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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Glacier Trekking

Iceland’s other worldly landscape is constantly evolving

A beached chunk of glacier ice in the Jökulsarlon Lagoon, Iceland

Stepping onto a glacier brings you to one of the more surreal landscapes one can visit on this planet. Viewed from a distance, a glacier, if it isn’t covered in snow or rock debris, is mostly uniform white, caused by exposure and melting from the sun. But once on the surface of the glacier or exploring a glacial lagoon with icebergs, you quickly find yourself in an environment of color and shape. Glacier photography will take you into a wild and random landscape of ice, rock and water. There’s no better adventure-friendly place to explore the entire journey of a glacier, from the mountains to the sea, than in Iceland.

I first traveled to Iceland about 10 years ago to shoot ice climbing, and finding the winter landscape stunning, I vowed to return in summer. Summer is short in Iceland, and although I got there in early August, it felt like winter around the icecaps! My main objective was to spend time exploring around the country’s glaciers, especially the glaciers flowing off the massive Vatnajökull Icecap.

Before I go any further, I should include a disclaimer: Glacial exploration has many hidden dangers and isn’t for the inexperienced. Though they seem static and benign, glaciers are really a complex and dynamic system of frozen ice. Glaciers flow like a river, but slower, so instead of rapids and waterfalls there are crevasses and icefalls. On glaciers there are other unique and potentially dangerous features, such as water-carved holes and channels (called moulins), moraines and, in Iceland, subsurface volcanoes with associated floods and earthquakes!

Well-prepared glacier travelers will need equipment such as crampons, an ice axe, sunglasses, sunscreen and cold-weather gear. If the glacier is covered in snow, potentially dangerous crevasses can be covered, and an 8.8mm or 9mm rope will be needed. It’s strongly advised for inexperienced glacier travelers to hire a mountain guide to take them onto the glaciers. The guide can provide all the safety equipment as well, so you won’t need to bring your own.

In Iceland, accessing glaciers is fairly easy, as many are right next to roads. The biggest icecap in Iceland is Vatnajökull, the largest one outside of the Arctic or Antarctic Circles. Last year, Iceland formed Vatnajökull National Park, which completely encircles the 5,100-square-mile Vatnajökull Icecap, as well as surrounding wild lands. This new national park, that now comprises 11% of Iceland’s landmass, is also the largest national park in Europe. The managing director of the park, Thordur Olafsson, says that plans are in the works to further expand the borders of the park, as well as develop the current park facilities. But I digress, let’s get back to photographing on glaciers.


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