Adventure Islands Have a Go Hiking Iceland

Glacier hiking on top of volcanoes – at Skaftafell

In Ice Arch on Glacier
Written by Kirstie Pelling
Glacier Guides Skaftafell Glacier Bus

Glacier bus waiting to take us up onto the glacier near Skaftafell

If you want get up close to a glacier, then Iceland is a great place to do it. In the south of the country, just a few hours out of the capital, they pour down and almost touch the ring road with alarming regularity. And from the towering blue pillars to the silt ridden tongues, they’re truly unmissable. We took a walk on the on the Oaefajokull tongue of the Vatnajökull glacier with a little from Glacier Guides…   

A stroll on the ice

The children lightly swing their axes over their shoulders like Grumpy and Dopey; their eyes on the prize of the tall blue spires glistening in the sunshine way above us. The teeth of their crampons munch on a thin layer of ice. We move off together, sounding like turmites in a David Attenborough programme.

Oaefajokull Glacier, Skaftafell

The Oaefajokull glacier at Skaftafell, our hiking destination

We are off for a stroll. On a glacier. For obvious reasons, people like us aren’t encouraged to go randomly walking on glaciers in the Vatnajökulspjodgardur National Park; the largest national park in Europe. But thankfully there are plenty of companies that can provide the high thrills. You can do everything from whizzing off on a skiddoo to climbing vertical walls. Or like us, you can simply go for a guided walk.

Vatnajökull; the big daddy of ice caps

Boasting an avenue of glacial tongues that look as though they reach the ring road, this National Park is home to the biggest icecap in Europe, Vatnajökull, under which lie several active  volcanoes. After our fantastic morning rafting in the north (which Cameron and Hannah have listed as their top experience in Iceland) we have enlisted the services of another of Arctic Adventures partner company to take us hiking on Oaefajokull; one of the offshoots of the Vatnajökull ice cap. Glacier Guides is recognisable by its traditional turf roof, and the amount of people trying on harnesses and crampons on the benches outside. Hannah is too young to come with us, so Stuart takes her troll hunting, leaving me in charge of the boys. And their axes.

Crampons and Ice Axes at Skaftafell

Crampons and Ice Axes at Skaftafell

Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go

Chip chip chip. Every time we pause to learn about the glacier, the boys bash away at the ice. They can’t resist carving their mark on this dynamic landscape. They make a small hole in the glacier. And then a bigger hole. Can Matthew make a big enough hole to swallow up his brother?

Glacier Guide puts on crampons

Guide Jón Heider Rúnarson shows us how to put on our crampons

He doesn’t need to. The glacier makes huge holes quite well by itself. Our guide Jón Heider Rúnarson holds each of us us by the waist as we peer down into a hole that stretches down further than we can see. He drops in a stone. We wait patiently to hear the splash. “I love the sound it makes,” he says. “Everyone should throw stones.” The boys need no further invitation.

Boots, crampons and ice axe

Boots, crampons and ice axe – everything a boy could want

There’s a saying in Iceland that goes ‘if you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute.” And so it goes today. In a few hundred metres of walking we have sun, hail, rain and a rainbow. Each wave of weather paints the giant ice cube in various degrees of white and blue light, showing us all of her different sides.

Amidst the monochromacity Jon points out a bright green mouse, a glacial peculiarity formed when moss gathers on a stone rolled by a glacier. Examining a glacial mouse is enough to stop the boys swinging their axes, at least for a moment.

Glacier Mouse on Oaefajokull Glacier, near Skaftafell

Glacier Mouse on Oaefajokull Glacier, near Skaftafell

We move on up the glacier towards pillars standing 10-15 metres high and I try to get my head around walking vertically up ice without slipping. I’ve worn crampons in Cumbria in the snow. But this is different; here’s there’s no powder, only glass. As one of the world’s clumsiest people, it feels liberating, to strike out on ice knowing I’m not about to topple over, and as we enter an ice tunnel, I’m glad of the support of both the crampons and guide. Because now we are climbing over wide channels, and ducking under arches to get to the centre of a place that only needs Father Christmas and a reindeer to complete the magical effect. And although Jón looks like he takes people around the tunnel all the time, he confesses the glacier changes so quickly that he has never seen this ice formation before. Even the boys are silenced. For a second. But soon the chipping starts away again. It seems they were simply evaluating the best place to stand while demolishing a tunnel.

Glacier Boys with Ice Axes

Boys, glaciers and ice axes

Time for a drink?

Chip chip chip. Cameron separates a giant crystal from a glacial offshoot of the largest mountain in Iceland and holds it in his hand. It’s as smooth as clear glass yet filled with bubbles. “That’s a beautiful one you’ve got there,” says Jón, who tells us one of the guides keeps a huge chunk of it in the freezer. “Vatnajökull provides the best type of ice for a whisky. It lasts for two glasses.” Matthew fills up a water bottle in the glacial river and vows to take it home so he can say he has a glacier in the fridge when his friends want a drink. That and unlimited ice axing makes it a very good boys day out.

Rainbow on Oaefajokull Glacier, near Skaftafell

Rainbow on Oaefajokull Glacier, near Skaftafell


This post is part of our 2012 Adventure Islands Season. We’re spending summer 2012 crossing Northern Europe by car and ferry to visit Iceland and The Faroes. We’re exploring the wilder parts of these adventure islands on mini biking expeditions, and researching and reporting on other attractions and activities on offer to adventure seeking families as we tour other parts of the islands by car. We’re grateful to DFDS Seaways and Smyril Line for their support in getting us and our vehicle to Europe and onto Iceland and The Faroes, enabling us to bring you this season of posts. And to Berghaus and Thule who have helped equip us for the journey.  Thanks also to the Dagny at Artic Adventures and Jón and his colleagues at Glacier Guides, Skaftafell for their help in bringing you this story.

You can follow our progress LIVE on The Family Adventure Project Punkt and get some exclusive behind the scenes photos and video of our journey.

About the author

Kirstie Pelling

Kirstie is the Editor of The Family Adventure Project. A professional writer and poet, she's the creative and journalistic force behind many of the stories and features published here. She's a co-founder and co-director of The Family Adventure Project and also works as the #poetinmotion producing and performing poetry for print, video and live performance.


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We're Kirstie & Stuart. We share an adventurous spirit, a passion for indie travel and 3 kids. The Family Adventure Project is our long term experiment in doing active, adventurous things together. Find out more...


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