REYKJAVIK, Iceland — Waterfalls and ash — and elves — make up one of the most fascinating places on Earth.
Iceland is known for its glacier “Vatnajokull,” or Vatna Glacier in English. It is the largest ice cap in Europe by volume and the largest in Iceland overall. It is big. But not only is it big, it is thick — one thousand meters to be precise. Covering between eight and 10 percent of Iceland, the voluminous ice cap sits in the southeast region of the country, just over three hours east of the capital, Reykjavik.
Visitors to Vatnajokull have the option of taking a tour to a glacier, experience waterfalls close up, or venture through a cave on an ice-caving tour. But seeing the glacier first hand, or first foot one could say, after stepping onto the ice is unlike any other Icelandic tourist experience.
A guided tour of Svinafellsjokull, a tongue of ice that lies at the foot of Vatnajokull, will remind visitors of films and TV series such as “Interstellar,” “Batman Begins” and “Game of Thrones” in which this portion of the glacier was featured. More importantly, it will leave the visitor wanting more.
At the beginning of a hike on Svinafellsjokull, visitors are taught how to put on crampons, metal-like plates that strap to the bottom of boots to allow for better traction on the ice cap, and ice picks are passed around to assist with balance when hiking up and down the hills of ice. Depending on the length and route of the journey, hard hats are provided. As one heads towards the massive, ash-covered glacier, immense white clouds cover miles of unseen glacial masses.
Heading toward the far side of the glacier, being mindful that underneath is an ice-cold lake, one’s imagination goes wild at the fact that one wrong step, or wandering from the guide, can send one to an icy peril. The consistency of the glacier changes from day to day as a result of climate change, but guides are trained to detect fresh crevasses or thin ice. Always stay behind the guide.
Navigating water-filled trenches and kettles, one begins to feel like Matthew McConaughey in “Interstellar,” experiencing Mann’s planet, surrounded by frozen clouds and circling a black hole.
“Vatna” is the plural form of the Icelandic word “Vatn,” meaning water. Whether the frozen water was named for its size, water trenches or kettles, the name suits. The water is purer than bottled mineral water, so if one becomes exhausted and forgets bottled water at the hostel, you’re all set.
Under the ice cap, like most glaciers in Iceland, are volcanoes — and active ones at that. There are roughly seven volcanoes under the glacier that have been identified, the most famous being Grímsvötn, Öraefajökull and Bardarbunga. In the past, these glacial lakes have been active. Most recently, Grímsvötn has been the cause of massive glacial lake outburst floods. One eruption was as recent as 2004. The volcano has also had a number of non-fissure eruptions and produced a glacial outburst flood in 2010.
However, the volcanoes are not to be feared when hiking the glacier. Tour guides are well-schooled in the geography of Vatnajokull and will not take visitors anywhere they do not deem safe.
Aside from the “danger,” Vatnajokull offers the world’s largest sight line. Iceland can sometimes be seen from the Faroe Islands, more than 300 miles away. And what a gorgeous and awe-inspiring sight for those who get to see such beauty.
Iceland in general is an incredible vacation destination for those who enjoy the outdoors, but Vatnajokull is unlike any other place on the island.
It is incredible to be around such power that could crush one at any second. This is a primary reason to visit a glacier. We love to feel small. We love to know there is something more powerful than us, but simultaneously, and maybe even subconsciously, know that we’re OK.
Humans thrive on ownership and being in control, but to see breathtaking nature so close up, to hike across a plain of cemented water, to feel the rash wind that swoops through the crevices of distant mountains to nearly sweep you off your feet — to experience the danger that nature encompasses, provides a rush of empowerment — you own the experience.