When there is real work to do it seems we pray for snow days even as adults. In this case, the morning sun was a happy signal that it was time to play. We were free. We threw on our full gear knowing we could shed layers and then packed up for the day. Matthew having traveled in many cold climates had made my packing list and we were nearly identical as we headed out. Thermal underbar, ski pants, flannel jacket, down vest, raincoat, boot liners, ski socks, hiking boots, neck warmer, hat and gloves. We also had purchased some walking level crampons, which came to be an absolute essential on the icy pathways and frozen cliff sides.
Traveler True: Yaktrax Walkers for winter travel. We had been advised by REI staff to use a more heavy duty version but due to the price we decided to go with a basic pair and were in no way disappointed. We knew that if we were gonna take on any extreme hiking we would be able to rent mountaineering crampons.
We grabbed a quick breakfast from the hotel including skyr and granola and salami and bread, and snagged some extra sandwiches for the road. We hopped in our rental and headed out into a wind blown snowfield for which we thanked our foresight for the 4-wheel drive. We passed several mini sedans that seemed to have been picked up and thrown off the road. The dichotomy between yesterday’s storm and today’s blue skies was striking and actually exciting as this was part of the definition of the land we were in. So extreme!
We had decided the night before that we would try and make it out to Jökulsárlón and back to make up for lost time. This would be a 2.5 hour drive one way in good weather, without stopping. Our first stop was Dyrhólaey, where we caught the most beautiful sunrise. We stopped midway up to the Dyrhólaey lighthouse and took a steep footpath down, running with childlike enthusiasm, to get a better view. The ocean was wild as it crashed and crashed against a remarkable stretch of the dark and jagged cliff side.
As a new traveler this land was a true mystery. It was overwhelming, feeling the freezing mist from the ancient Atlantic who was looking so much more dangerous than she does state side and hearing her just outright roar and beat the black volcanic earth. Her immense temper was soothing and the mist settled in with some of my own from absolute contentment.
We continued onto the lighthouse and well…
Just beyond Dyrhólaey we made our next stop to have an up-close encounter with some waves. This was a popular tourist spot with many large buses parked, which we would be seeing a lot more of in the coming days. The area was a playground of sorts with lots of different vantage points and levels to watch and feel the waves crash. Matt took a break from his broken record like warnings of “don’t get too close to the edge” and asked me to go out on the cliff for some shots with the tower like outcroppings near the town of Vik.
After he got the shot, he joined me on the ledge to get some more pictures. I was out FAR too close and had taken a seat (fortunately) with Matt a little ways inland. Of course, out of nowhere, a rogue wave crashed and made its way up 50 feet or more to land directly on top of us. Honestly, we hadn’t seen a single drop of seawater on this cliff and it seemed too high up. Anyways, the force of the wave knocked me over, took my hat with it, and for a moment put me in a sort of water cocoon. I had the wherewithal to turn into the cliffs, cover my camera and just wait hoping it wouldn’t push or pull me any further.
Once the water fully crashed, my reaction, so typical, was to laugh out loud, despite the real fear I felt. Matt still behind me and standing, thank the lord, was in an equal state of fearful giddiness, whatever it is, and dripping head to toe. This included the camera in his hand and the one he had set down next to him, which was resting now in a puddle, aka it’s watery grave. A small crowd had witnessed and looked slightly shocked and amused with that look like, “haha what idiots!” This along with the incredibly freezing sea shower we just took caused us to book it straight back to the car.
As soon as we made it back we stripped to base layers, and rang out our clothes and hair. Even with the heat turned on full blast, Matthew did his best to keep his cool as he tried to dry his cameras out. Under stress the man shines indeed. We laughed off the absurdity of the situation in our hot box car with clothes draped everywhere, placing the most crucial items (cameras and socks) on the dash for some direct heat.
The lesson learned? Even when it’s not raining, it doesn’t hurt to always wear the waterproof jacket, especially in winter. Even when it’s not snowing, Iceland is very much a land of H20.
We made it the short distance to Vik, which is the southernmost village in Iceland, and planned to stake out a spot for closer photos of the rock outcroppings among the waves. To our dismay Matt’s cameras started having behavioral issues. He did what he could, pressed all the buttons as I saw it, and confronted the idea that the cameras may not be recoverable. We decided to eat what we snagged for lunch and take on the stretch to Skaftafell National Park.
As we approached the park we could see the Skaftafellsjökull glacier from the ring road, a pale cerulean mass pouring from the volcanic mountains. This glacier is one of several outlet glaciers for the Vatnajökull glacier (also an ice cap), which covers 8 percent of Iceland and is one of the largest glaciers in Europe (the visitor center is very informational as you can see… editor’s note, so is Wikipedia).
We arrived and piled on our now dry and super toasty gear as well as our walking crampons (see aforementioned Traveler’s Trues) and directed ourselves to the trail out to the glacier. Good news, one of Matt’s Cameras had decided to ship shape up and start cooperating. The trail was open, I doubt it truly ever closes, but it didn’t appear to be maintained. It was snow packed from use but icy like a hockey rink.
We passed group after group, clinging to the trail with our economic boot accessories, feeling bad for their very obvious struggle. In addition to the ice, the wind was searing in a way neither of us had ever experienced. We leaned into it and marched on until about a mile later where we came upon the glacier lagoon. A crowd had gathered and huddled at a pretty obvious precipice that warned to go no further unless you were equipped of course. I had seen so many people fall and trip in these elements but we felt sturdy and pressed on to play by ourselves at the foot of the glacier.
Meaningful time spent we zoomed back to the car, passing person after falling person. Yaktrax Walkers you win!!
Music Credit: Pat Benatar – Fire and Ice
We continued on to our last stop of the day, Jökulsárlón Glacier and lagoon. At this point the sun was down and the long lasting sunset began. We arrived and geared up for our last round in the wind. This lagoon was very different than the Skaftafellsjökull lagoon, which was frozen and disconnected from the sea.
The Jökulsárlón lagoon was vast, unfrozen and flowed directly into the ocean. Ice and bits of glacier that had broken away stood out in the moving water, jagged and blue. Chunks of ice could even be seen just below the water’s surface moving slowly towards the sea. A few seals, or maybe just one that was swimming in circles, made an exciting appearance. It was the only animal life we’d seen besides the tame Icelandic horses.
We followed the lagoon to its outlet into the ocean and came upon a black sand beach covered with beached ice of all shapes and sizes. Some were crystal clear and others held onto the cerulean glow of the glacier. We took our time despite the sudden drop in temperature. It felt a bit like looking for seashells, walking with your head down, the rest of the world distant as you searched for “the one”. I came upon one that looked like a whale, not quite the size but intriguing in the sense that its journey was so mysterious and it was so large. It felt like quite the juxtaposition to have the biggest ice cube I’ve ever seen just chilling on a black sand beach.
We headed home that night heads full of images and with that sensation that we really got after it. Ya know that satisfying tired feeling that a good meal will top off. We had a long stretch to make it back and had decided to stop in Vik at a restaurant our hotel manager had recommended. We had a two hour drive and a beautiful sunset to match the intensity of the sunrise we saw that morning. The wind was picking up the black volcanic sand on the roadside and throwing it up against a neon pink and orange sky.
We made it to Vik and did our best to clean up for dinner, in the car. Halldorskaffi was the restaurant of choice and obviously a fan favorite judging by the lack of empty tables. We had another round of lamb stew and split a pizza topped with jam and brie cheese. Matt got fries as they’re his favorite food and we were both so so satisfied, and wholly ready for bed.