Exploring ice caves in an Icelandic winter. Stepping foot into your first crystal clear blue ice cave is a memory that will last a life time. If you haven’t explored an ice cave in an Icelandic winter for yourself it’s hard to describe the feeling. Standing inside this magnificent flowing structure of ice and looking up at the curved blue roof above can be hypnotic. I’ve taken hundreds of customers into dozens of different ice caves across Iceland but one thing is always the same. The reaction.
The reaction to the ice cave
The reaction as my guests walk through the entrance of the ice cave always starts with an audible, “WOW!!!” followed by silence. Silence that lasts longer than you might expect. Like children reaching to the stars, my guest’s hands rise to the ceiling trying to interpret what they are seeing. Wide eyes, open mouths and outstretched arms is often what I observe as I watch over my guests. I imagine there would be a few embarrassed faces seeing a picture of themselves in those few seconds. But I allow them their moment of solitude without disruption. This memory is just for them. No one else.
Exploring the ice cave
Once my group settle into their surroundings the cameras, tripods and a few snacks temporarily become the focus. We’ve travelled far to get here. They deserve their break, and that all important picture. Depending on the year, the ice caves we explore can be completely enclosed with only a small hole to sneak into to find this hidden world. Or it can be a towering open arched structure. There have been years where crawling on your hands and knees was necessary, like in the winter of 2016 and other years when the ice cave required cut ice steps to walk down into, like in 2018. Each year is unique. The size of the ice caves we visit can range from a small apartment sized room to a towering cathedral. The smaller, more contained ice caves tend to last a little longer and have more of a blue colour due to their ability to hide from the sun. But the larger ones, allow the low light of winter days to cascade off the walls of the ice cave creating a light show to rival the northern lights.
Understanding the ice cave
It’s only once my guests stop taking pictures and examining every ripple, crack and light refraction that the questions begin to come up. Luckily I love to talk about glaciers and ice caves as much as exploring them. The most prominent questions I get are, “how are the ice caves formed?”, “why can we only go into them in the winter if the glaciers are around all year?” and “how old is the ice cave?”
I’ll give you the abridged version now but for the full explanation you will have to come to Iceland to see for yourself.
Ice caves are formed from one of two main reasons. Either the ice flows over other sections of the glacier forcing arch like structures to form as it bends and twists in its journey towards the sea. Or, from constant water erosion as the glacier melts in the summer creating large caverns that empty out as the temperature drops in the winter. In both cases it is only safe to go into these ice caves in winter because the ice melts too fast in the summer for the arched structures to remain safe for very long. Or they are simply flooded when it’s too warm. This means that despite the ancient look of the blue ice caves it’s rare that the same ice cave will survive from one winter to the next. Some don’t even survive the entire winter sometimes.
The glacier ice (the building blocks of the ice cave) is usually 7-800 years old depending on where you are, but the ice caves themselves are rarely more than 1 to 2 years old. In fact, since I started my company I have yet to revisit the same ice cave two years in a row with customers. This means that every single ice cave season is different.
Discovering the ice cave
Discovering new ice caves in Iceland is no easy task. If each ice cave collapses in the summer then it stands to reason that a new ice cave need to be found every winter. A fun, but not easy task. We recruit local ice cave explorers in the remote areas of the country to find, and monitor them. This means there is no guarantee there will be a suitable, and safe ice cave to explore each year. Especially with climate change causing the glaciers to retreat further and further every year.
Sometimes a trip on a super jeep is needed to get there. Other times a glacier hike with crampons for up to an hour one way is required. Crossing rivers and dodging holes can be necessary. Whichever way we get to the ice cave I can at least guarantee it will be an adventure. My company and many others run the tours with the expectation that no previous experience is needed. A moderate level of fitness is required however, and full mobility of ankles and knees is needed for the sometimes uneven and steep terrain. That being said, I’ve taken people from 18 to 80 on our adventures. With the right equipment and trained guide it should be no harder than a normal hill walk.
How to get to the ice caves
I personally spend most of my time with customers exploring the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Vatnajökull National Park in the South East of the island. We pick our guests up in Reykjavik then visit the popular spots along the way including the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. We spend the night in the area in a secluded hotel, perfect for spotting the northern lights. Then we dedicate the entire next day to exploring the glacier and the ice caves. There are a few ice caves available closer to Reykjavik that other companies enter on day trips. These tend to be a little more crowded but still incredible experiences.
Accessibility and duration are two topics that should be considered. Before you book onto any ice cave tour read in detail what it entails. Some ice cave tours can be as easy as being driven to the edge of the cave, walk in, take pictures, and walk back out. Perfect for low-ability groups. Other ice cave trips are just one part of a glacier hike adventure. Great for people who want to go a little off the beaten path and don’t mind burning some calories to do it.
When should I book a trip to do an ice cave tour?
I’m a little biased here, but the answer is absolutely now. Although around 11% of Iceland is covered in ice and there are over 400 glaciers across the country, the access to these beautiful flowing ice rivers is getting harder and harder to maintain due to climate change. The surviving glaciers are nestled up in the colder mountainous areas of Iceland with many of the sea-level glaciers already melted away, or greatly diminished. Simply getting onto a glacier to find an ice cave to take guests on is a finite luxury that we may only have for a few more years. Now is the time to come for sure. I’ll see you there.
Ryan Connolly is Co-Founder of Hidden Iceland. Hidden Iceland specialises in private trips, taking you to some of the hidden gems of Iceland with a passionate and experienced guide.