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.

Around Vatnajökull there are several glaciers flowing off the icecap that are easy to access for photography. Some are covered in black volcanic rubble, others are white ice, others are fractured, jumbled messes. My favorite glaciers are those that form a glacial lake at their terminus. This gives you a chance to photograph icebergs and ice chunks floating in the water, as well as those beached on the shore. Some lakes in Iceland are tidal, so as the tides rise and lower, the beaches are replenished with new, amazing ice shapes. The most famous of these lagoons is Jökulsarlon and is particularly nice for several reasons: The lagoon’s water is clear, it’s filled with huge icebergs, growlers (medium-sized bergs) and bergy bits (small pieces of ice), it empties onto a beautiful black-sand beach littered with ice, and the tide rushing in and out is absolutely mesmerizing. Watching the seals hunt fish is an added bonus. The ice photo that appears with this column was made of a beached growler that had been floating in the Jökulsarlon Lagoon. A few hours after I made the photo, this berg was sent out to sea on the high tide.

My lens of choice for shooting on the glaciers is the 24-70mm ƒ/2.8, which both Nikon and Canon make. What makes this lens so versatile, in addition to its wide to telephoto focal length, is its close-focusing abilities. The lens has a rated minimum focus distance of 15 inches, but by using the lens in its wider focal lengths, you can focus on objects half that distance. And, if you use the hyperfocal distance at, say, ƒ/16 to ƒ/22, you can focus on objects just an inch or two away. I always carry a polarizer when shooting around water, and I used one for this photo to reduce reflection on the water. I also used a Singh-Ray grad split ND filter to allow me to open up the detail in the water. I likewise carry two- and three-stop split ND filters when shooting on glaciers as it allows me to keep details in the clouds when a storm moves across.

When I set foot on the surface of a glacier with my camera, I look for the places where the sun hasn’t touched the ice. It’s in these places where you find the beautiful blue color. In Iceland, you’re likely to be on a glacier when it’s cloudy and overcast, which is a great time to look for the subtle blues of crevasses and moulins. Because of the way the sunlight passes through the ice, shooting inside crevasses or in ice caves is best on sunny days.

Photographing in and around glaciers is challenging since negotiating the terrain is never easy, the weather is often bad and being on the back of this living, creeping sheet of ice can be scary. But shooting in this dramatically changing landscape is a rewarding adventure of exploration in a beautiful and unusual environment.

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Bill Hatcher is a documentary photographer who shoots stories for National Geographic, Smithsonian and many other publications. He believes the best adventure photos are made when you’re an active participant in the story you’re shooting. Bill has been chasing stories about adventure sports,science and conservation around the world for nearly 30 years. His favorite mode of transport is by foot, bike, rope, packraft or skis.