof spanned in an expansive arch over our heads. And when we turned back to face the light, the ice came alive in tones of blue, blue-green, and whites, sculpted in in waves and dotted with embedded black ash. The blue tone only happens with the reflected light from outside the cave. The floor was a carpet of material that will eventually feed the moraines and everything was wet as water dripped from overhead. Tight and enclosed at first, the cave soon opened up into a soaring cathedral roof with sculpted ice expanding over our heads. Water rushed through the cave and we traced its origin back to an open slot where the water shot out of a hole in the glaciers wall.
If I had only walked upon the glacier, or visited the ice calving site this hike would have far exceeded my expectations. But to go underneath the glacier and experience the blue ice simply capped an incredible day. Haukur planned a custom trip for us that counts as one of the best adventures I have had in Iceland. When you visit Iceland, and you should, I highly recommend a trip out on the glacier and Haukur and Berglind from Glacier Adventure will set up your trip and help you with all of the logistics.
You can also join me on my 2019 Fall in Iceland Photography Workshop and Tour which includes a trip out on the ice. This is a small group workshop. Details and to sign up HERE.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. Please leave a comment or ask a question. And please share and Subscribe to receive more articles and workshop events. Thanks so much. RHC