Ever since I moved to Iceland 4 years ago to start a PhD, I have always wanted to cross the largest glacier in Europe, Vatnajökull. Now that I am finishing the most difficult academic challenge of my life, I want to celebrate with my greatest outdoor challenge: 10 days skiing traverse in a glacial wonderland, ending with a summit of the largest mountain in Iceland, Hvannadalshnjúkur.
Vatnajökull is no ordinary glacier. The name means "Lake glacier" for good reason: its low grade topography yields perfect cross-country skiing conditions as well as gentle depressions that fill with lakes. In some areas, mountains poke partially through the glacier's surface, yielding islands of unexpected vegetation, insects, and wildllfe. These islands are what were thought to have sustained small populations of Iceland's flora and fauna through recent ice ages. Finally, Iceland's reputation for not only the being the land of ice, but also of fire, can be confirmed even at this altitude: one of the country's most active volcanoes, Grimsvötn, lurks below the surface. Hot springs here and at Kverkfjöll form surprisingly inviting water temperatures and steamy landscapes with strangely beautiful ice and rock formations. Luckily, this year's large eruption yields lower chances for an eruption occurring next year. Ten days on this half-kilometer deep chunk of ice would be far from boring.
Iceland is a mountaineer's paradise: so many opportunities exist for climbing on rock, ice, or glacier in areas that feel like wilderness because there are so few people around, yet road access is relatively easy. In addition, the stark beauty of Iceland's landscape partially stems from the lack of a tree line, so spectacular distant views are possible from relatively low regions. The route I chose for this adventure begins with good road access, so that we can immediately gain altitude at a gradual pace while we carry our heaviest load during the first days. From there, we will take a 3-day journey toward Kverkfjöll on the north side of the glacier, which is filled with hot springs, glacial caves, and colorful geological formations. If time allows, we could take a detour to see the islands of flora and fauna at Esjufjöll mountains. At Kverkfjöll, we can stay at a hut on the glacier for 2 nights to allow for ample time to explore, and then continue 2 days toward Grimsvötn. There, we can stay at another hut on the glacier (with hot water!) for 2 nights before heading toward our final destination, Hvannadalshnjúkur. This will take 2 final days of traversing, then a final third day to summit the highest mountain in Iceland and then descend along a well-used route near Svínafellsjökull.
Of all outdoor activities, glacial travel is my favorite. However, no trip is fun without a fun team to share the adventure with. If you end up on my trip, be ready to celebrate and bring your own reason to do so!
It's the journey that counts.