Step into a movie scene on glacier trek in Iceland

PHOTO: My Paper

THE ground was unfailingly uneven, despite the dusting of soft, powdery snow.

It was also clumsy to walk with crampons tied onto the soles of my hiking shoes. The metal plates with spikes helped to ensure grip on the ice but one has to walk with feet slightly apart and flatfooted, like a penguin.

In my right hand was a 60cm-long steel ice axe.

The get-up was for a hike on the Svinafellsjokull glacier in Iceland last month.

The landmark sits within the massive Vatnajokull National Park in Skaftafell, which lies along the island's south-eastern coast that is lined with a series of stunning glaciers.

At the heart of the 13,600 sq km park is the Vatnajokull ice cap, the largest in Europe by volume. It has about 30 glaciers flowing out from it.

Actually, I had a preview of the ice cap before touching down in Iceland.

The pilot on the Icelandair flight had offered a bird's eye introduction - by way of an on-board announcement as the plane flew over the ice sheet en route from Helsinki in Finland to the capital Reykjavik.

From above, Vatnajokull looked serene and picture-perfect - a smooth, undulating mass of pure white.

On the ground, the reality was much harsher. Muddy rivulets of rainwater stained its pristine face. The surface was ragged, with ungraceful ice formations and dramatic crevasses.

Sunlight that lit the glacier crystalline blue from within dimmed into murky grey shadows as my eyes travelled downwards into the ice cracks.

Some of these gaps can be more than 10 storeys deep.

It is easy to understand why paths that lead to glaciers carry signs that warn of the dangers of going onto the ice without proper gear and a reliable guide. One sign at another glacier that I visited, Flaajokull, even stated ominously that "some have never returned from a glacier visit, their fate still unknown".

A certified guide is generally required for glacier tours in Iceland. Of course, experienced trekkers can go for more challenging options, such as ice climbing and a hike to Iceland's highest peak, Mount Hvannadalshnukur, which towers at 2,110m above sea level.

Other ways to see the ice formations are to book a jeep tour, ride a snowmobile or take a boat ride in a glacial lake.

A 11/2-hour glacier walk costs about 9,000 Icelandic krona (S$98) per person, and a guided hike that takes 10 to 14 hours may cost around 40,000 Icelandic krona each.

Crash helmets, crampons and waterproof clothing may be provided, and proper footwear can be rented.

Do not worry if you have no technical climbing skills. Opt for a basic glacier trek, which is not too strenuous. That was what my four friends and I signed up for, with nine others.

Our guide, Asdis Birgisdottir, first led us to an unremarkable lagoon that had pooled near the edge of the Svinafellsjokull glacier - which many visitors would recognise as the filming location for epic science fiction movie Interstellar.

The glacier also made a cameo in Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, as well as popular TV series Game Of Thrones.

Ms Asdis explained that such lagoons are formed when glacier ice melts. Pointing to a mountainous ridge in the distance, she said: "That was how high the glacier was before."

The ridge was dozens of metres above the glacier surface.

It may not be possible to trek on this glacier in about three years' time, she added, for the melting would render the area inaccessible.

A VIEW THAT WON'T LAST

It was a sobering moment but the fact is that Iceland's glaciers are melting, and quickly.

The island's glaciers are disappearing at a rate of 1.3m to 1.8m per year, reported local magazine The Reykjavik Grapevine last month.

The melting is so significant that a nearby town, Hofn, has risen in elevation by 20cm since 1997. This is due to the relieving of pressure on the earth, said a 2015 study by the University of Arizona.

The signs of decline were there. When I visited the much-hyped Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon, it was devoid of its iconic floating icebergs, save for a lone survivor slowly heading towards the ravenous sea.

This lake has swelled up fourfold since the 1970s, and continues to grow as the glacier ice melts.

Still, Jokulsarlon is a worthwhile visit for the serene view - you may spot some seals too.

It is also where Hollywood hits like James Bond: Die Another Day and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider were filmed.

Across the lagoon, a black sand beach was littered with glittering shards of broken ice.

This "ice beach" is a scenic stopover, where you can clamber over the larger ice blocks while waves lap up the shore.

The aqua blue tinge of the ice points to their glacial origin.

A glacier is formed when deeper layers of snow are compacted by overlying snow and other forces. Air is pressed out of the snow, which becomes so dense that it absorbs all colours of light except blue, said Ms Asdis.

The clear blue fragments paint a stark contrast to the beach's charcoal sand - which got its colour from the basalt rock formed by volcanic lava.

As warm seawater splashed over the ice chunks, crackling sounds could be heard on the beach - similar to dropping ice cubes in water. It was yet another reminder that these frozen masses will not last long.

Afterwards, you can complete your glacial adventure with a local bottled beer named after the park, Vatnajokull beer - a light ale brewed with arctic thyme and water from its namesake ice cap.

I also dined at a restaurant in Hofn which advertised a lobster soup made with 1,000-year-old glacial water.

Some shops sell locally crafted soaps and other items made with glacial ingredients, if you are looking for souvenirs of a more unique ilk.

And, if you are lucky enough to encounter a starry night, you can take a swig of that glacial beer while watching auroras dance above the region's many snowy peaks.

chpoon@sph.com.sg


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