One of the wonders of Iceland in winter is the sub-glacial world of Ice Caves. With these things I usually reserve judgement but, on my recent visit to one cave, gained an appreciation of the splendour that can awaken beneath the ice. It didn’t disappoint.
To the Glacier
We met my colleagues at Jökulsarlon and climbed aboard the Super Jeeps. Then, after skirting the ring-road for two kilometers we veered off North-West and into the unknown. We tumbled over the glacial fields and complex moraine systems of Breiðamerkurjökull. Large boulders lay by the gravel road, worn only though repeated visits from tour guides and locals alike. We passed terminal and lateral moraines of past times, kames and kettle holes aplenty as well as volcanic rocks of all shapes and sizes, colours and origins.
Visibility was limited due to an incoming snowstorm and the wind cut down hard on our Super Jeep. Up and down we drove across the rocky surface, inching closer to the toe of the glacier where our place of refuge awaited. On the edge of the glacier we halted, donned crampons and helmets and wrapped up fierce and tight. The wind howled all around us and cut deep to the face and sinuses. A hundred meter stretch to the opening of the cave seemed a challenge to endure but, holding hands and cameras tight, we ventured on.
Looking back, I saw a vista of stark icy greys and wisps of white upon the wind beneath the happy yellow of the setting sun. It was truly alien and oh, so beautiful! I turned to the wind and faced the entrance as my face cramped up. I was met with a funnel like structure of curled snowdrift latched on to the wide opening of the cave. This simple shape had me in awe, so different from the entrance I had viewed a few weeks past, but now giving us access to the blue sub-glacial world. I stooped low and inched my way in.
Crawling from the snowdrift I entered the first chamber. A large hole in the ice gave extra light and diluted the blue hue of the ice. The cave was prepping us for the beauty that lay beyond. Snow swirled around the entrance but calm air in the cave gave the sense of refuge and safety. It was a sudden change but quite welcome and reassuring.
The ice cave is a portion of a large network that drains meltwater from the glacier. It is a complex system of holes and tunnels each with beautiful scalloped sides showing the flow of water over time. As the cave was now drained some of these holes were left high and dry with air above and below their faces. The blizzard above us was using them however, and forced a swirling ghost of snow down each hole in the ceiling. Standing below this vortex of flying ice was quite something, although difficult to capture on camera. This snow contributed to drifts within the cave, piled mountain high within the cavern’s short reach. The snow had to be cut and navigated to gain entrance to the cave and, where my colleagues had sliced out sections, a layer of dark sand could be seen – possibly a remnant of a recent dust storm that occur so frequently out in this region.
Moving on towards the main portion of the cave one navigates the banks of esker that had been flowing on my previous visit to the glacier. The river had now drained and frozen solid, with ice formed on high flow now collapsed into the channel as the flowing water had drained and removed its structural support. The channel (which had once been the entire cave) was now limited to the deeper parts of the cave and laced with microcrystalline ice that had grown as the river cooled further and then drained to free the cave for us visitors. Today it was dry however.
At the back of the cave (or the back for us at least) was a large pool of mud. This served as a reminder that the cave is actually a conduit for vast quantities of water, a whole river, which drains from the glacier. It also transports unbelievable volumes of rock in the form of gravel, sand, boulders, and silt/clay/mud. Here a small wall of ice had formed a pond, which had collected a lot of the finer stuff for us to see. Beyond this were many more tunnels and caverns to explore but, at this time, entrance was only granted so far with safety being a priority.
Above all this frozen action on the floor of the cave is the true wonder that we humans enjoy the most in such places. The roof! Looking through meter upon meter of ice is quite incredible and the blue hue is beguiling to say the least. The light of the sky is filtered strongly through the ice, most of the frequencies removed to leave deep blue light soaking the cold air. But, the part that fascinated me the most is the detail within the ice you are looking at. There are a vast array of bubbles still in the ice as well as rocks and layers of ash and sand. History is recorded there year by year on the spot where the snow fell. In time it is contorted and moves down towards the ocean but the story is still there, shrouded in the convolutions of mystery. So much science is based on looking into ice for clues, albeit in places less disturbed than this.
It was at this moment of our tour, on Christmas Eve, that one of my guests proposed to his girlfriend. Saturated with the magic of their experience he chose to act then rather than hang on the chance of Northern Lights later that night – and the decision paid off. Kneeling on the low wall at the back of the cave he asked, and was granted his request instantly. It was a beautiful moment to share and one that the cave and I will remember. With this fine act we bid the cave goodbye. We ventured backwards to the cave exit; past the broken river and around mountains of snow, beneath the blue and bubbled ice and out into the wilder world outside. We left it to its business as we clambered into our vehicles and sped away to warmth and Christmas Dinner at our guesthouse.