Of Ice and Men


Once you've got the hang of it, moving along a glacier feels very surreal indeed

Iceland is a land of contrasts. It combines the vibrancy of its population with the wisdom of its land, the motion of its rivers with the quiescence of its mountains, the hedonism of Reykjavik nightlife with the conservatism of its natural resources, and the kaleidoscopic dance of the Northern Lights with the bleak canvas of an overcast day, the default setting for weather in Iceland. Indeed, this is an island that is very much alive, yet at the same time fast asleep.

Perhaps the most powerful contrast is that between fire and ice. Iceland is a volcanic island which sits atop the furnaces that built it, evidenced by the scattered vents that steam like kettles all over the country’s landscape. Yet more than 10% of this land is covered in glaciers and ice caps, many of which lie upon the immense geological cauldrons that are perennially stoked by the jagged join between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.
Sun and snow Of Ice and MenOf Ice and MenOf Ice and Men

The difference between the two isn’t just represented by their conflicting temperatures, however. Iceland’s volcanoes are as active as they ever have been, a fact of which the entire world was reminded in 2010 when one of them decided to sneeze, releasing an ash cloud that reached around the globe and caused chaos along the way. Their frozen counterparts, however, do not share this vitality, which makes them something of a precious commodity.

This goes some way to explaining why I found myself skimming across Langjökull, the country’s second largest glacier, on a snarling snowmobile while on a recent trip to Iceland, gripping the handlebars as if they were my only hope of walking away from the machine unscathed, and wondering how on earth I’d arrived in such a strange place when I’d started the day in downtown .

I’d been expecting to spend the entirety of my stay in the capital city, but soon understood that this is a metropolis as much about its surroundings as it is about itself, which is why there are so many Reykjavik excursions that convey visitors from their urban environs to a dazzling wilderness with astonishing rapidity. The most popular jaunt is that which tours the Golden Circle, but there are plenty of other outings which take in the island’s full breadth, from the depths of the seas that surround it to the ceiling of the skies above.

Teaching us the ropes...Snowmobile
Nothing gets you as close to a glacier as a snowmobile, however, and considering these frozen goliaths are locked in a slow but steady decline, any opportunity to make their close acquaintance should be seized. But first, you’ve got to get comfortable with a scooter designed to slip rather than grip, which makes the prospect of cornering somewhat challenging and braking intrinsically difficult.

Once you’ve got the hang of it, moving along a glacier feels very surreal indeed. All sense of scale and relativity is lost; 50 kilometres per hour feels like a gentle stroll, and a distance of a few inches turns out to be 100 feet. It presents a similar physical paradox to walking on a treadmill, moving towards something yet never getting any closer, and in doing so it becomes an effortless and graceful motion, akin to sliding across lemon sorbet or a ginormous tub of vanilla ice cream. If someone had brought some chocolate sauce and sprinkles, I may just have plunged in...

Before I had chance to indulge too deeply in my chilly Willy Wonka fantasy, however, we arrived at our destination: a cyan precipice protruding severely from its lusciously smooth surroundings. Closer inspection revealed the wall of torn ice to be sweating profusely, shedding droplets like an armpit during a squash match, allowing itself to be slowly claimed by its foes. This was glacial recession in action, yet for all of its tragedy it exuded an undeniably stupendous beauty, at once delicate and fragile but concurrently representative of an almighty strength.

The only way to explore a glacier

I became very suddenly aware of myself in this moment, and the manner in which I had gotten here. I had presented Mother Nature with the very man-made creations that are sapping her vivacity all over the world, and had even had the audacity to park it at the foot of one of her open wounds. But tourism isn’t the force that is harming this environment; instead, tours like this are raising awareness and understanding of the vulnerability of our planet, which is a reflection of the broader attitude that pervades the country’s population.

It wouldn’t sit beyond the realms of possibility to envisage the whole of Iceland as a national park one day; it is a land that certainly deserves to be preserved, and the pride Icelanders have for it serves only to underline this. It is also a land that visitors should feel privileged to see and a desire to treat respectfully, in order that it might be left to evolve on its own without the intervention of humankind.
It was thus with slightly less vigour that I skittered back across the snow when we left the bleeding wall of ice, while I contemplated the contrast I was adding to Iceland’s complex tapestry right now. I’d started the day expecting an adventure or some kind of quest across an untouched wilderness, not a self-induced rumination on the state of the planet. But this is one of the beauties of travel; so often we expect the undiscovered, but somehow find ourselves discovering the unexpected instead.
Alex did his Golden Circle tour with Mountaineers of Iceland, who offer numerous excursions around Reykjavik and beyond. See the website for more details.
Up close to nature