Reaching the summit of Everest is on every climber’s to-do list, and if it’s not, it should be. That said, it’s not exactly the wild ride it used to be, and you’re more likely to see the likes of Damien and Willie Benegas cleaning up the litter left by hundreds of climbers than empty rock faces. To get away from all that, head to the glaciers of Iceland.
The Icelandic tourist scene is still developing, so while you’ll see some tours around, die-hard climbers will be able to get their fix of uninterrupted, uncrowded, unspoiled climbing amid awe-inspiring natural formations. And don’t let a potential lack of guides or hooks put you off. Or that rumor that there is no ice in Iceland. With a bit of preparation and bravado, even ice climbing beginners can have a memorable trip.
And on that note, let’s have a look at some of the top places apart from the obvious (the active volcano and highest peak, Hvannadalshnúkur) to go for an extraordinary climb.
A good site for ice climbers to make their debut is the Sólheimajökull glacier. It’s a quick and easy journey from Reykjavik, home to most native ice climbers, to the car park closest to the glacier. But first, you’ll have to walk for about 15 minutes to get to the foot of the ice wall. True novices in the world of ice climbing should be aware that glacier hiking isn’t necessarily a walk in the park — be prepared for some uneasiness and ice crunches underfoot. To make the hike slightly less disconcerting, donning crampons for this part helps a lot. The beginner wall at the glacier lives up to its name: there are quite a few handholds that have been formed by other people’s axes and crampons icing over so while you’ll still have to work at getting your axes anchored in, your feet will have a bit of help.
Kaldakinn in Skjálfanda, which is in the northeast of the country, would undoubtedly be much more popular if it wasn’t so far away — you’re looking at a six-hour drive or internal flight from the capital. But is it worth it? That depends. Are you looking for up to 200 meters of clean ice? About 20 stretches of which have probably never been climbed before? For anyone looking to get a real adrenaline rush or to build on previous experience, Kaldakinn is well worth a visit.
And for seasoned ice climbers, those who have done all the “easy” climbs and are looking for a real challenge, Glymsgil is the place to head toward. It’s just an hour away from Reykjavik and therefore much more accessible. At the opening of the canyon, there are several easier climbs, but as you move further in, you’ll have to contend with a river that doesn’t freeze completely. Rappelling down is easy, but once you’re there, the only way to get out is by going up. The routes are long and it’s an arduous climb. Be prepared and make sure your equipment is in good shape because these routes aren’t frequently climbed, so do everything in your power to ensure you don’t get stranded. The Icelandic Alpine Club has more information about the routes at Glymsgil (in Icelandic), including the best ways to get there by car.
Iceland is, as of now, an untouched paradise for climbing, with only the locals getting into it. Our advice is to head there sooner rather than later before it becomes as commercial as other spots. After all, where’s the fun of conquering an ice face that has been done by thousands before you?