Iceland

Hiking Iceland’s Snæfellsjökull Glacier (it’s challenging)

July 7, 2017
Hiking up the famous Snaefellsjokull glacier in West Iceland.

Remember what it feels like when you suddenly realise you might have bitten off more than you can chew?

Your heart sinks, your mind races, a mild sense of panic bubbles up, and you immediately think of all the places you’d rather be. Bed. Hot springs. Café.

That’s how I felt when we set out on our hike up the Snæfellsjökull Glacier in Western Iceland, my favourite part of this drop dead beautiful country.

With its peak at 1446 metres above sea level, the Snæfellsjökull Glacier hike is rated challenging. It’s a full day hike with six to eight hours of walking, and on the day of our tour the weather was bleak: cold, overcast and very, very, grey.

Those aren’t hiking boots!

We rock up, excited and a little nervous, at the designated meeting point in Arnarstapi, a small fishing village on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, about 120 kilometres from Reykjavik. In fact, on a clear day you get great views of the glacier from the capital.

Our guide’s barely introduced himself before he looks at our hiking boots and asks, ‘Have you got any other shoes?’

Um, no. This is it.

‘Hmm, I’m not sure they’ll be good enough for today. Are they waterproof? We’re hiking in knee-deep snow. Your feet are going to get wet and cold,’ he tells us.

In a moment that reminds me of the infamous ‘That’s not a knife, THIS is a knife’ scene in the hit movie Crocodile Dundee, our guide reaches into the back of his van, pulls out his own boots and pronounces, ‘These are Icelandic hiking boots!’

The difference is stark. His boots look like something you’d wear to slay giants or bears. His offsider (who just so happens to look like Uma Thurman) has an equally robust pair of Icelandic hiking boots.

‘Have you got spare socks?’ he inquires.

Nope. Just my one pair of thick woollen socks, bought from one of the best outdoor gear companies in Australia, which suddenly feel inadequate and not up to the job.

There are only two of us on this tour and JJ my travel buddy is already fretting about frostbite on his toes, worried he’s going lose a few. He’s getting ‘cold feet’.

‘I avoid water unless it’s frozen’ 

The exchange with our guide, Villi, who grew up climbing snow-covered mountains  – ‘I avoid water unless it’s frozen’, he tells us – reminds us that we’re in a remote country with extreme weather. This is serious stuff.

We drive the short distance to our starting point at the base of the glacier. I’m worried that we’re underprepared, underdressed and have underestimated the whole adventure but most of all, I’m worried about frozen feet too.

We harness up, get fitted for crampons, pack an ice axe and Villi explains what to do in case one of us falls down a crevasse, including him. All my senses are on high alert as he informs us that we won’t be able to go right to the very top today, the risk of avalanche is too high.

Roping up on the Snaefellsjokull Glacier hike.

Part way up the glacier we all had to rope up together just in case one of us fell into a crevasse. Each hiker has to carry an ice axe as well.

Snæfellsjökull Glacier is steep and slippery

The glacier is famous for being the setting of Jules Vernes’ book, ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’; it’s through Snæfellsjökull that the main characters find their way into the earth’s centre.  Locals believe it emits a strong energy and an aura of mystique surrounds it.

The first part of the walk is over volcanic rock and snow. Some steps are on firm snow, others we sink down deep. I try to follow exactly in our guide’s footsteps. My feet are cold and my boots look like they’re getting a little wet. I try to remain calm and confident, determined to reach the peak.

It’s steep and slow going. I can feel it in my calf muscles. As we get higher we start slip-sliding around. Our boots don’t have a strong enough tread so we have to put on our crampons. We also rope up, the four of us tied together, a first for both JJ and me.

As we gain altitude conditions worsen. It’s fair to say we’re in blizzard conditions. It’s zero degrees with minus 5 wind chill. The wind is howling and I’ve developed icicles on my sunglasses, my beanie and my backpack. The right side of my face is frozen. I’m not feeling the love.

We stop and rest every 100 metres we gain in altitude. One hundred metres doesn’t sound like much but it feels like a long walk between breaks.

It’s a whiteout

It’s a total whiteout. This is not at all what I imagined. Where are the sunshine and blue skies from the photos on the website? Honestly, it didn’t occur to me that the weather could possibly be this bad in summer.

This is hard, really hard. I focus on putting one foot in front of the other, willing myself to keep going.

The whole idea of doing a climb like this is to enjoy the spectacular views from on high. We can’t see a thing and my ‘never give up’ attitude battles with reason, ‘why are we doing this if we can’t enjoy the view?’ A physical challenge is one thing; pure punishment is another.

Just as I’m having these thoughts Villi announces we’ve reached the top. For safety reasons, we can’t go further. The peak is there right in front of us, we just can’t see it. As I congratulate myself and JJ for making it, the wind whips through and blows the clouds aside. We catch a fleeting glimpse of the Snæfellsjökull glacier’s distinctive plug-shaped peak. My fingers are so cold I can barely get my camera out to take a snap.

We’ve been climbing for well over three hours and despite the tough conditions it feels like 30 minutes.

A momentary view of the peak of Snaefellsjokull.

We were lucky the wind blew away some of the clouds so we could catch a glimpse of the peak of Snæfellsjökull. All the hard work felt worth it for this momentary view. Thanks Mother Nature!

On top of the world

We feel impressed with ourselves. There’s nothing quite like testing your physical limits and stepping way outside your comfort zone to make you feel alive. We’re frozen but fired up.

Inspired by our achievement, we almost run back down the mountain, reflecting on our incredible experience, the power of nature and the beauty of this windswept, remote landscape. The clouds blow in and out revealing snapshots of the stunning vista below. It’s not the panoramic view we’d hoped for, but it’s enough.

All up, we’ve walked about 11 kilometres in tough conditions so we’re feeling on top of the world.

If we’d known what we were in for, we mightn’t have done it. Having made it, we wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Snæfellsjökull was the highlight of our 10-day Icelandic adventure.

So, have we inspired you to have a go at hiking Snæfellsjökull? Read our 10 planning tips below.

As we descended the clouds lifted and we had a beautiful view over the Snaefellsnes National Park in Western Iceland, my favourite part of this amazing country.

As we descended the clouds lifted and we had a beautiful view over the Snæfellsnes National Park in Western Iceland, my favourite part of this amazing country.

Walking the last few hundred meters of our Snaefellsjokull glacier hike.

What a feeling: the last few hundred meters of our Snæfellsjökull glacier hike.

10 tips to plan your Snæfellsjökull Glacier Hike:

1. Best time of year to go

We travelled with Icelandic Mountain Guides which runs Snæfellsjökull Glacier Hike tours three days a week (Mon, Weds & Sat) from mid-May to mid-August. We went in early June which is officially summer but conditions can change dramatically from one day to the next. The day before our whiteout hike there were clear skies and good visibility. Even if you go in the height of summer, which is peak season, you need to prepare for the worst weather.

We had organised another glacier hike on our Iceland trip, to the Sólheimajökull Glacier on the south coast, but this was cancelled due to wild weather, including winds of up to 120km/hour.

2. Go with an experienced guide

This is not a tour you should tackle on your own. You need appropriate equipment such as harness, ropes, crampons, ice axe plus a GPS. Particularly when there’s still a lot of snow on the volcano there is a risk, albeit small, of falling into a crevasse.

3: What to wear for a glacier hike

Proper outdoor gear, that both insulates and evaporates sweat, is a must. Jeans or anything cotton are a no-go. We had thermal long pants underneath our waterproof pants plus several layers on top – I had a short-sleeve and a long-sleeve thermal top, a zip up polartec jacket, a woollen zip up jacket and a waterproof, windproof, Goretex shell.

We both wore beanies but with strong winds our exposed faces were very cold. I wished I had my polartec neck warmer and JJ was longing for a balaclava.

4. Proper hiking boots suitable for deep snow

Take a good look at your hiking boots. My Salomon boots are medium weight and waterproof and have traversed all kinds of different terrain but not deep snow. They did gather snow on the front and my feet did get cold and a bit wet. One tip is to kick off the snow by banging your foot against a volcanic rock.  Overall, I thought my boots were adequate however JJ’s didn’t cut it. His are lightweight hiking boots and his feet were cold and wet. He wished he’d had heavier, warmer shoes, so think about renting some from the tour company.

5. Have two pairs of warm socks

If you can fit two pairs of warm socks in your hiking boots, do it, otherwise used the second pair to change into at the end.

6. Wear waterproof gloves with wrist straps

Thankfully we had bought some basic waterproof gloves in Iceland after getting totally drenched when it rained non-stop for a few days. What you really need are gloves that have wrist straps so you can take them off without them blowing away or having to hang onto them while you juggle the camera, sunglasses or water.

7. Carry a water bottle that straps on

Similarly, you need a water bottle that clips on to your backpack. Because we were travelling for a month we didn’t pack proper water bottles. Instead we used store bought ones with screw caps. In freezing cold strong winds, getting the cap off and on again was a nightmare. We had about three litres of water between us which was plenty, bearing in mind it wasn’t a warm day.

8. Crampons

I’ve never worn crampons before and was surprised at how easy they are. They clip on to the bottom of your hiking boots and provide good grip in the snow and ice so you don’t slip and slide around. You just need to make sure you take wide steps so you don’t get them caught up in your pants as you walk on uneven terrain.

9. Take plenty of food

It’s a long day. We had several sandwiches each plus chocolate snacks and muesli bars. Because the weather was so wild we didn’t have a break at the top and had plenty of food left over. We were pretty peckish by the time we got back to Arnarstapi and had a delicious hot chocolate to help thaw out.

10. Hike with a 30-litre backpack

The tour company recommended a 30-litre backpack. We had one 35 litre pack and another half that size. It was a mistake. You need to carry food, water, crampons, any surplus clothing, sunnies, sunscreen, camera gear, ice axe, etc. You’ll really impress the local guides if your backpack has a strap suitable for holding the ice axe!

Trip notes:

We travelled with Icelandic Mountain Guides and would highly recommend them. They were professional to deal with and very responsive to our queries. We felt very safe with our experienced guide which is especially important in challenging conditions.

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