Bucket List No.9: An Ice Walk Through Iceland’s Crystal Caves

Snapshot: When you think Ice Walk, you may not at first imagine the thrill of an Ice Age glacier thawing and expanding, calving immense icebergs into a black sand-encircled lagoon on the southern tongue of Iceland. This is the Jökulsárlón, Icelandic for “glacial river lagoon,” and the glacier which feeds it is run through with myriad caves carved year after year by meltwater.

ADVENTURE

Perhaps you lament the patches of ice that plague the sidewalk to work, or the ice that crystallizes over the surface of a nearby lake. Nicolas Brousse is a French photographer who takes his field assignments to the extreme, as he reveals in this vivid tour of the crystal caves of the land of ice itself. After graduating from a landscape architecture program in Bordeaux, Brousse left for Iceland knowing little more than his guide and friend þröstur who gives tours on the famous glacier Jökulsárlón in southeast Iceland. The glacier is well-known as a setting in the Bond films A View to a Kill and Die Another Day as well as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and Batman Begins. What Brousse realized while hiking in this wild area of Iceland is the amazing interior architecture of the glacier. Between the chill of the arctic night and the reflective heating of the day, water wends its way through every fissure and abscess to create channels, underground rivers, spectacular waterfalls, and crystalline caves. As he described, “the caves are changing or disappearing completely from year to year . . . depending on the amount of water running through it and the thickness of the ice.”

GETTING THERE

“You can only go to the cave[s] when it’s cold enough, from November to March” shares Brousse, “because the amount of water flowing on and under the glacier is enormous.” Summer, the off season, wipes the slate clean each year, as the water cuts back layered snow and ice and re-forms the ancient tunnels and caves. It’s a kind of gamble each season when it’s finally cold enough to enter the caves. Brousse and þröstur go looking for the caves, seeing which are safe to enter and what entrances to take. Some are accessible merely by walking in from the side of the glacier, while others are accessible only through a moulin (a vertical well-like shaft by which water enters a glacier), which for a visitor means a drop down the shaft from the very top of the glacier.

WHERE TO STAY

There is no camping in the area of the ice lagoon, nor hotels because of the location on a narrow promontory between Vatnajökull National Park and the Atlantic Ocean. Only a few hours drive from Reykjavik (flights from JFK in New York to Reykjavik run $500-1000 depending on the season), it makes an easy day trip while staying at a local apartment or studio. Highway 1 leads straight through the glacial lagoon while providing a beautiful coastal tour of southern Iceland.

WHAT TO DO

The best way to explore the ice caves is to go with an experienced tour guide who knows the conditions at any time and what areas are safe to walk through. Glaciers - as constantly-changing as they are - can be volatile spots, so make sure to have good hiking boots, waterproof clothing, and your tour guide will likely issue protective headgear. The trip to the caves starts at the Icelagoon Café outside of Jökulsárlón. Next, a 20 minute drive in a heavy all-terrain jeep takes you to where the caves start. From this point, you explore by foot, dropping in moulins carved by mysterious waterfalls, greeting hidden glacial rivers, and most of all reveling in the appearance of the ice. It is unlike anything that can be truly described or enhanced by photographic editing, shares Brousse. Gray-dashed blue smooths into a glistening azure, sprinkled with “beautiful black veins within the ice.” These veins are a product of layers of volcanic ash that is trapped within the ice, sharpening the shades of blue between crystalline white and seams of smoky black.

You need not be like Brousse - living and working in the area, meeting the locals, and experiencing the lagoon throughout the year - to enjoy Jökulsárlón (though what a life!) This is a dream, where “the light, the clouds, the atmosphere [are] always changing” and as our photographer describes “I never saw the same landscape from one day to another.” All you need is a ticket - a quarter turn around the globe, to the land where seafarers first settled around the year 870 and which still enlivens our cinema, and our imaginations.

Photography by Nicolas Brousse

An ice walk through Iceland’s Crystal Caves photography by Nicolas Brousse
An ice walk through Iceland’s Crystal Caves photography by Nicolas Brousse
knstrct-blank-icon-BW-blank-LG.jpg
You can only go to the cave[s] when it’s cold enough, from November to March because the amount of water flowing on and under the glacier is enormous. Here, the light, the clouds, the atmosphere are always changing. I never saw the same landscape from one day to another.
— Nicolas Brousse
An ice walk through Iceland’s Crystal Caves photography by Nicolas Brousse
An ice walk through Iceland’s Crystal Caves photography by Nicolas Brousse
An ice walk through Iceland’s Crystal Caves photography by Nicolas Brousse
An ice walk through Iceland’s Crystal Caves photography by Nicolas Brousse
An ice walk through Iceland’s Crystal Caves photography by Nicolas Brousse
An ice walk through Iceland’s Crystal Caves photography by Nicolas Brousse
 All photography by  Nicolas Brousse

All photography by Nicolas Brousse