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Exploring a glacier cave in Iceland

Iceland overflows with a variety of awe-inspiring landscapes to explore, from vast glaciers to volcanic deserts. Glacier caves figure among the country’s many breathtaking natural wonders, offering a cold, silent, and uniquely lit world to explore. Embark on an adventure with Anna and Pierre to learn more about this amazing phenomenon.

March 23 2020

Backpacking and trekking

© 2019 PETZL - Arnaud CHILDERIC

Finding a cave

Some glaciers are visible from the road, and others make you work before revealing themselves. Most caves within these rivers of ice form during the winter. However, they prove much more difficult to find in autumn, the time of year when we happened to be traveling through Iceland. After contacting several guides who had yet to spot a fully-formed cave to explore, we were just about ready to abandon all hope. In the end, our hosts put us in contact with Siggi, the one guide in Iceland who specializes in glacier caves.

We traveled to Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier. Siggi keeps an eye on the glacier year round to spot any caves that form. He explained that, on average, glacier caves start to form at least a year before being in the right condition to explore. Between the freeze-thaw cycle and the glacier constantly moving, these ephemeral caves usually only last a single winter before disappearing. To make sure that a cave is safe to explore, Siggi measures the thickness of the ice on a regular basis. Once the walls reach three meters thick a cave is safe to enter.

© 2019 PETZL - Arnaud CHILDERIC

Exploring the cave

We meet Siggi near Hofn at 06:30 in the morning. From there we travel to the part of the glacier closest to the cave to start our approach hike. The vast glacier spreads out as far as the eye can see. Once at the cave entrance Siggi explains the two non-negotiable safety rules: we have to put on a helmet to protect against any falling ice and wear a headlamp for those areas in the cave that prove much darker than expected.

Our first few steps take us into a truly magical world, an unbelievable tunnel of ice. The light filtered through the translucent cave walls is a deep sky blue. An opening at the far end of the cave channels the daylight coming in from above.

This secret cave recently formed. Since only Siggi knows about it, we are all alone. Even though the fall season has arrived, the thick icy walls prove more than solid enough for us to safely venture inside. We take our time marveling at the incredible shades of never-before-seen blue, as well as the amazing natural architecture that rivals Europe’s most spectacular cathedrals. This cavern fills with both muted and piercing sounds at the same time.

The menacing rain clouds we had observed earlier finally let loose. To stay safe, we have to cut this unique adventure short. We exit the cave through another opening and start the return hike back to the car. Our visit lasts an hour. One hour where time and space seem to come to a screeching halt.

© 2019 PETZL - Arnaud CHILDERIC

Recommendations for exploring glacier caves in Iceland:

  1. Time of year: in winter, between November and March.
  2. Location: the Vatnajökull Glacier is the most popular place to explore glacier caves since it is Iceland’s biggest, but you can also explore Myrdalsjökull (Katla Cave) within the Langjökull Glacier.
  3. Weather: like all excursions into the mountains, wait for good weather (no snow or rain).
  4. Guided tours: since glacier caves can be dangerous, we recommended hiring a local guide.
  5. Required gear: warm and comfortable clothing, a helmet, a bright headlamp, and crampons for certain caves and approaches.

An awesome experience guaranteed!

Trip report by Anna and Pierre – Fly Away to Adventure
Photos: Arnaud CHILDERIC - Studio Kalice -
Original text in French written by Anna CHILDERIC