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Have Pickaxe, Will Hike

ICELAND | Friday, 24 June 2011 | Views [1394]

Glacier hiking on Virkisjökull

Glacier hiking on Virkisjökull

Longest day in Iceland yet. I kept hitting the snooze and finally dragged myself out of bed and made it to the lobby to wait for the bus at 7:00 sharp. The bus didn't come until 7:13 and once we finished picking everyone else up we headed to Skaftafell, located in Southeast Iceland and one of the places I was trying to book a hotel months ago but everything in the area was unavailable. It's the base city for Vatnajökull National Park so I was glad that they actually run a day trip that far from Reykjavik. That means the only area I wasn't able to get to on this trip was this one national park in North Iceland, but with everything I've done so far already I would say this was a good trip. This was a 4+ hour ride with the bus speeding on open highways with no traffic. There was another woman traveling solo named Greta (from Germany) that also went on the same trip and is also staying at the same hotel as me. She complained that this was the worst hotel room she had been in for a very long time. The bus ride was fairly smooth. It was nice that it was strictly a bus ride (on a pretty comfortable bus), and didn't have narration or any photo stops or anything else touristy.

Once we got to the base for all the glacier hiking they provided a lunch of a tiny sandwich and the Icelandic staple fish soup. I'm starting to really like the soup here; it's pretty filling. Then we headed to the Glacier Guides base and they measured our hiking boots for crampons - metal spikes tied to the soles of your shoes to dig into the ice and provide the proper traction. Then it was another bus ride (in a school bus) to the base of Virkisjökull Glacier. It was a short hike until we actually got to the beginning of the glacier and had to put on our crampons and use our pickaxes. I was a little surprised at the casualness of it, because when I hiked Fox Glacier in New Zealand the guide fitted all our crampons on personally to make sure they were on correctly, but here the guide was basically like, “Here, this is how you put it on,” and didn't check our boots afterwards. Oh well, we had no major incidents, except for this one tourist who I will just call Camera Guy lost his pickaxe. I think he put it down to take a picture and then it just slid off the glacier due to the downward slope. Our guide had told us if we wanted to put it down to either dig our pickaxes into the ice or step on it between the crampons and that if it started to slide down not to follow it; it would be a lot easier for him to retrieve the pickaxe than to retrieve one of us.

Anyways, Camera Guy was pretty forward with his picture requests. When you travel solo, of course it's always hard to get your picture taken in front of something. You can take the picture yourself and wind up with a giant lollipop head, or you can get one of the other tourists to take it for you. Often enough when I take the picture myself someone will walk by and offer to take it for me. Otherwise my preferred method is to sort of wander around until usually a pair of travelers, either a couple or a pair of friends who want their picture taken together asks me, and then after I take their picture I ask them to reciprocate. Well Camera Guy asked just about everyone in the group, even the guide (tactfully you should leave the guide alone to you know, GUIDE) constantly and he was pointing out exactly what he wanted in the picture, how big he wanted to be in the picture, etc. Then he would fix his hair every time before we took the shot. I guess it's good he's comfortable with his vanity? When he had lost his pickaxe and was walking around far away looking for it, Greta mentioned to our guide, “There's always one.”

The glacier was pretty cool. Hiking on ice is always a unique experience and a little treacherous; you really want to make sure your feet are wider apart when you walk or otherwise you might hook your crampons on your pant leg and rip your pants or fall, etc. We had a good view of Vatnajökull Glacier, the main glacier on top and the 2nd biggest in Europe. There's always cool formations too (pun intended) where the water runs down the glacier and you just see things you wouldn't see anywhere else in the world. What we were walking on was actually very dirty though, covered in ash and dirt from the latest volcano eruption from the Grímsvötn volcano in Vatnajökull last month. Apparently some of their manmade bridges on our glacier got taken out too because of the eruption, so they had to alter some of the hiking paths.

We spent 1-2 hours hiking on the glacier and then headed to Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon on Breiðamerkursandur. Yes those names are just as hard to pronounce as they look. This area was pretty neat because this is where the glacier runs into the sea, and the seawater melts the ice, so you have this big lagoon filled with different types of icebergs floating around. We got in an amphibious boat and took a 45-minute ride around the lagoon. Our guide was blonde Anna, and she took this big chunk of 1,000-year-old crystal-clear ice and used a pickaxe to break it up into pieces so we could all try some. Definitely refreshing! The lagoon is is also where they filmed the end of the James Bond movie Die Another Day (which I never saw so I have to take her word for it) where they are driving around on the ice. They filmed during the winter but the producers didn't realize that the water never freezes over, so they had to close the bridge between the sea and the lagoon and wait 2 weeks for parts of the lagoon to freeze so they could drive the Aston Martins on it.

After our boat ride we got free waffles with cream. I wasn't sure why this was highlighted in the trip brochure, but I think Icelandic waffles are a big thing for dessert or to have with coffee, and yes it was really good. It was stuffed with jam inside and then you dip it in the cream. Yum. Then we drove back to base camp and back to our original bus for the ride back home – another 4 hours! It was a nice ride though; when everyone's quiet and just enjoying the scenery or sleeping it's very calming. We stopped in this tiny area midway and I had a fish burger for dinner, and yes, this fish was delicious and not ridiculously overpriced. We also passed by Eyjafjallajökull on the drive, which erupted last year and caused all those travel headaches in Europe (flights to and from North America were unaffected because the wind blew everything east). The bus driver also pointed out the large volcano next to it saying they were waiting for it to erupt sometime.

We didn't get back to town until 23:00 and I was so exhausted when I got back to the hotel that I just took a hot shower and brewed myself a cup of decaf (and started blogging)! Tomorrow is horseback-riding in the morning, and that will be less than half a day. I'm starting to feel sore muscles from yesterday's snorkeling so I hope my legs will be okay tomorrow.


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