Iceland’s Vatnajökull is the largest glacier in Europe and the third largest in the world (after the ice caps in Antarctica and Greenland). The glacier’s entire surface area is 8,300km² (3,400 square miles), which covers roughly 8% of the country (about the size of Puerto Rico). The ice averages 500m thickness, but is more than 1,000m deep in some places. The glacier is so massive that each of the many tongues have their own names and are referred to as separate glaciers. Unlike other glaciers that are formed by accumulated and firmly packed snow, Vatnajökull is a remaining piece of the last ice age – part of the polar ice cap that formed Iceland’s coasts and terrain.
Vatnajökull embodies all the extremes of Iceland – the highest elevation, the coldest temperatures, the biggest volcanic eruptions, the highest precipitation, and fastest winds. It is one of the most exotic things foreigners can experience in Iceland – there’s something about driving along a ribbon of highway with giant licks of ice spilling down towards you. Up close, Vatnajökull can show itself as a snowy field of white, or expose all the gorgeous colours and strange shapes of compressed ice. Also, the view from the top – over the ocean or the mountainous interior – is superb.
Nobody can say who the first people to cross the glacier were, since the early Icelanders were known to have scoured every last bit of their country. The first recorded north–south crossing was in 1875 by Icelandic guide Páll Pálsson and the Scottish explorer W L Watts. This was followed by the 1932 ‘Cambridge Expedition’ in which a few English students made a traverse journey across and back in just five days. Since then, the glacier has attracted the attention of several masochists: in 2004, explorer Cameron Smith completed the first solo east–west crossing in winter.
Of all the glaciers in Iceland, Vatnajökull is receding the fastest – every summer, locals can point to where the ice reached in the previous year. Pushing aside the uneasy jokes about global warming, there is a real urgency to visit – evident in the recent jump in European tourists who come specifically to see the ice. Feel free to explore, but put safety first. Pay particular attention to the weather conditions and bring the proper gear with you.
Getting there and away
Route F980 is the gravelled road that takes you up into the valley – it’s the only way to drive there and you’ll need a massive 4×4 that can push through a minimum of very fast, 1m-deep water. For those without trucks, Glacier Journey does one-way trips into the area to drop off hikers. Also, the farmer at Stafafell makes his summer income by driving people from Höfn) over the river and up the winding mountain road into Lónsöræfi with his monster-wheeled bus. His day trips are great ventures into the highlands, with a guided hike to the first mountain hut (Múlaskáli) and the nearby waterfalls.