Considering Ice Climbing or Glacier Hiking in Iceland? Find your answer now...
While planning my trip to Iceland, one of the first items on my “must do” was ice climbing. It was an easy decision, and of course, I had high expectations. It ended up being the highlight of my amazing trip to Iceland. I would say that it is one of the many experiences that I will always treasure on my journey to pin the planet.
Ice climbing and glacier hiking are among many outdoor activities that Iceland is famous for. One of the things that made this experience so profound was the incredible rate of glacier melting that has occurred over the past decades. I felt honored and in awe as I hiked up the glacier. Being up close and personal with this massive force of nature was deeply moving.
Every trip that I take, I try to incorporate a physical challenge and this time it was ice climbing. For the past few years I have been developing a strong interest in mountain climbing and this was a great introduction to ice climbing.
The choice was made, now I had to do my homework to decide which operator to use. So, I did my research and chose Icelandic Mountain Guides based on their reviews, and I can tell you that I made the right choice. I booked it a few weeks in advance and decided to do the combo – glacier hiking + ice climbing. I reserved a half day for the activity, starting at 12PM and it lasts approximately 4- 5 hours.
Ice climb tours take you to some of Iceland's most beautiful glaciers, providing you with the experience of scaling up and down naturally formed ice walls. The idea to challenge myself to try something new, plus to be in nature, was exhilarating.
I drove from the Airbnb I was staying at and met my guide at the operator’s office in Skaftafell National Park, across from the visitor’s center. They also have the service to pick you up from Reykjavik.
Upon arrival at the Skaftafell, you will need to pay around $50 to park your car (for the day). Control of the parking lot is done by camera, so your license plate will be recorded on entry and exit. You can pay at a kiosk in the parking lot.
THE ADVENTURE BEGINS - Gearing up
Sitting there while I got fitted for my gear: crampons, helmet, ice picks made me think, “This is awesome, I am really going to ice climb!”. We were a small group of 7 people and had 2 very experienced guides leading us. We left the parking lot and started to walk towards the Skaftafellsjokull glacier. I was in awe of the view of that place during our 20-minute walk to the glacier. The landscape transforms in front of your eyes like something from another world. Skaftafell is inside Vatnajokull National Park, between an array of spectacular mountains and the ice of the glaciers confront you with their size and unusual formations.
At the end of our 20-minute walk, we got face to face with the immense glacier. Before we continue our journey onto the glacier, it was time to gear up. Our guides showed us how to put on our crampons and how to walk in the ice – it was my first experience, and I really appreciated the opportunity to learn something new.
After we geared up, we started to walk up the glacier. Our guides led us across the top of the glacier while constantly monitoring the group’s safety. Blue ice and black volcanic rock appeared like a painting of colors upon the glacier.
The terrain transforms from a layer of volcanic sediment into a gleaming surface, and as you walk more onto the glacier, it starts to transform into blue ice. It was raining, but it did nothing to dampen my excitement at that moment.
It is amazing to learn that the glaciers are constantly moving, and it grows and shrinks every day, changing the ice formations. For example, if you visit the glaciers during wintertime, and go back in the spring it may be completely different.
As you continue to hike on the glacier, all you can hear is the metal spikes crunching on the ice with our crampons – we passed glacier walls, waterfalls and could observe lines and cracks from thousand-year-old ice showing impressive formations.
It is very important to have qualified glacial guides for this type of activity, as it can be dangerous because of the crevasses. Just to demonstrate how important is to have professional help, at one time I slid on the ice, and before I hit the ground, my guide came from nowhere and caught me. The guy was a ninja!
EXPLORING AN ICE TUNNEL
After hiking up the ice for about 30 minutes, we made a stop at an ice tunnel. The light was shining through the ice making it appear bright blue. It was beautiful! My first thought was “this is so awesome, let’s do it!”
We did some more training, mainly on how to use the axes and I felt prepared, until my turn. I had to go down the tunnel and rely only on the ropes, and my guide.
Guess what? I freaked out and it was not as easy as I thought it would be….but after a few attempts and a little “push” from my guide, I leaned back, as I was instructed. The rope remained strong and I was able to slowly moonwalk back down into the ice tunnel. When I planted my feet securely back onto the ground, I let out a big sigh of achievement. I was able to go down the tunnel and the good news is that I was safe and I felt amazing!
The bad news was that now I had to climb up the other side of the tunnel to get out. I had to use a lot of strength in my arms with an ice pick in each hand and also with my legs to give me the support with the crampons sticking in the ice. But going up was easier for me than going down. I felt safe during the whole time, as the guide talked to me and gave me words of encouragement.
It was amazing! I just climbed down and up a V-shaped ice tunnel.
ICE CLIMBING – 10 METER WALL
We hiked for another 30 minutes and it was time to ice climb a wall.
Our guides prepared all the gear and it was time again to take turns. I was the last one on the group again, but this time, the good news is that I felt super safe to climb up and I had a blast! There was no real danger and, even if I fell off the wall, I was tightly harnessed. It’s always the down part I have a hard time wrapping my head around.
I kicked my crampons into the ice wall and slammed my ice picks in until they felt strong enough to hold, and then I began my ascent to the top. It was surprisingly easy to maneuver the ice wall and I made it to the top without falling.
It was time to head back to the car. The hours passed by so fast. We spent 4 hours on the glacier but it felt like much less. It was such an amazing experience and I highly recommend doing a glacier trek and, if you are adventurous, to include ice climbing when you travel to Iceland.
After my first-hand experience ice climbing – from the excitement to seeing that I could do it, combined with how safe I felt during the whole activity, with qualified and fun guides, it makes me want to go back to Iceland and try something bigger and more challenging next time.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
It was one of our guide's last day at work, and when I asked what his plans for the future were, he shared that he just got his masters in Icelandic History and would start his own business. How awesome was that! I am a very curious person….and he could answer any question I would have! Here are some of the questions I had, mixed with some of the questions you may have – check it out:
1. Is it ethical to ice climb the glaciers?
If, like me, you question the ethics of climbing on a glacier, fear not. Before I decided to go on this tour, my first question was how much damage to the glaciers these tours would make. The guides explained that walking and climbing on the glacier does not destroy the ice or have any measurable impact on the environment. The biggest enemy of glaciers is global warming, which is melting the glaciers at a rapid rate.
2. Where can I ice climb or do a glacier hike?
Most ice climbing tours are conducted on Sólheimajökull and Svínafellsjökull. It will depend on weather conditions, and occasionally the glaciers may be temporarily closed.
3. Do you need to be fit to add ice climbing on your trip?
You need some level of fitness, so good news, you can use Your next vacation as a fitness goal motivation. But they will adapt the activity based on the fitness level of the group.
4. What do I need to wear?
Warm, waterproof clothes, gloves, and well-fitting hiking boots with decent ankle support—the more rigid, the better. But the good news is that you don't need to buy all the gear, the tour company of your choice is able to rent it all. I rented hiking boots and waterproof pants and a jacket for the tour. I didn’t pack anything for the ice climbing for my trip to Iceland because I really only needed them for this tour. Save the luggage space and rent what you need, unless you’ll need them for your whole trip.
5. Do I need any equipment?
Yes, in order to ice climb you will need a helmet, crampons, a harness, and ice axes, which will be provided by your guide who will also take care of the ropes.
6. Do I need any experience?
Not at all! It was my first time and I felt super safe. The guides will train you at a safe place before they take you to climb, and no previous experience is required.
7. Can we do ice climbing at any time of the year?
When I woke up in the morning and saw a rainy day, I got all upset and thought that we would need to cancel the activity. But they said that rain doesn’t stop the activity, and some operators run ice climbing activities all year round.
8. Is there any minimum age to do ice climbing?
I thought it was awesome that in my little group, this mom and 2 teenagers were doing ice climbing together. Some operators allow the minimum age of ten years old, while others set the minimum age limit at twelve years old.
9. Do I need to have a professional guide?
YES! Absolutely yes! Do not venture onto the glacier without the right equipment (crampons and ice picks) and an experienced guide. The ice is incredibly slippery and you will not make it far. You don’t want to cut your trip short slipping on the ice or falling into a crevasse.
10. How long does this activity take?
It may take 4 to 5 hours, it depends on the weather conditions. But it is so much fun and so much to do and see that 5 hours just flies.
You can also do shorter tours (2-3 hours) that may exclude ice climbing, but include a glacier tour.
11. And if I decided not to go ice climb during the activity?
It is not a problem at all. The ice climbing part is totally optional, so if you are scared or physically unable to climb, you can skip that part. Doing a glacier hike is just as exciting and memorable. You will take this experience with you for the rest of your life!