Exploring the Ice Caves of Vatnajökull

A thunderous crack makes the mountainside shudder to our right, and as one we whip our heads around to locate the source of the sound. I’m expecting to see an avalanche of snow and ice tumbling down the mountains, and for the next minute our eyes rove across the shadowy peaks, but nothing moves. As the echoes fade and silence reclaims the valley, I turn to our guide. “That’s something you don’t hear every day” he says, eyes gleaming with excitement.

It’s a biting December morning in the Vatnajökull Region of Iceland, and we’re hiking through a mess of boulders just east of Jökulsárlón. Our destination is a remote set of ice caves hiding beneath Breiðamerkurjökull, an outlet glacier of Vatnajökull, largest ice cap in Europe. Our hike will take us over part of the glacier which covers 8% of Iceland, but which has been in retreat for the last 120 years.

But that doesn’t mean hiking across it is any less exciting; we come upon deep crevasses, washed clean by the recent rains and glowing blue from within, and spirals of air lie underfoot frozen in the clear ice. Soon we’re all warmed up, and as we crunch across the glacier in single file the sun pokes its head out from behind a blanket of clouds, bathing Jökulsárlón below in a soft golden light. Another resounding crack sounds from over the next rise; part of the glacier breaking off and crashing into the lagoon.

Forever retreating and advancing, you can trace the history of the glacier across the plain. When it advances, it pushes the volcanic soil in front of it into small mounds, known as glacial waves, which can be seen rolling across the landscape back towards the south. The undulating hills on the coastal side of Jökulsárlón show that the glacier at one time almost reached the ocean; completely covering the glacier lagoon.

After an hour we descend to the shores of Jökulsárlón, finding ourselves in front of a dark entrance. Without hesitation, we charge into the ice realm under the glacier. Our head lamps illuminate crystal walls of deep blue, streaks of black ash encased inside from volcanic eruptions. The walls are pock marked, and water drips off the ice where it curves and twists into sculptured waves. Up ahead, we come across the first of many holes in the roof that lets light in from above, revealing a dazzling spectrum of blues. Ledges curl along the walls, and every so often there’s a shaft of light that pierces the gloom. It’s an icy world of light and shadow.

We have the cave to ourselves, and our guide shows us where we can take ideal photos without disturbing too much of the natural environment. Making our way to the back, we arrive at a ledge underneath a wide hole in the roof which shows just how far beneath the surface we are. It’s so circular it looks man-made. Of course, it isn’t – these caves are entirely natural, formed by the constant movement of the glacier; from the spring thaw that melts the ice and releases rivers, to the volcanic activity that bubbles deep within. The running water erodes the existing structures and carves out new caves, different every year.

The second cave is much shorter, far brighter, and equally as spellbinding; we stand for a long time at the end admiring the light playing off the walls and taking photos. With ample time to enjoy both caves, we’re able to study the intricate details that play out in the ice. A beautiful azure archway circles over the entrance, contrasted by an oval patch of darker ice just next to it. Underfoot, a shallow stream still trickles over the ice, a remnant of the river that rushes through during the warmer months. Through the entrance the sun sinks below the horizon, and we watch in silence as the light is reflected in a thousand hues off the walls around us.

That dying light means the end of our time in the caves, but there’s one more surprise for us before the end. On top of the glacier again, our guide abruptly stops and points at the mountains ahead. “Look there – you can see some of the glacier beneath the rock that hasn’t melted!” he says. Sure enough, stretches of glacier can be seen beneath the scree, left behind in the retreat; ready to join when the eventual advance comes again.