Tales of Iceland: An ice cave story


Now is the time to remain indoors. Now is the time to protect your health and stay safe. But now is also the time to take stock of your life and think about the future. Has that dream trip to Iceland eluded you until now? While you are based at home, are you now looking longingly at the map? I know I am.

One thing is for sure, the pictures and stories detailed below will make you add Iceland to your post-quarantine list. So I’ve taken the time this month to simply put together one of my favourite memories while in Iceland. A more personal account than normal. I’m planning to share more of my personal experiences over the coming months until we can get out of the house and back into adventure mode.  I hope it inspires you to travel when the time is right.

The glacier guide

My profession, when not writing blog posts of course, is glacier guiding. Something I stumbled onto as I travelled and fell in love with. Hiking on top of glaciers is perfect for the adventurers among us, but going physically inside an ice cave for the first time is something that cannot be beat. The child-like wonderment in my guests’ faces as they lift their heads for the first time to see the shimmering blue ice is something I take great pleasure in every single time.

It would be impossible to put a number on the amount of ice caves I’ve ventured into during my time in Iceland. But what I can say with certainty is that each and every ice cave is unique and breathtaking.

Sadly, the place where I first fell in love with Iceland has disappeared completely. Perhaps that makes it even more special, knowing that this experience was fleeting by its very nature.

How an ice cave is formed

An ice cave is formed from the movement and the melting of the glacier throughout the year. The size and shape of each ice cave can be drastically different. Some take on snake-like tunnel formations whereas others form building sized archways or have an enclosed spherical shape. One thing is true for all ice caves in Iceland though, they don’t last long. Especially now that the temperature is rising year on year. It’s rare that the same ice cave will last until the following year. That means every winter season, when it gets cold enough to safely enter the ice caves, I am seeing them for the first time too.

I have mixed feelings when I remember that the ice cave where I first learned my craft has long gone. That first winter, I worked almost every single day, taking groups across the glacier. The weather can be turbulent at times but that winter was particularly wet and windy. Wet feet, strong winds and blustering snow make glacier hiking more challenging on days like that. But I was in my happy place despite the changing weather conditions. After all, Iceland’s weather can change in an instant so I’m always hopeful that the sun will come at any minute. The following winters were far better weather.

The guest experience

A shared love of the outdoors, environmental science and a little adventure is what often bonds my customers on these trips. As we ventured across the glacier, I would regularly pause to chat to the group about the effects of climate change.

Each step was another chance to get a great picture and travel further onto the glacier. Passing cracks in the ice, side stepping vertical holes and gazing a the ice sculptures in the distance is mesmerising to say the least. The hike to the ice cave is just as stunning as the cave itself. By the time my group and I discovered the blue ice cave together, the science and wonder of moving glaciers was fully understood.

Entering the ice cave

Upon ducking our heads down into the cave and walking through the secret icy cavern, we felt a sense of calm. The cave protects you from the elements, even on the stormiest of days. I always have to take a second to remind myself how lucky I am that this is my job.

The quiet feeling of content emblazoned on my face as we explore an ice cave each time is apparent to the customers too. We take our time to uncover every inch of the cave. The translucent blue hues around the doorway and the darker blue cornices deep into the cave created an atmospheric tone rarely seen outside of a movie set.

A shared love of the outdoors, environmental science and a little adventure is what often bonded my customers on these trips.

Before leaving, I always explain the uniqueness of this particular cave, how it is formed and its life expectancy. The shocked faces of the guests as I reveal that this ice cave may only have a few weeks left, is something I never really get used to. The melting of a glacier is a natural phenomenon. But it’s the speed of the melting that’s changing. This is why a blue ice cave rarely lasts more than one winter.

A lasting effect

The walk back is always filled with questions as often, the sight of a moving glacier is enough to inspire immediate change in people’s lives. Guests want to understand their experience more before waving goodbye. I sometimes have customers engaging me after the tour too via facebook, often asking follow up questions about their experience.

Sadly, the place where I first fell in love with Iceland has disappeared completely. Perhaps that makes it even more special, knowing that this experience was fleeting by its very nature. The memory will have to do. Luckily, the visceral reaction you get when sliding your hand over the blue ice for the first time is not something you forget in a hurry.

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.

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Comments (10)

  1. Will says:

    Somehow my Careers Teacher at school forgot to mention Glacier Guide when coming up with ideas for my future. It must be amazing to wake-up in the morning and thinking that you are headed for an ice cave rather than the office.

    • I was sadly not given this option either. I had to discover it organically after travelling the world. So many wasted years until I found my passion.
      It is quite the experience getting to share my happy place with people regularly.

      Thank you

      Ryan

  2. Liz says:

    Very interesting that you write of an Ice Cave story. Of course Iceland has such a reputation for its sagas. My daughter even did a course on the Icelandic sagas as part of her university degree.

  3. Josh Everett says:

    Going back to Iceland is already on my post quarantine list, there’s nowhere in the world quite like it. At least with those caves, although you’ll usually be saying goodbye each winter, there will be another to say hello to the next time around. And it’s great you’re finding so many guests wanting to know more, to understand Iceland and their experience, and that you encourage engagement on Facebook when they return home. I often find that travel feels rather meaningless without taking away something important, without getting an understanding of the place and getting a genuine feel for it, if that makes any sense.

    • Completely agree. Understanding and immersing yourself in the culture and nature of a place is so important for me. And if it has a profound effect on me too that lasts way beyond the trip, even better.

  4. Absolutely, it was a partial play on words. There is rarely a mountain top or mishapen rock passed without a story connected to the hidden people of Iceland. The same can be said for the sagas. Every iconic spot in Iceland undoubtedly is connected in some way to a story from the sagas. Never a dull place in Iceland.

  5. Kendra Stein says:

    It’s kind of poignant the way you’ve relayed this story. And an eye opener for me. That the lifespan of ice caves may be as short as a week or two specially if you’ve fallen in love with it, as you have. As is the nature of ice, it melts and disappears to join its basic element. Makes you appreciate and capture anything and everything that’s fleeting.

    • Thank you for the kind words. Yes, the fact that all this beauty is so temporary almost makes it more beautiful. Still, the fact that the glaciers that create the ice cave are disappearing does cause a pang of sadness knowing that one year (hopefully not too soon) there will be nowhere to find the new ice cave.

  6. S. Bridges says:

    I haven’t tried glacier adventures before because some people say it is kind of dangerous due to risks like frostbite and I’m kind of a scaredy-cat, admittedly. Although, what is life without a little bit of thrill, right? Near-zero weather isn’t my thing, too. I get cold easily and sometimes I can’t stand it. However, if this beauty is the end goal of my adventure then I think it wouldn’t hurt that much if I try to challenge myself a few times in my life. I want to try caving in a new place. I’ve only ever tried “normal” caves of stone and stalactites/ stalagmites. But ice caving feels like you are underwater, and it looks peaceful too.

    • It’s always good to be cautious. Though the great thing about Iceland is that it’s much warmer than most places with glaciers and ice caves.

      In fact, in winter the weather sputters around zero celcius because of the gulf stream most of the time, so frost-bite isn’t really too much of a worry unless you are intending to stay out overnight.

      Thankfully, our glacier hikes and ice cave tours only last around 3-4 hours during the day and are never too far away from a cosy vehicle to warm up. Couple that with an expert guide taking care of you and the adventure into the wilderness becomes quite safe.

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