Thursday, July 9, 2009

Glaciers, Geysirs, and Ghosts

After leaving Reykjavik on our personal bus, we picked up our cook, Sola, and hit the Ring Road (Iceland’s only “highway”) towards the east, to check out Thingvellir National Park. Our first stop was Nesjavellir power plant, where we could see how electricity is generated through the harnessing of geothermal power from the Earth’s interior. Onwards, then, we headed for a picnic lunch and a walk through the Mid-Atlantic rift, where on one side of the path is the North American tectonic plate, and on the other side, the European plate! After spending time hiking in the sunshine (it was unusually hot), we descended underwater, in freezing cold temperatures, for some dry suit snorkeling. It is here that we were able to touch the two tectonic plates at the same time! In this region of Iceland, the plates are spreading apart, growing by 2 cm each year!

Our explorations continued as we descended into a lava tube cave. Unlike in America, where many of popular caves are paved with well-lit paths, here in Iceland, we donned helmets and headlamps and scrambled for an hour underground, with no path in sight! When we entered the “cathedral” we experienced total darkness, while our guide told a ghost story that left many of us spooked. In fact, after looking at our photos of the entrance of the cave, we noticed some transparent white orbs. In one picture, the cave looks normal. In another picture, taken moments after the first, the orbs appear. Were we in the presence of ghosts? It is not unheard of in Iceland!

To end the day we set up camp, had a delicious lamb soup dinner prepared by Sola, visited Strokkur geysir, famous for its “blue bubble” before it erupts in a spray of hot water, and celebrated Matthew’s birthday with an Oreo volcano “cake” complete with red hot lava in the form of red licorice. Some of us even slept under the sky, before being driven back to the tents due to high winds and rain at 4 in the morning.

The next day, we completed the famous “Golden Circle” by visiting Gullfoss, an immensely powerful and beautiful 'double decker' waterfall which cascades over volcanic rock, creating mist similar to the scene around Niagara Falls. As we continued our journey east on the Ring Road, we explored Solheimajokull glacier on foot (no crampons!) which is the site of an Extreme Ice Survey camera used to monitor changing glacial conditions. We saw many beautiful waterfalls, towering volcanic cliffs, large boulders from rockfalls, washed out plains from violent glacial floods, small farms dotting the countryside, and glacial 'highways' pouring out from the Vatnajokull icecap. When we finally arrived at our campsite at Skaftafell National Park, it was pouring rain but this didn't bother our group as our students worked together to get the tents up and dinner cooking! Sola kept everyone entertained and cooked up another amazing, carb-loading dinner, in preparation for the next day’s hike.

After the wet night, we awoke to a windy, cold morning, but amazingly spirits were still soaring! In the morning we got geared up with crampons, ice axes, and helmets to set out on Svinasfelljokull, one of many receding (melting) outlet glaciers in Skaftafell National Park. Four mountain guides accompanied us and taught us about safe glacier travel. Up and down we went, traversing the glacial ice, and enjoying spectacular views of the ice cap and of Iceland’s highest mountain (at 7000 ft.). We saw crevasses and caps of black ash sprinkled across the ice, evidence of recent eruptions. Glacial “mice” (volcanic rocks covered in moss) scurried across the ice as the winds picked up speed.

In addition to hiking across the ice, we took up tools and tried some vertical ice climbing. Though most students had never done this before, everyone tried and had a lot of fun! In the late afternoon when the sun began to hit the glacier,
the weather was perfect which created vistas of beautiful, (and blinding) sparkling ice. The golden sunshine hitting the mountain slopes was a welcome change from the recent rains. We ate another delicious dinner, played in the grass, and enjoyed the company of our group.

Now, as our tents are zipped up for the night and we drift off to sleep, we cannot help but feel a strong connection to nature here, in the wilderness of Iceland’s glaciers and volcanoes. And so our journey of exploration and adventure continues…

Onwards and upwards!
Uly and Joseph