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Iceland: Into the glacier

“It’s like a tree of life for this country,” my guide, Siggi, tells me. I scrutinise the wavering layers of black running through the striped blue-and-white wall of ice in front of me.

Iceland: Into the glacier
Into the Glacier. © Skarpi.

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The layers tell a story of what the weather was like during previous winters. How cold it was, how long it lasted, how intense the snowfall had been. And then, every so often, the spotless ice is tarnished with strikes of compressed residue from nearby volcanoes erupting.

I’m just a few feet into the entrance of Iceland’s new attraction — Into the Glacier — a man-made ice cave carved out 30 metres below the surface of Langjökull, Europe’s second-largest ice cap. With a network of tunnels and grottos, the cave stretches out up to 300 metres underground. The walls shift hues from white to arctic blue — where bubbles in the ice have been squeezed out under the pressure — and temperatures drop to a chilled -1C.

The walls of ice are decades old, with the age increasing the deeper the tunnel gets. “This is from when Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010,” Siggi explains, flickering his torch over a thick streak of ash that’s crunched its way into the glacier’s history.

Crampons strapped on, I delve further in, following the line of light bouncing from Siggi’s torch, but it only shows me the smaller details in the cave. The rest is lit up by a series of LED lights installed into the walls and floors, intensifying the azure ice. Halfway through a tunnel, we cross a five-metre-wide crevasse. “This could be another source of light, if it fully opens up,” says Siggi ruefully. I look up at the fracture in the ice cap towering above, fringed with illuminated, ominous-looking icicles. Sealed off on top, this crevasse remained undiscovered until a mix of adventurers, local farmers and professionals drilled into the ice last year, once the idea of the attraction had been born.

We stop by a room carved into the side of a tunnel. Inside, planks of wood resting on perfectly formed cubes of lit-up ice create makeshift benches, while a larger block rests at the end of the aisle. This room will soon be a chapel, complete with installed dripping sound effects. But the occasional bead of water I can hear hitting the ground now is real. A few puddles have formed throughout the cave and the chapel roof is moving down at 50cm a year as snowfall creates more layers above. Everything here needs regular maintenance, and with it naturally moving at a glacial pace downhill, the cave has an expected life span of 10-15 years.

Before heading back to the luxurious Ion Luxury Adventure Hotel, I take a walk on the surrounding snow. There’s a chance that where I’m walking may one day be carved to become a new layer of the cave’s wall, ingraining into its history. But, then again, if a volcano that erupted for six months causes an inch-thick solid black line, I doubt my size-three footprints will make much of an impact.

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