What to see in Iceland? How about a Glacier!?
Ice climbing in Iceland on a Glacier – yes, please! Before our trip, while researching what to see in Iceland, I came across an ice climbing trip on the Falljökull glacier in Skaftafell National Park with Glacier Guides and booked it with no question. We later found out that we were lucky to have found availability 2 weeks before our trip because they had been so booked up lately!
I had emailed Glacier Guides the day before our trip to confirm we were good to go – the weather forecast was calling for rain, and a lot of it, and I assumed that ice climbing in Iceland in the rain probably wasn’t the best plan. They emailed back that the trip was still on, and that they would reach out if there was a cancellation. Read on for details about our incredible ice climbing adventure in Iceland!
In this article:
Driving South Iceland to Skaftafell National Park
Checking in with Glacier Guides for our adventure
Hiking on the Falljökull glacier
Ice climbing in Iceland
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
Review of Welcome Hotel Lambafell
Driving South Iceland: From Lambafell to the Falljökull glacier in Skaftafell National Park
We woke up on day 4 of our Iceland adventure with no email. The Falljökull in Skaftafell National Park was a 2 hour drive south from the Welcome Hotel Lambafell, where we were staying, but we figured that whether the tour was cancelled or not, we’d still get a great day of site-seeing in. So, we got dressed and went downstairs for breakfast.
After a very confusing discussion about why the owners were so intent on us not being able to start eating breakfast 10 minutes early (the food was out, and we had to hit the road or we would be late), we grabbed some food to go and hit the road.
To say that driving South Iceland left me in awe is the definition of an understatement. At this point, we had seen so much beauty in our first 3 days in Iceland that I didn’t think it could get any better – but it did. In our 2 hours of driving South Iceland to Skaftafell National Park, we passed through many different landscapes, each one wowing us more than the last.
From Lambafell, we drove south through the mountains towards Vik – wow. Then on to miles of lava fields – wow. Then on to miles of black sand beaches – wow. And finally on to the most magical bluffs I’ve ever seen in my life, with these wispy clouds from the strong winds. Had this been the only thing we did all day, I would have been completely satisfied.
Luckily, it only got better from there – and we were stoked for ice climbing in Iceland! We stopped at a gas station to grab a few sandwiches and snacks for lunch (remember, their gas station sandwiches in the cellophane are actually quite tasty and nicely priced), considered stopping once more for coffee but decided we were pushing it on time and went straight to Glacier Guides.
Glacier Hiking and Ice Climbing in Iceland: Checking-In
Lucky for us – they have free coffee at the Glacier Guides office! What a nice surprise. We walked into the building and up to the desk to check in, and our guide, Pete, was there ready to help us gear up. Waterproof pants were required, and included in our fee. We had our own waterproof jackets so we were set there, and they prefer that you wear their special ice climbing boots (also included, along with the rest of the gear).
Once our boots were on, Pete got us fitted with a helmet, ice ax, and crampons, and we were pretty much set to go. We were lucky that we hadn’t made the extra stop for coffee because as soon as we were fitted with gear, the bus was ready to leave. We got on a coach bus with about 25 people, wondering if everyone was on our same ice climbing trip, and set off to the beginning spot for our Falljökull glacier hike in Iceland.
The drive to the starting point of the Icelandic glacier hike in Skaftafell National Park takes about 15 minutes – you basically have to drive back out to the main road, up the road a bit, and then off another small road. Piece of cake. The bus pulled up to an empty parking lot and let everyone off, and that’s when we broke into 2 groups. Our ice climbing group was luckily only 5 of us, plus Pete – the other group were signed up for Iceland glacier hiking with no ice climbing.
Falljökull Glacier: Icelandic Glacier Hiking
The nearby Vatnajökull is estimated to be melting at a rate of one meter per year and many of its outlet glaciers are melting at an even higher rate, but Falljökull glacier is surprisingly an interesting one to study as it doesn’t quite fit into the norm – read up on what’s happening there!. Still very cool and sad to be up close and able to see how much things are changing.
Pete told us how the day before they had gotten so much rain that they had to cancel all tours because the water was flowing so high that they couldn’t even cross the bridges – more luck for us! I thank you, weather gods, for being so gracious to us all the time.
He also told us this crazy story about the nearby sheep. Throughout Iceland, you’ll see tons of sheep grazing up on the hills – often in very questionable areas. Well, one day Pete was taking his group out to the glacier and they saw a man walking high up – like, hundreds of feet up – on these hills, gathering his sheep. The next day, the girls from his group went horseback riding nearby and it turned out that the guy who owned the horses was the one they had seen up on the hill! Apparently, sheep will sometimes get themselves into places they can’t get out of and then sadly, they either die or have to be shot down out of pity. Poor little guys!
After crossing the bridges, we walked uphill for a short bit, then down the other side, and there was the Falljökull glacier! Pete showed us how to correctly put our crampons on, told us to be careful not to kick ourselves as we hiked, and up we hiked on the glacier to our first climb.
The glacier hike uphill was about another 30 minutes before we stopped for a short water break – we were able to fill directly from the Icelandic glacier. Funny little bit of info – apparently, people in Iceland fill up from water anywhere and aren’t afraid of the bacteria we worry about here in the states. We enjoyed some ice cold water (haha, get it?) and then continued up for about another 15 minutes until we got to our first climb.
Glacier hiking in Iceland is a super cool experience, even if you don’t want to ice climb. Walking in crampons is a bit funny to start, but once you get comfortable, it becomes pretty natural and it’s an experience that sadly may not be around forever!
Ice Climbing in Iceland
Pete setup the ropes and I volunteered to go first. My first ice climb in Iceland was awkward, especially at the beginning where there was a slope, but I did it! We all went a round, and then Pete said – okay, now I’m going to tell you how to climb the right way, and you’re all going to go again. At first I was like hey, what the heck, why didn’t you tell us the right way to start with?! But this was actually a great way to learn exactly what not to do. Don’t stick your butt out, keep your legs wide, keep your arms close. Got it. Our second climbs were much more successful and then we were ready for a new wall.
We hiked along the glacier to another spot, this time a little taller. On the second wall, Pete taught us how to belay each other, but he stood close by to make sure we were safe. Luckily, the 5 of us climbing were quick learners and did well at holding our own up the wall which was nice. Because of that, Pete offered up two options for our 3rd ice climb.
Option 1: he brings us to a crevasse where he brings all groups, lowers us in, and lets us climb out.
Option 2: because he felt confident in our capabilities – we also had the option to be lowered into a moulin instead. A moulin is essentially a spot on the glacier where water has run down enough to create a hole that leads down into a cave and out at another spot. We were early in the season so he didn’t feel safe bringing us all down through the cave, but we figured climbing out with the water flowing behind us would be exciting!
Luckily, everyone was in agreement and off we went to the moulin.
This was the coolest part of ice climbing in Iceland. Pete setup the ropes, and one by one lowered us into the moulin – only as far as we wanted to go. If you only wanted to go a few feet into the glacier to get the experience, totally fine. If you wanted to go almost all the way, great. The hardest part about the moulin is that because there is active water flowing over the side, it makes it much harder to climb as the ice is sheer glass and takes more work to break into.
Ransom went down first with his gopro and taught us all a lesson – don’t put your head back. When he got to the bottom, he put his head (and gopro) all the way back and ended up with his head in the flowing water – brr!! On top of that, as he climbed out we all watched in slow motion as he went to shake out his jacket…which meant all the water that got caught in his hood went straight down his back…….ouch!
When it was my turn, I was hesitant to go too far down because I knew I was already tired and my ego didn’t want me to have to be “rescued” out. To rescue me, Pete would have to setup a second rig on the rope where he would essentially pull me out and I wouldn’t have to do any of the work – that was just not an option for this girl. Pete lowered me down (taking a moment for an awesome photo op) and at one point I thought I was low enough. Pete gave me the “are you sure?” moment and I was like nahhh, let’s go a little further…and down I went. I wasn’t worried about being lowered down – I was just worried about having enough arm strength to make it back out.
I’m guessing I went about 15 feet deep or so, which was far enough, and then started my climb up. As noted, the ice was pretty much untouched and it took a lot of strength to break through. I definitely didn’t worry nearly as much about my form here – I just wanted to make it out and did whatever it took to do so. You can hear me in the video below with my “I will not be rescued!!!” determination – and I made it! What a super cool experience.
If you have the chance to go, I highly recommend Glacier Guides and if Pete is there, he’s amazing!
At this point, it was starting to get dark but we had a decision to make. The Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon on South Iceland was about 45 minutes further east which meant that we would likely get there just before dark, and then we would have a 3 hour drive home instead of only 2. But, we’d only be in Iceland once, so off we went!
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
By the time we got down to the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon in South Iceland, weather had moved in and it was incredibly foggy and starting to drizzle (whereas the weather had been magnificent for our entire ice climbing adventure!). Sadly, this meant that we didn’t get the beautiful views that you see in all the pictures. Considering we had just spent the day on a glacier with incredible views, we weren’t really disappointed.
This is a great spot for people who don’t necessarily want to hike out onto the glacier, but otherwise it’s not incredibly exciting. It was fun to walk onto the black sand beach and take some pics with the pieces of glacier sitting around – it’s not every day that you get to walk on the beach next to glacier chunks.
We didn’t spend long at the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon – took some pics, and off we went back to Welcome Hotel Lambafell. The one thing I probably would have changed about our trip was to book accommodations down near Hof for the night that we went ice climbing. A 2 hour drive all the way back to Lambafell was a lot after a long day of adventuring. But, on the flip side, it was nice to have one place to stay for a few nights rather than moving around every day!
We stopped at a gas station along the way and ordered some sandwiches and fries (they didn’t have any pre-wrapped here) and off we went. It’s amazing how much the weather changes every few miles – for much of the trip to South Iceland we were fully engulfed in a deep fog, but then once we turned north after Vik, it was perfectly clear. We got to see some faint northern lights off the coast but they were mostly covered by the clouds.
Review of Welcome Hotel Lambafell
I was really excited for our stay at the Welcome Hotel Lambafell prior to our trip. It was our “splurge” after staying in homestays and hostels, and I have to say I was very disappointed.
For one, our reservation with Welcome Hotel Lambafell included breakfast, as many of the Guesthouses in Iceland do. Breakfast started at 8am, but we had to be driving by 8am to make it on time for our reservation. We went downstairs around 7:50 as they were setting everything out and asked if we could dig in a little early so that we could get on the road. I swear, I must have had 10 heads in that moment with the way the hotel owner looked at me. Mind you, the bread was out, the meats were out, the cereal was out, the juices were out, the coffee was out….they were really just putting out finishing touches. But there was plenty for us to choose from already. After a few minutes of a very confusing conversation of why it was such a big deal that we wanted to start 10 minutes early, I essentially insisted that we were going to start on breakfast (I paid for it, I get to eat it!) and we grabbed some food to go. I made my usual – two slices of bread toasted with this delicious bacon butter they have all around Iceland, a slice of ham, and a slice of cheese.
Then, when we got back in the evening, we decided it was a perfect night for the hot tub. The winds had calmed down on this side of the island, and it was a sky full of stars. We had brought the good SLR camera and figured it would be a perfect night to get some star trails, but sadly the Welcome Hotel Lambafell has incredibly bright lights all round the building that make it difficult to enjoy the star gazing.
This was pretty disappointing since we chose this place specifically because of its secluded location – it would have been nice to be able to turn them on and off, as needed. This was also annoying for sleeping since the light shown through our windows, even with the shades down.
Also, a 10 minute shower would consist of 1 minute of comfortable temp water, followed by a shocking 10 seconds of scalding hot water – rinse and repeat.
The views around the hotel are wonderful, and the location is great. There is no staff on-site, but I think they live down the street. This makes it a bit awkward if you need something, like a wine glass, because you end up disturbing them as they’re spending time with their family to bring one down the road. If they aren’t going to have staff on site, it would make much more sense to have the basics available to customers – glasses, bowls, wine opener, extra towels, etc. It was much more of an awkward experience than it was enjoyable, and the staff is not exactly friendly or welcoming. I’d personally recommend staying elsewhere…
We went to sleep after a long day of ice climbing relaxed, knowing that day 5 was another no-plan day where we could drive and explore whatever we wanted on South Iceland at our leisure and after a full day of driving and adventure today, we would need it!