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Exploring ice caves in an Icelandic winter

Exploring ice caves in an Icelandic winter. Stepping foot into your first crystal clear blue ice cave is a memory that will last a life time. If you haven’t explored an ice cave in an Icelandic winter for yourself it’s hard to describe the feeling. Standing inside this magnificent flowing structure of ice and looking up at the curved blue roof above can be hypnotic. I’ve taken hundreds of customers into dozens of different ice caves across Iceland but one thing is always the same. The reaction. The reaction to the ice cave The reaction as my guests walk through the entrance of the ice cave always starts with an audible, “WOW!!!” followed by silence. Silence that lasts longer than you might expect. Like children reaching to the stars, my guest’s hands rise to the ceiling trying to interpret what they are seeing. Wide eyes, open mouths and outstretched arms is often what I observe as I watch over my guests. I imagine there would be a few embarrassed faces seeing a picture of themselves in those few seconds. But I allow them their moment of solitude without disruption. This memory is just for them. No one else. Exploring the ice cave Once my group settle into their surroundings the cameras, tripods and a few snacks temporarily become the focus. We’ve travelled far to get here. They deserve their break, and that all important picture. Depending on the year, the ice caves we explore can be completely enclosed with only a small hole to sneak into to find this hidden world. Or it can be a towering open arched structure. There have been years where crawling on your hands and knees was necessary, like in the winter of 2016 and other years when the ice cave required cut ice steps to walk down into, like in 2018. Each year is unique. The size of the ice caves we visit can range from a small apartment sized room to a towering cathedral. The smaller, more contained ice caves tend to last a little longer and have more of a blue colour due to their ability to hide from the sun. But the larger ones, allow the low light of winter days to cascade off the walls of the ice cave creating a light show to rival the northern lights. Understanding the ice cave It’s only once my guests stop taking pictures and examining every ripple, crack and light refraction that the questions begin to come up. Luckily I love to talk about glaciers and ice caves as much as exploring them. The most prominent questions I get are, “how are the ice caves formed?”, “why can we only go into them in the winter if the glaciers are around all year?” and “how old is the ice cave?” I’ll give you the abridged version now but for the full explanation you will have to come to Iceland to see for yourself. Ice caves are formed from one of two main reasons. Either the ice flows over other sections of the glacier forcing arch like structures to form as it bends and twists in its journey towards the sea. Or, from constant water erosion as the glacier melts in the summer creating large caverns that empty out as the temperature drops in the winter. In both cases it is only safe to go into these ice caves in winter because the ice melts too fast in the summer for the arched structures to remain safe for very long. Or they are simply flooded when it’s too warm. This means that despite the ancient look of the blue ice caves it’s rare that the same ice cave will survive from one winter to the next. Some don’t even survive the entire winter sometimes. The glacier ice (the building blocks of the ice cave) is usually 7-800 years old depending on where you are, but the ice caves themselves are rarely more than 1 to 2 years old. In fact, since I started my company I have yet to revisit the same ice cave two years in a row with customers. This means that every single ice cave season is different. Discovering the ice cave Discovering new ice caves in Iceland is no easy task. If each ice cave collapses in the summer then it stands to reason that a new ice cave need to be found every winter. A fun, but not easy task. We recruit local ice cave explorers in the remote areas of the country to find, and monitor them. This means there is no guarantee there will be a suitable, and safe ice cave to explore each year. Especially with climate change causing the glaciers to retreat further and further every year. Sometimes a trip on a super jeep is needed to get there. Other times a glacier hike with crampons for up to an hour one way is required. Crossing rivers and dodging holes can be necessary. Whichever way we get to the ice cave I can at least guarantee it will be an adventure. My company and many others run the tours with the expectation that no previous experience is needed. A moderate level of fitness is required however, and full mobility of ankles and knees is needed for the sometimes uneven and steep terrain. That being said, I’ve taken people from 18 to 80 on our adventures. With the right equipment and trained guide it should be no harder than a normal hill walk. How to get to the ice caves I personally spend most of my time with customers exploring the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Vatnajökull National Park in the South East of the island. We pick our guests up in Reykjavik then visit the popular spots along the way including the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. We spend the night in the area in a secluded hotel, perfect for spotting the northern lights. Then we dedicate the entire next day to exploring the glacier and the ice caves. There are a few ice caves available closer to Reykjavik that other companies enter on day trips. These tend to be a little more crowded but still incredible experiences. Accessibility and duration are two topics that should be considered. Before you book onto any ice cave tour read in detail what it entails. Some ice cave tours can be as easy as being driven to the edge of the cave, walk in, take pictures, and walk back out. Perfect for low-ability groups. Other ice cave trips are just one part of a glacier hike adventure. Great for people who want to go a little off the beaten path and don’t mind burning some calories to do it. When should I book a trip to do an ice cave tour? I’m a little biased here, but the answer is absolutely now. Although around 11% of Iceland is covered in ice and there are over 400 glaciers across the country, the access to these beautiful flowing ice rivers is getting harder and harder to maintain due to climate change. The surviving glaciers are nestled up in the colder mountainous areas of Iceland with many of the sea-level glaciers already melted away, or greatly diminished. Simply getting onto a glacier to find an ice cave to take guests on is a finite luxury that we may only have for a few more years. Now is the time to come for sure. I’ll see you there. Ryan Connolly is Co-Founder of Hidden Iceland. Hidden Iceland specialises in private trips, taking you to some of the hidden gems of Iceland with a passionate and experienced guide. If you would like to be a guest blogger on A Luxury Travel Blog in order to raise your profile, please contact us.

Ryan Connolly

Ryan Connolly is the Marketing Manager and Co-Founder for Hidden Iceland. Hidden Iceland is a carbon neutral travel company that specialises in private or small group tours that take you across the whole of Iceland. Hunting for the Northern Lights, discovering ice caves, hiking on glaciers and walking to the tops of volcanoes are some of the more adventurous activities Hidden Iceland take part in. But many of their customers also enjoy relaxing in natural hot pools, enjoying local cuisine and chance encounters with the wildlife too. Ryan has guided in many different countries and is proud to have stepped foot on all seven continents in his pursuit of new terrain. He is a qualified Glacier Guide, Wilderness First Responder and permanent resident of Iceland.

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  1. There’s a touch of Game of Thrones about these photographs. They are so dramatic but there is also a real sense of remoteness. Above all these caves are very beautiful.

    1. Funnily enough some of the ice cave pictures were taken on the exact same glaciers that game of thrones was filmed.

  2. It says much about the world that we live in that my initial reaction to this piece was a mixture of anxiety and concern. As global warming becomes more of a problem, even though Mr Trump continues to deny it, I fear for the future of these caves. How much longer will they continue to exist?

    1. It’s a two part reply really. Most of the ice caves above have already melted away due to summer melting. This is a normal process and new ice caves must be found most winters. 10 years ago we might have gotten lucky and had the same cave survive a few seasons, but unlikely these days. The ‘crystal ice cave’ was so big it survived around 8 or 9 years before completely disappearing last year. This however a natural occurrence and can’t be fully blamed on climate change.
      The scary part is that the glaciers that create these ice caves are disappearing, fast. In a few years it will be more and more difficult to find glaciers that are not hidden up in the mountains in the colder climes.

  3. I’m cold just thinking about it, but you’ve made going into an ice cave sound so incredible and mind blowing. It’s definitely fascinating to think of how ice caves and glaciers are formed and to actually be able to venture through them safely. I had wondered about how mobile and fit you’d need to be for something like this, so I’m glad that was mentioned. I bet those in their 70s had the time of their lives marvelling at these caves! What a great way to start the adventure though, checking out the glacier lagoon, staying in a peaceful hotel where you can check out the northern lights, then do a day in the caves. I think I’d prefer this rather than other ones that are more crowded. It seems like an experience you want to savour and have for yourself. I must admit I never considered it as something on my bucket list but this has really changed my mind. If only I can get over my hate for being cold first, then I think I’d love to give this a try!

    1. Thanks for the kind words Amy. One thing that might help you get over your aversion to the cold is that Iceland, believe it or not, isn’t that cold. The gulf stream creates a warming effect that keeps Iceland’s average winter temperature above zero celcius (32F). And the average temperature of an ice cave is around the same temperature. So as long as you’re walking around and wearing appropriate clothing you’d be surprised how warm you can feel.

  4. I’m on the lookout for an adventure to challenge myself and escape from the rut of everyday routine. I had been thinking of something like a jungle trek but a glacier walk and exploring these ice caves would be something else. It would be some incentive to get fit to explore these caves, definitely worth the effort and pain.

    1. Absolutely. As an example of the level of fitness you would need for the glacier hike and ice cave we run; It’s around 9km in total. You would wear crampons (spikes) on your feet so slipping is not an issue. The ground is relatively easy going for the most part with a moderate slope throughout. There would be small sections that require you to be able to go up and down steep inclines so full mobility of the ankles and knees is required. There’s no ‘rope work’ or climbing and we take plenty of breaks but do move at a steady pace throughout. There are other types of excursions that can get you to an ice cave without the exertion but they are understandably a little busier in terms of foot traffic.

  5. Awesome adventure. The ice cave is in the middle of nowhere and is absolutely breathtaking. Highly recommend you take this adventure.

  6. I’ve never even seen an ice cave but I’d love to one day. Can’t think of anywhere better than Iceland for a winter trip. I wondered how safe they were, but I guess you just have to be careful when walking and go somewhere that’s recommended, get an expert opinion before attempting anything. I’d certainly feel a lot more confident going with a tour provider and within a group. I hadn’t really considered how they’re formed and then melt away and new ones form for the next year, but it certainly keeps things interesting because as you say, they’re all different and it’s unlikely you’re going to experience the same one twice between one year to the next. It’s worrying to think climate change is having such sweeping effects over the world. Do you see big differences with the ice cave formations over the past 50 years or so then?

    1. Hi Melissa,

      I would go one step further and say that you can’t really venture into an ice cave without a dedicated guide. There’s nothing stopping you, technically but there’s so many things that go into finding an ice cave and maintaining its safety that it isn’t really possible doing on your own.

      The formation of ice caves have remained the same. The size of the glaciers and the melting rate have changed a lot over the past 50 years though. So an ice cave might be formed in the same way but melt away faster and be higher in altitude.

      As the glaciers continue to disappear it’s going to get harder and harder to find suitable ones. Great question.

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