Iceland: Day 4
Yesterday we received the unfortunate news that our trip to hike up Skaftafell glacier and into ice caves under the glacier had been cancelled due to weather. Skaftafell is about an hour and a half further east of Hrífunes, which is the main reason we decided to stay so far out in the middle of nowhere. Skaftafell is also close to Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach. We were able to book a different tour into a different glacial ice cave. This one would depart from Vík, which is only 40 minutes away and should be an easier drive given the worst of the weather had passed.
So, after we had a tasty breakfast at the guesthouse, we headed back the way we came. The weather was similar to yesterday, although the wind had died down a bit. The visibility was still the same; white everywhere we looked. Once in Vík, we found our designated meeting spot, and eventually found our tour guide, and hopped into a very custom E350 van. The van had enormous 46" tires, a huge lift kit, and an on-the-fly tire-pressure adjustment system. As we set out on the highway, the van had about 25psi in the tires. As soon as we turned off, onto the snow fields, the driver hit a button and the pressure dropped to about 8psi. The tour guide explained that this allows the tires to flatten out and spread the weight of the vehicle over a larger area, reducing the apparent pressure on the top of the snow. In short, we drove on the snow rather than through the snow. He told us that in Iceland, it is illegal to drive off the roads, but if the land is covered with snow and you are not leaving any tracks on the ground, then it is legal. Driving over the snow assures that they are compliant, although it sounds like a bit of a grey area that just doesn't get enforced as long as you're not destroying the land.
We arrived in the "parking lot" (just a particular spot where they'd dropped a GPS pin in the middle of the white nothingness) after about a half hour of off-roading and a minor stream crossing. The van handled the route very well, even with about 15 people on board. We were given helmets and microspikes, and set out along a trail. Early on, we made the mistake of trying to pass someone who was taking a picture. Since the trail was only about a foot wide, any missteps caused us to posthole in soft snow up to our knees. Thereafter, we stayed on the trail, and waited, watching the leader get smaller and smaller in the distance. (Several people in front of us had to stop and take a picture every few steps.)
Eventually, we arrived to the entrance to the cave. Here we had to do a delicate dance to let others exit the cave without stepping too far of the trail to sink in, before we could enter. Once inside, it was really beautiful. It's hard to describe, so we took pictures. Inside the cave there are clear layers of ice and what appears to be dirt. The guide told us that the layers are actually ice and ash. Whenever a volcano erupts in the area a layer of ash settles on the glacier and eventually the snow that gets packed on top forms another layer of ice. They estimated, based on the number of layers, that the cave that we were in represented about 400-800 years of glacier in the making.
The ice cave that we visited was in Kötlujökull (Katla Glacier) which is an outflow glacier that is part of the larger Mýrdalsjökull (Myrdals Glacier). This particular glacier sits on top of Katla volcano which is one of Iceland's largest and most active volcanoes. It erupts on average every 80-100 years, according to our guide. The last eruption took place in 1918. When the volcano erupts it has to melt through the 800m thick layer of ice to release the pressure. This creates a temporary river larger than the Amazon. In the 1918 eruption, the resulting flood carried debris and deposited it, extending the south coast shoreline by 5 km. The amount of power released is incredible.
After we'd checked out the whole cave, we trekked back across the frozen desert to the van, and made the ride back to Vík. We hopped in the car, and drove over to Smiðjan Brugghús, a brewery. We ordered a burger and a beer each. All of it was wicked good. We debated on what to do next. It was still pretty windy out so we decided to take a drive and explore the small town. We eventually made our way onto the black sand beach in time for sunset, and caught our first sight of the sun in a few days. The timing was perfect, so Rob made his way onto the sand and began snapping pictures. The waves were still huge. I climbed down the bank and joined him on the beach. Suddenly a wave came out of nowhere and rushed up along the beach. We both started moving to higher ground. Rob made it in time, but unfortunately I wound up with seawater and black sand all through my boots. We later learned that the Icelanders call these "sneak waves" and that they are quite common along this beach. Surprisingly the water was not as cold as I anticipated. Or my boots and wool socks just did an excellent job of keeping my feet warm.
After the sun fell behind the cliff, the cold began to grab hold of Mandy's feet, so we headed back to the car. Thinking ahead, about what to do for dinner, since we wouldn't be eating at the guesthouse and there was nothing else near Hrífunes, we got some snacks at the grocery store that we could eat later on. We went back to Smiðjan Brugghús for one more round, and picked up a bottle of wine for after dinner. Then, we went home.
The ride back was pretty uneventful, and the weather was noticeably improving over the course of the day, which was welcome. We spent most of the evening relaxing, sifting through pictures and writing here for you all. We supped on cheese and crackers and shared a bottle of wine. Once it was well dark, we tried to get some pictures of the night sky, but unfortunately it was still too cloudy. If it had been more clear, it should have been fantastic, as there was a completely unobstructed view, and very few artificial light sources for miles around. Oh well! We caught up on some reading before eventually winding down and heading to bed.
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"It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to."
- Bilbo Baggins
We're just an adventure-loving couple with a puppy looking to share our stories with the world.