The Secret Ice Caves of Myrdalsjokull Glacier
The best part of my job is the privilege of being able to travel all over Iceland and making new friends in the process. Getting to see the incredible ice caves in Mýrdalsjökull glacier with great friends is one of those privileges.
Through founding my Iceland focused online travel magazine back in 2012 I met Alice and the photographer Martin Schulz from Germany but they have been to Iceland countless times. I also got to know Guðjón from Katlatrack who specializes in tours around the South of Iceland. Of special note is his expertise in showing his customers impressive ice caves in Mýrdalsjökull glacier.
These are hard to find and should never be entered without the company of an experienced guide. Glaciers are, after all, dangerous and fickle. Glacial ice caves come and go, often carved out by melt via water whirlpools that find their way through cones of sand or pumice embedded in the glacier. The water carves out caves or tunnels of ice with violent force. After they are formed, the glacier will gradually shift slowly to reduce or eliminate the cave. This neverending process means that Guðjón is constantly looking for new caves as they don't last particularly long. Martin had invited me and my wife to join him and Alice on a tour with Guðjón Katlatrack, but on the morning the trip was due to start, the weather on the west side of Mýrdalsjökull glacier was atrocious. There was sleet, strong wind and zero visibility. This was disappointing since the weather had been lovely the day and night before but that's Iceland in winter for you.
At the Ice Caves
We drove to the town of Vík where we met Guðjón, Martin and Alice. Guðjón assured us that the weather would get better as we drove west to his secret ice caves. I was thrilled to hear that we were able to explore the caves in spite of the weather. Experiencing ice caves has has been on my bucket list for ages. We started our drive in Guðjón's modified Land Rover which has room for nine passengers. Guðjón made countless jokes about his new “tractor” but you could tell that he has great affection for his new toy and its eccentrics. We drove for a while and when Guðjón navigated skilfully through the rough trails up to the glacier's edge, the weather cleared up and sleet was replaced with a few fluffy snow flakes. When we left the car for the short walk up to the edge the glacial steel walls of Mýrdalsjokull loomed ahead, streaked with layers of ash and sand from past volcanic eruptions and violent storms from the Mýrdalssandur desert. To be fair, Mýrdalssandur is turning ever more green as climate change heat ups Iceland.
Guðjón puts focus on safety so he made sure that when we reached the short slope up to the first cave we explored (since it is open ended it is probably more accurate to call it an ice tunnel) he told us to wait while he put up a safety line for us to hold on to when we entered the cave. He gave us crampons and helmets and made sure we did not linger under the opening of the cave as there is always a risk of falling ice there. I entered the ice cave and was struck with the smoothness of the ice walls and the roof above me. The light shining from the opposite opening illuminated the walls and gave the ice a metallic hue.
What an amazing place. I was so impressed and happy to be there it that I completely missed an opening of a crevice right in front of me, hidden away in the sandy floor. Guðjón was looking out for me and warned me about the crevice before I would blunder into it. He later explained that in the deep crack there was a river, and you could actually hear the water flowing deep within the glacier if you listened carefully. How deep and wide the crevice is, well that is impossible to tell. So yeah, never go into an ice cave or on a glacier without a guide. Avoiding the crevice we walked through the other end and up a slope that led up to the glacier. Turning around we could see the shape of the massive whirlpool that must have formed the ice tunnel in in the ice. The sharp black outlines of sand or ash covered ice on white gave the impression of an alien and painted landscape. After a long while of taking pictures and discussing the wonders of the landscape Guðjón took us to small ice cave that was large and impressive last year but is being slowly and surely reduced by the glacier. Going into the narrow opening into a small and dark winding space with metallic looking walls was like stepping into an Aliens movie.
When we were done with the caving we drove to the neighbouring Þakgil ravine. It is an beautiful place both in summer and winter. By that time, the snow was falling pretty heavily and the hills and mountains above the ravine looked gloomy and imposing. My favourite rock formation there is the “heavy metal mountain” as I like to call it, it looks like the horns of a rocker with two rocky “Fingers” extending from its top. As we were enjoying coffee and chocolate by the Land Rover, Guðjón's phone rang. His wife had gone into labour and so, with his third child on the way, we sped on to Hvolsvöllur to say goodbye to him and wish him luck.