One of the best ways to experience a glacier up close and personal in Iceland is probably to explore the Sólheimajökull that sticks out of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier. Incidentally, the Mýrdalsjökull ice cap covers the mean and mighty Katla caldera, a fierce volcano that will one day erupt with fearful consequences. Just think massive floods and horrendous amount of pumice and ash.
Quick lesson in geography
Well enough about Katla for now. A trip on Sólheimajökull is a quick lesson in geography and global climate change. The dynamics that shape the movement, volume and shape of glaciers is on plain display. The most striking thing about Sólheimajökull is how it is shrinking and retreating. It can be called the incredibly shrinking glacier. It has retreated about a kilometer in the last decade and since the bottom of the glacier is below sea level it will probably leave a lake or a lagoon behind it.
Emerging from the ice
The ground which the glacier used to cover since is either covered by water or rough stony ground. A bit further, green shots of grass are starting to make the land a bit more pleasant. It is still a lot bigger than during the Viking age settlement when Iceland was a lot warmer greener place. It thickness is about 250 meters and at the core at the top of Mýrdalsjökull, the ice sheet is about 700 meters thick.
Sólheimajökull has a wonderful otherworldly landscape full of ice ridges, frightful looking sinkholes, streams running across the ice, and lines of ash in the ice revealing the incredibly many eruptions Iceland has experienced throughout millennia. Ash, pumice, sand from past eruptions from past storms and eruptions layer the ice.
Compared to other glaciers, Sólheimajökull is accessible. The road to there from the main road is actually “not that great” -in fact it is pretty miserable stretch of tire-puncturing gravel road full of potholes and large rocks. Make sure your rental car is allowed there. Once I drove this road on a Ford Focus C-Max and since that car is a lot more at home at German autobahns rather than Icelandic gravel that was a rather interesting experience!
The walk up on the glacier is pretty easy compared but the key thing for an enjoyable and safe journey up there is to have a good guide that knows his or hers stuff I would advice everyone against go on an Icelandic glacier unless you have the proper equipment and an experienced guide. Never ever go there alone.
I suppose a lot of companies will be happy to take you but I had the good fortune of having a great guide from Arcanum Glacier Tours with me.
Rough ride to the glacier
Drive a suitable car for the gravel road, proceed along highway 1 until you reach the turn to road nr. 221. The road is awful but apparently they are building a new one. The video below is us driving away from the glacier to the main road on our trusty Toyota Yaris. Epic drive.
Never go on an Icelandic glacier on your own, no matter how safe it looks. Have an experienced guide with you at all times with the proper equipment. Always do what the guide tells you to do and do not wander off. If you fall into a crevice or a sinkhole lurking beneath snow or thin ice, you might die. Do not go under the roof of ice tunnels at the edge of the glacier. These may collapse at any time without warning.
Written by Jón Heiðar Þorsteinsson