We set off about 8am and were picked up in a mini bus from different hotels and points across the city. We headed out towards Selfoss before arriving at Sólheimajökulsvegur where we met up with a few more people and got our gear on. I wore my hiking boots, thick socks, leggings, a thermal layer, fleece and waterproof. I had a headband (permanent feature for me in Iceland) and gloves (hardly wore them). We were given a helmet, climbing harness and ice axe for the abseiling and climbing, and crampons so we could walk on the glacier.
There were three groups, each with a guide, our group was a little bigger so we had two guides. We started the walk up from the car park to the glacier edge, this took about 20minutes and was pretty gentle. Approaching the glacier was so exhilarating, its like a geography class textbook has come to life and you are about to walk all over it. You can see traces of the highest point and where this amazing ice formation has moved and carved into the landscape, where it has sinkholes and where those sinkholes have gone and left a trace of pure mucky, jagged ridges of ice. It's oddly beautiful.
Here we stopped and put our crampons on, we were given a short lesson in how to fit them and how to use the ice axe. This all felt very adventurous and exciting but we would actually be using them to climb out of sinkholes later so adventurous and scary too. Walking on the glacier was cool, it sounds silly but I had never worn crampons before and being able to walk, or stomp, around on ice was enough to keep me happy. We made our way onto the glacier and towards some of the active pieces of ice. This is where we started to spot cracks, holes, small pools and sinkholes. This is also where I became very snap happy and I think I managed about 200 pictures in the 4 hours of being on the glacier!
The guides we had were fantastic, they had a great sense of calm about them and were fantastic at making sure we were all enjoying the trip, seeing what we wanted but safely. They kept an eye on us when we were waiting for everyone at the sinkhole and made sure no one was too near the edge. They were very knowledgable too but it's hard to take in all the information when you are so mesmerised by your surroundings - they have a pretty cool office!
So, I will try. A sinkhole, from what I understood, is where a small stone (or piece of lava, etc) settles on the glacier and, overtime, starts to work its way into the surface of the ice with the help of its weight and exposure to the elements. Over days, weeks, months this starts to form a dip and then a hole, and then eventually the stone has created a large enough dent in the glacier that it falls to the bottom (some 30m down) and a sinkhole is created. This will often be a place for surface water to also escape down and run under the glacier and out to a nearby river or lagoon and so interesting waterfalls are created and the noise of these can be a little eerie. This is what we were up on the Sólheimajökull glacier looking to abseil into.
Before we reached the sinkhole we were shown some smaller ones. The Icelandic guide found some clay and explained its mineral use and benefits as a mud mask, and allowed us to try the fresh water running down small streams on the surface of the glacier. Looking up at the glaciers horizon, it was hard to imagine how big it is as we were only on a small tongue of it, and it was vast.
I’ve done a bit of climbing and abseiling before, well, over 10 yeas ago but I thought it would be fun and, to be honest, I didn't think they would make us do anything too challenging. Well, the sinkhole we found was the largest on this section of the glacier and, in my opinion, it was huge. It looked stunning, the layers of compacted snow carved away to create beautiful structures, colours and patterns. It was hard to focus and not just take pictures so I didn't opt to go first. After watching a few people abseil down and climb back out, making it look relatively easy, I went for it. All harnessed up with my gloves on, ice axes in hand and helmet nice and tight I made my way forward. Edging over the ice was ok, leaning back was ok and abseiling down was ok but ok was getting a little scary. Maybe its me getting a wee bit more chicken in my old age…but I was a little nervous half way down. I did it though and had a quick look around before getting my ice axes out and crampons well and truly kicked into the wall of ice to attempt my climb out of the sinkhole. This is where it got challenging. I really didn't think it would be that hard but my wee arms were trying, lucky my legs were working it. It took me quite a lot of determination to do it without having to be pulled up but I am glad I did it. My toes felt a little bashed in afterwards so I think I've left my mark on that ice.
After everyone who wanted to had had a go abseiling, we headed back. We were all confidently walking on the ice and snapping the last few pictures. It was quite surreal and I kept having a look back as we walked back down to the carpark. On the way back to Reykjavik we stopped off at the beautiful waterfall of Skógafoss which is huge and sprays you as you approach - a chance to reflect on the day before the journey back.
A really awesome day trip, and if you have the time and budget then I would say go for it, it's not often that you get to climb a glacier. For more information, check out the tours on offer with Arctic Adventures.