Going ice climbing in one of the most beautiful places in the world
As I swung my axe over my head it deflected off the glassy wall, a thin scratch the only blemish in an otherwise perfectly smooth surface.
I swung again, my forearms burning by this point unused to the constant exertion. Again, my axe bounced off the wall, ice shards ricocheting onto my face.
It was then when my legs slipped out from beneath me and I lurched a few feet into the chasm below.
My safety rope went taught as I hung there trying not to look at the blackness underneath me, a straight 50 metre drop into an icy river.
I clawed at the wall again with my axes to find some sort of purchase so I could kick my crampons back into the wall, anything to take the weight off my arms.
Once I got my toes back into the wall I sat in my harness, arms slumped around my waist.
I looked up and it felt like I had so far to go. Still, there wasn’t any turning back. It’s not like I had anywhere else to go, is it?
I had to do it, I had to carry on. This was why I was in Iceland after all, to test myself to the limit, to conquer a glacier and to do something I’d never done before – ice climbing.
I wasn’t ready to give up just yet. All I had to do was swing my axe again…
Just a few hours before I was driving through Iceland’s barren black lava fields.
Even though this was my second time to Iceland, I still couldn’t get over the array of landscapes here.
My drive from Reykjavik took me past lush green meadows with old-wooden cabins dotted around the countryside, each one with its own rusting tractor out the front, till I could see Seljalandsfoss, one of Iceland’s most famous waterfalls, its power visible from miles away with the faint outline of spray catching the light.
My eyes weren’t on these though – they were firmly on the brilliant white of Sólheimajökull glacier off into the distance.
My challenge for the day was to go ice climbing, something that I’ve always wanted to do.
In the car park to Sólheimajökull I met Pete from Iceland Mountain Guides, my guide for the day and the guy literally showing me the ropes to ice climbing.
As we kitted up he asked me why I was in Iceland, and I told him I wanted to do something completely new and to challenge myself. He had a wry smile as if to suggest that the day would be a challenge.
At uni I used to go indoor climbing a lot and I absolutely loved it. I loved how in that one moment when you’re on the wall that’s all the matters – you have a single goal, get to the top, and it doesn’t which way you go as long as you get there.
I wanted to recapture that spirit again and Pete was there to help me do it. That was the idea anyway.
After we kitted up it was a short 15-minute walk to get to the bottom of the glacier where we put on our crampons.
One thing that really struck me about the glacier at Sólheimajökull was its colour – unlike most of the glaciers I saw in Greenland which were various shades of white, this one was flecked with black, deep dark lines running through it.
When I asked Pete, he said glaciers were different in Iceland compared to others around the world because they’re volcanic, so the black I could see was volcanic dust.
If anything, it made what I was about to do even more daunting knowing there was a volcano in the mixer as well.
To get to the ice wall first we had to walk across the glacier.
I’m lucky because I’ve done a fair bit of hiking on glaciers before so it felt reassuring having that familiar crunch of ice underfoot.
If you’ve never been hiking on a glacier, at first it can feel a little unnerving walking on ice and snow, but honestly, when you’re clipped into your crampons it’s actually a lot easier than hiking up a mountain! Yes, I really mean that!
The ice wall was in a moulin (a bit like a crevasse but with a river running through it, you know, because nature…), and once we got there Pete taught me how to ice climb.
The process is actually pretty simple and quite similar to climbing.
With two ice axes and sharp teeth on the toes of my crampons, Pete told me to kick my feet into the wall to form a base and then swing my axes over my head until they ‘bit’ into the wall. Once my axes were steady I had to kick my feet into the wall again just a couple of feet above where they were. Swing. Swing. Kick. Kick. Rinse. Wash. Repeat.
Once I go to grips with the basics and climbed the beginner wall a couple of times I graduated to something Pete referred to as “the wall of death”. (Note: at no point did Pete ever say this, but I can assure you, standing at the top and looking down into that dark chasm about 50 metres below, that’s exactly what it felt like).
It was time to do this.
My biggest problem with ice climbing, (much like with indoor climbing at uni), was that I always try and pull myself to the top when in reality about 70% of the work should be done by the legs. For me, 90% of the work is done in the arms, so it’s no surprise they quickly turned to jelly once I was on the wall.
After slipping off the wall a couple of times, I sat in the rope just to give my arms a break, to let the muscles relax a bit. Honestly, my arms were in agony and I wasn’t sure I’d make it to the top.
I knew the only way out of this was to get back on the wall, to swing my axe again, so from that point I took it slow remembering to form a solid base with my feet.
One swing after the other, I slowly made my way up the ice wall till eventually I could see Pete grinning down at me.
One last lift and I eventually swung my legs over the top of the wall. I made it. I did it.
“So, how was it? Feeling good?”
Feeling good? I felt great!
As I gathered my senses I looked back down at where I had just come from. The wall looked undisturbed and unmarked from this height in the same condition as I arrived, and I smiled to myself.
This is exactly why I came to Iceland, to push myself to the limit, to feel the adrenaline pumping through my veins, to hear the blood rushing in my ears.
I was so happy to have done it, especially in Iceland. There aren’t many places around the world as stunning as this place.
Was it easy? Of course not. But the best things never are.
Now it’s onto my next challenge…
My trip to Iceland was part of a campaign with Lonely Planet and Three all about using your phone doing the things you love (and yes, I took a selfie while hanging on the ice wall!) As always, all views and opinions are entirely my own and without bias.
Have you ever been ice climbing before? If so, what did you make of it? Hard? Get the jelly arms? And if not, would you ever do it? Let me know in the comments below!
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