I wasn’t sure what to expect the day I went to climb Solheimajokull glacier in Iceland. Would it be freezing cold? Would my body be strong enough to bring me to the top? Would I slip on the ice? My stomach was flip-flopping; I was filled with both excitement and nerves.
I had dreamt of Iceland for years. It’s home to glaciers, fjords, hot springs, volcanoes and more. The capital, Reykjavik, oozes character and charm. But most of all, it’s an adventurer’s playground. The land of fire and ice is never boring and always teeming with possibility. And I wanted a slice.
I decided to go solo rather than wait for someone to join me. My friends didn’t share the same passion for Iceland as I did, and my family didn’t have a trip on their minds at the time. Travelling with others was my comfort zone. If you would’ve asked my 18-year-old self if I’d ever travel solo, I would have said no. But now, going alone seemed like a more alluring challenge. I knew I’d be a bit nervous, but I felt like it was time to do something big on my own. I wanted to show myself that I’m resourceful, capable and strong enough to conquer my goals. To ease myself into solo travelling, I joined a tour group where a local guide would take us to see some of Iceland’s wonders and immerse ourselves in the culture.
If I were going to climb any glacier, Solheimajokull was the one for me. I love exploring on foot to take in the scenery. This particular tour interested me because it wasn’t a race to the top, but an educational and immersive hike. Guides take visitors up the glacier. The hike lasts about three hours. Currently, Solheimajokull is about eight kilometres in length and two kilometres wide. In 2021, a group of Icelandic students measured that the glacier has receded by 408 metres in the past 11 years, and experts have warned that all of Iceland’s glaciers could disappear by 2200.
Solheimajokull is considered an outlet glacier of the icecap Myrdalsjokull. Small icebergs float around Jokulsa, the glacial lagoon, that lives at the base of the glacier and grows each time the ice melts. The buzz about hiking Solheimajokull inspired me to learn fun, basic facts about the hike. The closer I got to the actual day, the more I realized I didn’t know that much. I didn’t know what it would truly be like to climb a glacier, or how I would handle it. The real lessons I learned were the ones on my way up to the top.
After signing waivers, we met our guide and listened intently about how to stay safe. The last thing I wanted was to fall through a crevasse and never return. I looked at my guide and realized I was clearly overdressed: the guide wore a short sleeve shirt and leggings, whereas I donned a thick white wool sweater, a puffy blue jacket, rain pants over top of my lined joggers and gloves. Would I overheat? Would my layers be restrictive while hiking? I snapped out of my worrying thoughts and put my gear on before setting off on the 25-minute hike to reach the glacier.
Once we arrived, we pulled over to the side to admire Jokulsa. Large chunks of ice floated near the edge, and the water was a grayish blue that stood completely still. We also received a lesson on how to put on and walk in our crampons. These were new to me. They fit snugly on the bottom of my hiking boots and demanded exaggerated big steps.
As we started our climb, our guide led us single file along a carefully carved-out path. We were constantly twisting and turning as we hopped over wet puddles, stomped through slushy snow and passed other groups. Every once and a while we’d stop to hear some glacier facts and catch our breath. I learned that the Katla volcano lies underneath Solheimajokull, and every drop of water that flows from the glacier will eventually find a home in the ocean.
The biggest test came when we faced a steep incline of pure ice. Every fiber of my being told me to brace myself for a fall, but this is where my crampons really shined. My big stomps gave my crampons the opportunity to dig into the ice and keep me upright. It was amazing. I didn’t think about how I was over 4,000 kilometres away from home, but how strong my steps felt. I made it across the glistening ice without one stumble.
We turned a corner, and I could see the top just up ahead. I inhaled a deep breath and willed my body forward. The view was incredible, and I was determined to relish it. I marvelled at Jokulsa down below and the mountains surrounding us. I even mustered up some strength to do a Viking push up in exchange for some ice-cold glacier water. Our guide rested her pickaxe over a lightly flowing stream and had us plant our arms on either side as we lowered ourselves down for a sip. It was the coolest, most refreshing water I’ve ever tasted. Then we started our trek downward.
The descent was easier in some ways, but it still tested my strength. Our slow and deliberate pace made my legs burn. I put even more trust into my crampons as we weaved our way down.
Once we made it back to terra firma, we took a moment to rest and peel our crampons off. I thought about how handy they’d be for when it gets icy back home.
My mind was all over the place on the hike back to the parking lot. I thought “wow, I did that.” I didn’t fall down a crevasse, my body didn’t give up on me and I took in sights I had only dreamt of.
I sported a goofy grin on my face as I thought about how my younger self would be impressed. Basking in pride, I wondered, “what else can I do?”