You should see ice: Skaftafell

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You think water moves fast? You should see ice. It moves like it has a mind.”

This quote had been echoing through my head since our trek. The huge glacier of Myrdalsjokull was a permanent presence and the land had so clearly been shaped by long ago glaciers that had dominated the area. The words nagged at me as if they were some profound insight into the glacial past.

On our first day in  the Skaftafell area we went ice climbing beneath the pitted labyrinth of the Virkisjokull ice fall. Throughout the day the ice fall cracked and rumbled as it shed large chunks of ice and threatened to spill one of its precariously balanced seracs down the hill. You should see ice.

And two days later, with the underwhelming impact of being batted by a tiny kitten, it hit me. Deep Blue Sea. The foreboding description of life on the mountain was not a profound observation from a cinematic masterpiece but a quasi-inspirational speech from a tacky thriller in which sharks have developed the ability to swim backwards (which makes them more threatening would you believe?). Had I also remember the subsequent cheeseball line I might have divined its provenance sooner – It’s like it knows it killed the world once and got a taste for murder. It’s delivered in signature soap box style by Samuel Jackson moments before he is chomped by a super shark. Retroactive spoiler there btw.

That aside however, you really should see ice.

It is constantly shifting, splitting and reshaping itself, and it is pretty amazing to climb on. We spent the day ice climbing on a ‘Glacier Extreme’ day tour run by Glacier Guides. The first two sites are top roped while you are reassuringly belayed from the ground. The climbing itself follows a fairly basic process; reach up knock one ice axe into the wall, knock the other one in, lift one foot and kick the front four spikes of your crampons into the wall, repeat with the other foot, stand up, find your balance and then lift your first axe and begin again.

The tricky part is becoming proficient in transferring your weight through your legs with minimal flexion through your ankle. Your foot needs to be at a right angle to the wall to keep all four front spikes secured. If your heel is dropped too low, all four spikes won’t find purchase. If you lift your heel ask your climbing, the crampon will flick out of the wall. It is really an activity where you need to trust the technique and not get flustered.

After completing a few climbs on each of the first two sites we moved onto a canyon which gave us the opportunity to abseil into a crevasse and then climb out again. The abseil was easy and once at the bottom it offered you a really unique perspective. The climb out was not quite as easy as the gentle descent but it was lots of fun.

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The next day was a much less demanding ice adventure as we visited the iceberg lagoon, Jokulsarlon. The lagoon is fed by a large glacier that periodically claves off huge sections of ice and drops them into the water. The huge bergs float in the lagoon for days, months or even longer before the break up and drift out to sea through an inlet. It is a surreal vista and even if we hadn’t been able to get out on one of the boats, just seeing it would have been one of the highlights of the trip.

The spectacular lagoon has been used in several films including Batman Begins, Die Another Day, and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. We got the chance to head out in a Zodiac (a RIB) to zip among the ice bergs and to view the face of the lagoon relatively close up. There is also a cheaper option to get out on the water in a larger amphibious boat (like and aqua duck) but you can’t get quite as close to the ice.

Once you’ve explored the ice at its source you can head across the road to the black sand, ‘Diamond Beach’. The beach is covered with fascinating fragments of ice that have washed ashore on their journey out of the lagoon. They create an interesting array of natural ice sculptures of all shapes and sizes. Even if you are on a short visit, it is worth venturing away from Reykjavik and the Golden Circle and making the effort to explore this eastern section of Iceland’s coast.

Accommodation: There is not very much accommodation along the coast near Skaftafell and our selection was determined by what was available within a 100km or so for a vaguely reasonable price. We ended up at a bed and breakfast at Kalfafellstaddur for two nights (about an hour north of the Skaftafell park entrance). The location and rooms were lovely. You get the sense that they must get a lot of people turning up expecting the freedom of a guesthouse such as the use of kitchen facilities and similar. There were quite a few firm instructions but apart from this (and provided you don’t expect to be able to cook your own two-minute noodles) it is a lovely place to stay. Dining options in the area are fairly limited too.

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