Ernie goes to Iceland pt. 6 (Feb 2016)

The very next day, we were back on Route 1, making our way, once again, to the warmer environs of Iceland’s southern latitudes. There were a few things we couldn’t fit into the previous day, so we split up the itinerary over two days, sucking up the time cost of making two separate trips to the south coast. Up first was Sólheimajökull, a glacier about two hours away from Reykjavík, popular with tourists and thrill seekers for ice walking and ice climbing excursions. As we drove down Route 1 in the blinding morning sunshine, we squinted our eyes and looked forward to the cozy browns and yellows along the springtime coast.

After nearly two hours on the road, we turned left onto Route 221Sólheimajökulsvegur, a smaller road that twisted and turned amidst snow drifts and frozen puddles, until we reached the iced-over parking lot just before noon. There are a number of outfits that organize and lead walking tours of Sólheimajökull, all for pretty much the same price. We went with Icelandic Mountain Guides because they had a slightly cheaper rate at the time, but I don’t think there’s much difference between any two companies. They supplied us with a guide, crampons, and other safety equipment, as well as hiking boots for rental, though they recommended that we bring our own hiking boots instead. Once they had us all organized into smaller groups, we started walking towards the glacier from the parking lot, stamping our crampons hard into the treacherous ice.

The walk from the parking lot to the glacier ended up taking 20 to 30 minutes, and we were told that it was not nearly so long even a decade ago. Sólheimajökull is a fast-shrinking glacier, retreating rapidly along the valley floor and revealing massive boulders and even small hills that had been hidden since time immemorial. Our guide pointed out cliff faces that had been hidden when he started working the glacier just a few years ago, and that the glacier used to be right up against the parking lot itself. It takes a special type to be a guide on Iceland’s glaciers, though. Sólheimajökull may seem solid and stable, but it shifts and moves with the seasons, and the guides must constantly familiarize themselves with the changing contours of the ice. Part of their job is to map out safe walking routes and identify potential danger areas, all with just a single walking stick plunged periodically into the snow to test its depth and stability. After hours, free from the responsibility of keeping strangers alive, they fearlessly explore the glacier for new ice tunnels, the perilous channels in the glacier where melted water can carve out crystalline tubes through the compacted snow.

Being on the glacier that afternoon felt utterly alien. I felt uneasy walking through the opaque ice tunnels and skirting the giant crevasses – even the deep blue of the glacial ice was a bit unsettling, like a sea frozen in mid-churn. Every so often, our guide would walk ahead and test out a path, and more than once he had us backtrack as the ground ahead fell away into nothingness. It was a constant reminder of the wildness of Iceland’s landscapes – there’s a beauty to the island, but it can be a dangerous one, and falling into the depths of Sólheimajökull is a heavy price to pay. We began our walk back to the parking lot after two hours on the glacier, and, after returning our equipment, we hopped into our SUV and headed almost directly due south. Our destination was an otherwise nondescript beach in between Skógafoss and Vik, with no real defining feature or quality, other than the 40-year-old wrecked plane lying dormant on its black sands.

In November 1973, a US Navy Douglas Super DC-3 airplane crash landed on the beach at Sólheimasandur, a nightmare scenario for any flight, doubly so for its remote location. Fortunately, all crew members survived, but the wreckage was left abandoned by the seashore, where it has served as the backdrop for many a dramatic photo op. After we left Sólheimajökull, we turned east on Route 1 and kept our eyes peeled for a gate on the right-hand side of the road. It wasn’t long before we espied a gap in the road-side fences, though there didn’t appear to be any discernible path beyond – just a sea of ice. This was one of those times I was grateful for our SUV, as we followed a smaller vehicle painstakingly navigating the rough and uneven topography towards the beach. Closer to the sea, the ice had melted a fair bit, opening the way for smoother driving, and we parked our vehicle about a hundred yards away from the wreckage.

The ghostly image of the plane made for an eerie sight, especially on a day with grey skies and grey seas. There were few other people around when we arrived, and we were able to walk all through the wreckage, peering into the cabin and looking through the rotted floorboards at the ground underneath. Forty years of exposure to the elements had taken a severe toll on the plane, though I couldn’t tell what was damage from the crash, and what was the result of wind and rain, frost and ice. In the wan, late afternoon light, it took on a sort of timeless quality, and it was a while before we shrugged off the heavy atmosphere and walked back to our vehicle, settling in for the long drive home.

With the completion of our second south coast day trip, all the long-distance driving for our Iceland trip was finished. We’d make a few more short drives out to areas just outside of Reykjavík, but those lasted no longer than 30 to 40 minutes. As the principal (and only) driver, I was relieved that we hadn’t experienced anything unexpected on the road – no major or minor incidents, and certainly no emergencies. Every travel guide to Iceland stresses how unpredictable the weather can be, and how that can affect driving conditions, for better or for worse. Even the most experienced driver can find themselves in over their head, given how quickly and severely circumstances can shift. If ever I was feeling confident about driving on winter roads, the wreck on Sólheimasandur was a stark reminder of how badly things can go horribly, horribly wrong in the beautiful, terrible landscape of Iceland.

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