Svínafellsjökull: Walking on Water

A long time ago I had a couple of bad experiences with organised trips, bad enough to tarnish the experience in fact. After the second I resolved that I would never go on an organised trip again. Never.

The problem is that, if you are interested in travel photography there are only two options: You rely on someone else to plan the trip or do it yourself and because my obstinance on the matter had precluded the former option I have had, over the years, to become quite adept at the latter. To be honest, I’ve even come to actually enjoy the process and wholeheartedly believe in the old axiom: If something is worth doing, do it yourself – or something along those lines…

But there are some things that you can’t, or shouldn’t, attempt alone.

Destinations such as Antarctica firmly fall into the can’t category. Just getting there is a challenge: The Drake Passage is not a body of water that you would want to cross in a fishing boat and nor would you want a fishing boat captain, and specialist vessels and specialist staff require specialist organisations.

As for the shouldn’t category, well, that’s a bigger list. However here’s one example from Iceland.

Of the three organised trips I booked in Iceland the first was a glacier walk on Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier. Walking on glaciers is not only fun, but presents great photographic opportunities too. But walking on a glacier can also be dangerous – after all, you’re essentially walking on a gigantic skating rink, albeit one with man-eating crevasses, soft spots and, of course, gravity-affirming slopes. Walking out onto a glacier when you do not know what you are doing or are ill-equipped usually puts you one step closer to asking your maker – personally – as to why such wonders of nature exist in the first place.

There are several operators who offer glacier hiking but I went with Icelandic Mountain Guides, aka MountainGuides.is, for a couple of reasons. The first was the number of options they offered for glacier hiking. I was on a tight time schedule and having various options available meant that I could plan my limited time effectively whilst still getting the experience into my itinerary. I initially opted for the full-day hike, but ended up taking the half-day for the reasons discussed below. They also included all the safety kit – so I didn’t have to worry about last minute costs or hassle. Probably the thing that ‘sealed the deal’ however, was that they responded quickly to my emails – when I am planning something I want to get it organised quickly and out of the way. I want people to move at my speed.

It was only a few weeks after booking that I saw the BBC documentary “Julia Bradbury’s Icelandic Walk” and Icelandic Mountain Guides were the local guides involved. If they’re good enough for the BBC, they were good enough for me!

Even after paying my money, they were very responsive and, when they had to cancel the full-day trip I had booked as I was the only person, they gave me an option to have a full refund, move to the half-day trip (and refund the difference) or move to another day. They really could not have done much more.

 

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The day before the start of the season and operators are out checking safety conditions.

 

So what are the benefits of going on an organised glacier hike?

The first is, quite simply, safety. Certain activities carry a significantly higher risk of serious or fatal injury for those who are badly equipped and  glacier hiking is one of them. I only have to cast my mind back to last winter here in the UK when a bit of ice resulted in the endless news spots showing  people slipping and falling over.  Ice is nice, but there more of it there is, usually the more dangerous it can be. With an organised hike all the necessary safety equipment is provided and all you have to do is use it. Perhaps more importantly, there’s someone watching to make sure you use it properly. Of course, you could walk past a crevasse without using guide ropes and 99 times out of 100 you would be perfectly fine. But that one time out of 100 will really ruin your day.

Going with the experts has a number of benefits. Not falling into a crevasse being one.

Going with the experts has a number of benefits. Not falling into a crevasse being one.

The next benefit it is educational. Do you know what an ablation zone is? Do you know that the ice at the front of the Svínafellsjökull tongue moves at 1.5 metres per year whereas the ice at the rear moves at 50 metres per year? Do you know why? Do you know why crevasses form at different angles? I didn’t. But after a few hours with Árni, our guide, I did, along with a whole bunch of other interesting facts. At some point you’re going to be telling the folks at home about your trip and it is going to be so much more interesting to them if you can explain why the patterns in the ice are the way they are. Yes, you’ll learn that too.

300 year old art: Icelandic glaciers mix pure ice and volcanic ash to create some truly stunning abstract art. It is possible that the catalyst of the French Revolution is in this very photograph…

300 year old art: Icelandic glaciers mix pure ice and volcanic ash to create some truly stunning abstract art. It is possible that the catalyst of the French Revolution is in this very photograph…

The third is that you meet new people. That is always a reward.

So, maybe I am slowly recovering from my earlier experiences with tour operators and that my adamant refusal to consider them in the past is exactly that – in the past. As the saying goes, never say never…

 

 

Disclaimer: If this post sounds like a bit of an advert for Icelandic Mountain Guides, I guess it is. One of the problems I’ve always had in planning a trip is finding recommendations for excursion operators that are photographer-friendly. Whilst this trip is not a photographic hike – and I was the only photographer on this particular hike – two things make me recommend it. The first is that I felt like I had plenty of time for photography. Whilst I spent a lot of time shooting on the move, there were plenty of stops. The second is that I was pretty much allowed to move at my own pace – I frequently drifted behind the group to get them in the ‘sense of scale’ shots as well as look around at other things that caught my eye. Other than keeping a watchful eye on me, Árni let me drift behind and catch up as I needed. It was only as I approached something potentially dangerous that he intervened.

Some more shots from the hike…

From a distance you get a real sense of the scale of Vatnajökull - Svinafellsjokull is a relatively small glacial tongue.

From a distance you get a real sense of the scale of Vatnajökull – Svinafellsjokull is a relatively small glacial tongue.

 

At the foot of the glacial tongue. Up close the black rocks in front of us turned out to be ash-covered ice.

At the foot of the glacial tongue. Up close the black rocks in front of us turned out to be ash-covered ice.

 

Close to the mountainside friction causes the glacier to twist and buckle.

Close to the mountainside friction causes the glacier to twist and buckle.

 

Having an experienced guide like Arni meant that I could concentrate on photography safe in the knowledge that I wasn't going to kill myself.

Having an experienced guide like Árni meant that I could concentrate on photography safe in the knowledge that I wasn’t going to kill myself.

 

If you've never tried hiking on a glacier, you should add it to your list - it is great fun!

If you’ve never tried hiking on a glacier, you should add it to your list – it is great fun!

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