Iceland: We Come from the Land of the Ice and Snow

Cedrik Climbing Vatnajokull , Iceland's Largest Glacier , in his Pick-Pocket Proof Business Travel Pants!

By Cedrik - California, USA

"Dip your water bottles and drink," said the guide, "the water is clean and pure." We hesitated. Even in California‘s remote High Sierra mountain range, the standard is to filter or purify the water. But Iceland is different.

A remote land. Sparsely populated, Iceland has only 334,00 people, with 11 percent of the country covered in glaciers. You quickly get used to not being able to pronounce names in Iceland. The largest glacier in Iceland and all of Europe is called Vatnajokull while the infamous volcano that erupted in 2010, causing air traffic chaos in Europe, is called Eyjafjallajökull. You can buy the t-shirt and the friendly Icelanders will smile as they help you pronounce it over and over again until you get it right.  

It’s much easier to break into your best Led Zeppelin rendition of The Immigrant Song, "We come from the land of the ice and snow . . ." I lost count of the times someone in our small group sang some of the lyrics, but Iceland is a land of ice and snow. Even in June, a heavy snowfall meant pulling on that extra layer of clothing and zipping up the mountaineering jacket and exclaiming, "Well, it IS called Iceland." The puffins don't mind and if you visit make sure to bring foul weather gear.  

Did I mention the wind? The occasional howling gusts triggered another Zeppelin stanza... "The hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new lands." But the stark beauty of the landscape and the remote vastness of the country are what draw many tourists. If you have the time, make sure to go beyond the one-day Golden Circle distance from Reykjavik so you can see the less-crowded part of the country in the north and east. There you will taste the best seafood soup ever and maybe even eat cod you just caught, which the captain filleted on the way to port then threw straight onto the grill. Melt in your mouth good. You’ll be drinking lots of that clean, clear stream water because beers are about a cool $10 each.  

You’ll need beer and more because it’s likely you’ll eat Kæstur hákarl, the Icelandic delicacy of fermented shark. Preparation consists of gutting and beheading the shark, then burying it in the ground for 6 to 12 weeks to ferment and cure. Wikipedia correctly notes, "Those new to it may gag involuntarily on the first attempt to eat it," while Anthony Bourdain says it‘s "...the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing" he has ever eaten. Moral of the story: you absolutely must try it. Of course. Shots of locally produced high test brennivin help sear any remaining taste buds after sampling this delicacy. The Icelanders are a hardy lot with regard to food, as well as the outdoors.

The best of Iceland is found by exploring nature. The fjords, open countryside, dockside villages, geysers, and glaciers. Random tidbit: Iceland is the home of Geysir, the original geyser. So why not climb up part of the Vatnajokull Glacier, which by now you’ve learned to pronounce? We got kitted up with mountain boots, crampons, and an ice ax. You can also rent waterproof overpants, but I opted to just stick with my Business Traveler pants, knowing they were windproof enough and water-resistant enough to hold up to Icelandic weather.

With no snow, little wind, and only a light intermittent rain, we considered the weather perfect for climbing up the glacier. Like most glaciers in the world, Vatnajokull is retreating, so we had to first hike to the toe of the glacier, then securely strap on crampons and start climbing up. You need to step carefully because a slip on the ice has three possibilities. If you are skilled in ice ax self-arrest you’ll stop yourself from hurtling down the glacier. If not you’ll either be lucky and go the hospital with broken bones after a long and fast slide to the bottom or you’ll be unlucky and fall into a crevasse, a split in the glacier, and most likely die. But don’t worry, it’s not that steep and we were told accidents are rare. You might even find glacier mice, small balls of moss that form over time and tumble around the glacier, pushed by the wind. And you thought a rolling stone forms no moss.

We continued higher, reaching a small open stream on the glacier. Since we were thirsty and knew the water was clean, we could do a Viking-style drink: use your ice ax to span the stream, have one foot on either side of the stream, then lower down in the push-up position, drink the literally ice cold water, then push up and repeat until your thirst is quenched. Not really sure if the Vikings actually did that or if the guides were just having fun with us, but the water sure tasted good. Sooner than we wanted the trip was over, but not before watching the setting midnight sun. With one last refrain, "We come from the land of the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow."

Farewell, beautiful Iceland.