We approached our honeymoon sort of like it was a multi-step process. We had to build up to the greatest adventure of them all. If getting to Iceland was like the first step, and driving the Snaefellsnes peninsula was the next, and walking into a glacial ice cave was the second-to-last step in the adventure ladder, then this morning Elizabeth and I were going to reach the top of the ladder.
Hiking up a glacier. Reaching a crevasse. Rappelling into the crevasse. Then climbing back up the other side.
Later, I found out that certain family members were not at all thrilled that this was how we spent our time. They would have preferred that we do something safer with our time. To which I would reply that what we did was incredibly safe! Tour companies set up these kinds of things with the knowledge that one mistake is all it takes to cost you everything, so generally you’re not getting that one mistake.
But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t feeling a little nervous on the gloomy morning of July 29. Our rendezvous point for this tour was at the parking lot for the Sólheimajökull Glacier, about a half hour northwest of the town of Vik. We’d seen it on our drive in two days ago back when I was still learning just how big an ice cap could actually be. Today, extensive cloud cover pretty much at the level of the cap kept us from viewing the ice cap, but you could still see glimpses of ice as we drove along the Ring Road.
Our parking lot was off of one of the many lonely roads that branch inland from the Ring Road. This one was as well-paved as any of the others on the island, but twisty and narrow so that I was glad to see the lot arrive. Our tour group was meeting in a van in the far corner of the lot. I proved I had learned nothing from the day before by slipping on all of my snow gear before heading over there. It was like 50 degrees! Why was I doing this to myself?
Elizabeth is super Type-A, so just like with the snorkeling excursion two days ago we were the first people in our group by a mile. The tour operators got us set up with boots designed for crampons, then gave us an ice pick (again, more for show than anything else), our crampons to dangle off the pick for now, and a helmet. Elizabeth and I got to chatting with a father-son duo from the far eastern reaches of Oklahoma who were also in our group of 8. The two of them were on this trip to celebrate the son completing the LSAT, which is as good a reason as I’ve ever heard to take a vacation.
After a while, two very, very Italian guys in puffy orange vests gathered our group of 8 around to kick off the tour. They asked if anyone had ever climbed before. I raised my hand and said that I was a rock climber; they grinned and told me that they liked to hear that, but this was a lot less technical and a lot more brute force than rock climbing. As a Just Big rock climber, that suited me just fine.
Then we were walking down a rocky path toward the toe of the glacier. Along the way, we got the low-down from the guides on just how brutal the Sólheimajökull meltdown was. The answer: not great! The parking lot had been designed to be right at the toe of the glacier 40 years prior. Now we had to hike a little over a mile and go around a brand-new meltwater lagoon just to reach the ice. The guides somberly claimed that in as few as five years, the melt may be so much that they’ll have to shut down entirely. One of them pointed to the groups kayaking among icebergs in the lagoon, and said that was a way they were adapting their tourism needs to a changing world. I winced. They also provided some interesting context: Sólheimajökull didn’t even exist when the Nordic people first settled Iceland 1,000 or so years ago. It’s only during the Little Ice Age that this massive thing popped up. Incredible.
Look at those overdressed dorks.
We took a break at the toe of the glacier to get our crampons on. Now basically everything we a walkable surface – you just had to kick it hard enough to make it happen. I was feeling a little bit of trepidation for this, but honestly, as a guy who spends a lot of time rock climbing, I was having a hard time feeling *too* nervous. “Excited” was just as, if not more, of an operating word. Although I got mocked a little bit by our guides for struggling as much as I did to get the crampons strapped to my boots. But I really deserved that.
The guides led us around the south side of the lagoon onto the toe of the glacier. Just like yesterday, it was a little hard to tell where beach ended and glacier began. It was all just piles and piles of that black ash, and all of a sudden you realized there was solid ice underneath the ash.
The guides proved to have a wealth of knowledge of glaciology. For example, they could point out the crevasses that developed right at the toe of the glacier and explain the deformation processes that occur to form them. Just as importantly, they helped us avoid the crevasses until we got safely up onto the face of the glacier, where the only thing you had to worry about were the smoother and more predictable canyons formed by ice cave processes.
It was crazy how much ice we were standing on. Like, hundreds of feet of ice were sitting directly below us, much of it frozen in time over the last millennium as it made its slow way downhill. There’s something epochal about these massive glaciers that seems to transcend humanity, even as we do our best to destroy them. It was a pretty powerful thing to think about.
And then we were up against the canyon that would be our ice climbing playground. The eight of us stood in a driving, pelting drizzle on top of the ice as our guides got to work setting up the rappel system. Elizabeth gulped seeing the very little plastic anchor that they drilled into the ice – it was no bigger than a toilet paper roll. But it had worked all the times before, right?
The guides walked back over. They had two spots set up so we could go down two at a time instead of all eight waiting for one spot. Did anyone want to go first? What about the rock climber? With bravado only partially feigned, I shrugged my shoulders and nonchalantly agreed to go first.
There was something comforting about strapping into a waist harness. This was something familiar in an unfamiliar world of ice and pointy metal blades on your shoes and ice picks. I shuffled uncomfortably backwards toward the sheer drop in the glacier and peered down. It was something like 20 feet down to a lip in the wall, and then an unknown amount further below that. One of the guides handed me the picks that you use for ice climbing – these were much more heavy duty, and meant to be swung over your head as a sort of lever upon which to pull yourself up. Then they told me to lock out my legs and prepare to rappel downwards.
The locked leg thing was a little weird at first. It’s instinctual to want to brace yourself against the wall of ice when you feel nothing but a harness keeping you lofted. But very quickly, I learned that bad things happen to rappellers who are undisciplined in keeping their knees locked. It wasn’t until I learned to do so that the journey down went smoother and more comfortably.
The guide yelled down to ask how far down I wanted to go. Here was the sort of first lip of the nascent ice cave. That seemed daring enough for a first try. If I wanted to be more adventurous on a second run, that was a decision for second-run Nolan. I indicated to the guide that he could stop dropping me. Experimentally, I kicked my toes into the ice. This was summer ice, which kind of has a consistency of the stuff you see inside your Sonic Limeade. Apparently ice climbing is much easier with purer, completely frozen winter ice. But at least to start, my toes bit in and I was no longer dangling.
To climb, you swing your arms up and over your head and drive those big ice picks into the ice above you. Then you use those as leverage to take a big step up and kick hard into the glacier. It sounds simple, but I quickly found that it was anything but. I kicked too timidly and couldn’t find any purchase with my legs, which left the arms doing all the work and getting tired. It wasn’t too long before one of those flails dislodged my feet entirely and I was free-falling for a split instant before the belay rope caught me. *Now* is when, as a rock climber, you have to show aplomb. Everyone falls off the wall (glacier). You just have to get back on.
This time I worked more deliberately, and kicked the ice like it owed me money, and things went much more smoothly. I stepped up a few times and (it turns out you cover the whole 20 feet very quickly) in no times was staggering up and over the lip and onto the glacier itself. I was an ice climber!
I undid myself from the harness and hooked into a secondary rope so that I could watch Elizabeth descend and reascend. She managed to show at least as much aplomb as I had during my climbing experience. If she was a little slower to get all the way up, at least she didn’t fall off entirely, and by all accounts had a great time doing so.
The two of us stood back on top of the ice, staring at the lunar landscape all around and waiting for the other climbers to take their turns. From what I could see, our two friends were enjoying themselves, but the other 4 tourists probably will never do ice climbing on a glacier again if they can help it. Which was fine by me. When the guides asked if anyone wanted a second go, that meant Elizabeth could take the climbing route next to me and we could go at the same time.
Again we descended like worms on a fishhook. I wanted to get further down the wall this time and maybe into the overhangy section below (you can sort of see it in the last picture of Elizabeth), but got vetoed by the guides on the grounds that that would be pretty dangerous. This is why we climb with experts.
Elizabeth suggested a race, but then also suggested a selfie of the two of us at the bottom. I fished oh so carefully through my coat pocket to grab my phone and took an iconic shot of the two of us:
The Meisters: adventuring since 2016, adventuring as a family since 2023.
After that, I’m sad to report that Elizabeth absolutely cleaned me out in the race back to the top. She is either a natural as an ice climber, I’m a really poor one, or somewhere in the middle. To be honest – I was a little caught off guard by how physically demanding of a process that it was. One trip down didn’t seem like enough, but two felt like more than enough. My muscles would be aching in the morning, no doubt.
The guides didn’t bring us directly back down to the parking lot when we were done with our hike. After packing up the rappelling gear, they shepherded us along the sloped ice towards a big crack. We had to step carefully down and hold a line to get level with it, but when we got their, there was a beautiful little ice cave carved into this spot in the glacier. It was much different than the hulking behemoth Elizabeth and I had walked through the day before. This ice cave was small, had just appeared in the previous several days, and was a lot less dirty since there was a lot less ashfall. In other words: it was really, really blue.
Where does Elizabeth end and the ice cave begin? Who knows.
The other side of the cave had an entrance that looked like a heart, and the guides wanted to show that to Elizabeth and me since it was our honeymoon. Sort of was the story of every interaction we had in Iceland – every tour, but especially this one, was characterized by operators going above and beyond. Unfortunately, the picture is somewhere on Elizabeth’s devices, so to the blog the heart picture will forever remain unknown.
The downhill return on the glacier was pretty tough on the knees and legs. You sort of have to duckwalk with crampons to keep the blades digging into the ice, and you feel a bit like a downhill skier leaning with the slope. I was huffing and puffing a bit by the time we got to the lagoon and were able to take our gear back off.
Same thing on the 15-minute walk back to the van and our gear. I was actually straight-up gassed by the end of it. It was a good thing the rest of our day consisted of a famous Icelandic black-crust pizza at the pizzeria back in Vik, and then a quiet evening. I don’t think you can stack glacier climbing and then other activities in the same day if you want to remain sane.
I sort of feel like I didn’t do a good job conveying the excitement of the whole thing. This was the excursion on our honeymoon I looked forward to the most, and it lived up to the billing and then some. Glacier climbing is just so exotic, and it was such a unique experience, that I’d recommend it to anyone who gets the chance (and, uh, maybe don’t wait to do so). Just like everything else on our honeymoon, this was outside the box in all of the right ways.