In 1985, while working at a hotel in Valdez, Alaska, I took a hike onto the Worthington Glacier. The Worthington is just off of Richardson Highway near Thompson Pass in the Chugach Mountains. There were five of us, and we were in no way prepared to be on a glacier. We were just looking for adventure. None of us had crampons or any kind of traction gear. I was wearing a pair of standard work boots. We walked out onto the ice flow and enjoyed the view, picked up stones, and generally relished the excitement of being on a glacier. As we explored, I saw something down a small incline that piqued my interest. Because I was sure I would fall if I didn’t, I sat down on my butt and tried to scoot down the slope. I started to slide. Six or eight feet later I came to an abrupt (and uncomfortable) stop against a small mound of ice. What I had seen was a moulin, or hole in the ice, formed by surface water percolating down through a glacial cleft. I almost got a much closer look than I wanted. The mound of ice had checked my slide 12 or 16 inches from the mouth of a gaping hole.
Moulins are generally wider at the mouth and narrow as they plunge through the ice to connect with subterranean rivers that flow through the glacier. Had I gone into the moulin, I would have fallen until the chute narrowed and I became wedged. There I would have remained until I froze to death or drowned. We hadn’t so much as a length of rope with us. Search and rescue would have come from Valdez, forty-five minutes away. I didn’t think much about this at the time (I was 19) but the realization of how close I had come to a slow ghastly death began to haunt me as I grew older. I read an article that claimed that the chances of surviving a fall into a moulin were statistically zero.
Over time, I developed an intense, if somewhat irrational, fear of moulins, and by association, glaciers.
Thirty years later, while planning our Iceland adventure, Lisa asked, “You want to take a glacier hike?” My fight or flight response kicked in. “I don’t know!” I stammered in a voice that was oddly constricted and a little too loud. I might have categorically ruled it out, but my older and wiser self was reticent to wimp out of an exciting opportunity because of an unfortunate experience (born of reckless stupidity) many years in the past. I waffled on the issue and Lisa dropped it. Several weeks went by with no mention of this alarming prospect. When the subject came up again Lisa explained that it would be a guided hike and that we would have crampons. I relaxed a bit. A little bit. She wisely let me sit with this for several more days before approaching me with pictures and descriptions of the available hikes. “I’m thinking of booking this one,” she said in the most soothing voice she could muster. She pointed at the “Glacial Wonders” package. I scanned the description: “One hour on the glacier, suitable for the whole family.” My eye was drawn to the next package, “Glacial Explorer”. No mention of namby-pamby “family suitability”.
“… you will soon be exploring dramatic terrain, walking through a wonderland of frozen ice formations and brilliant blue colors … as you make your way to the rugged and majestic ice fall.”
Testosterone flooded my system. “We should do the Explorer one”, I exclaimed, and then looked around to see if someone else had said that. Nope, It was me. When I looked back Lisa was staring, slack-jawed. “Are you sure?” she said in a voice that contained both excitement and incredulity. “Yeah,” I said, “I mean if you’re going to do a thing … I don’t want to go all the way to Iceland to take the kiddie tour around on the edge of a glacier for a few minutes.” “Really?” Lisa still looked suspicious. “Yes,” I said, starting to feel annoyed at her disbelief. Lisa started typing our booking request into her laptop at around 90 wpm as if to get it in before I changed my mind. There was no need – I wanted it now.
We were up and out of our campsite in Skaftafell National Park early on July 16 to get fitted for crampons, helmets, harnesses, and ice axes. Then we boarded the bus that would carry us (almost) to the foot of the Falljökull glacier. On the bus, we met our tour guide. He told us his actual name; I can no longer remember it, but he requested we call him “Thor”. I smirked and looked over at Lisa. Her gaze was unwavering, her attention complete. Now, much like Hermione Granger, Lisa always gives her full attention to anything with educational value but …. I looked back at Thor, then at Lisa. Thor. Lisa. Thor. Lisa. I nudged her with my elbow. “What?” she said irritably, “I’m listening.” I was chopped liver. I accepted defeat and turned my attention back to our tour
We got off the bus.
Thor was hard to dislike. He was gregarious, quick to smile, and seemed quite knowledgeable about all things glacial. After a brief talk at the edge of the ice flow, we donned our crampons and stepped on to Falljökull. Any remaining apprehension I was having about venturing onto a glacier evaporated. The crampons were like a spiky metal security blanket. I was already a fan of microspikes for icy hiking, and these crampons were an advanced level of ice-stabbing traction. Thor gave us a short lesson in walking in crampons without breaking an ankle, and the group set off up the tongue of the glacier.
Our first stop was a rivulet of icy water. Thor stopped, gathered the group, and instructed us to empty our water bottles onto the ice. Quizzical looks were quelled as Thor explained that the water running through this narrow trough was far superior to anything we could possibly have in our containers, and that we should fill our bottles here. Then he demonstrated “glacier push-ups”. Placing his ice axe so it spanned the thin stream, he planted his feet on either side and, gripping the axe, unflinchingly lowered his likable lips to the crystal-clear water. He pushed himself back up. I thought I heard Lisa sigh. The group was invited to try. “Me! I’ll do it! I went first, making sure I did at least one more push-up than Thor had done. We moved on. Next came the inevitable. We had passed several small moulins (which I had given a wide berth), but now we stopped at one, the opening of which was roughly 15 feet across. Thor shrugged off his backpack and began rummaging for gear. He produced a coil of climbing rope, carabineers, and a pair of ice screws. He began twisting the screws into the ice at the edge of the moulin. When he had threaded the rope through the screws and was satisfied that it was sound he asked for volunteers. This time Lisa went first. Once her harness was rigged, she backed over the edge and Thor belayed the rope. No one really went into the moulin, but once on (or just over) the edge one could lean back and look directly down into the abyss, a view impossible to get without the gear. Not everyone in the group was up for this activity. I, however, stepped up and took my turn, staring defiantly into the geological deathtrap that had nearly taken me 30 years before.
With rappelling gear stowed, we headed for the icefall. Along the way Thor pointed out crevasses and seracs, and was all too happy to snap photos for people. As we looked at our pictures over dinner that evening, we saw why. Thor had taken our iPhones and had us pose. While we were taking our place and checking that the background was suitably impressive, Thor was reversing the camera and taking numerous shots of himself mugging, before snapping shots of us. Everyone went home with several pictures of Thor’s winning smile.
As we got closer to the icefall we had to wind our way around huge formations of jagged, broken ice. There were tunnels and caves, some of which we were allowed to enter. Soon, we reached the base of the icefall and Thor announced lunch. An icefall is an area of a glacier where the underlying terrain has steepened, causing a tumultuous fracturing of the ice flow. There was a crystalline glacial stream running away from a small waterfall in the jumbled ice. The icefall was magnificent; a tumbling collection of giant gemstones – diamonds and sapphires the size of tour-busses. Everywhere were glistening sculptures of white and blue, and thin streams of sparkling water spilled from chinks in the glassy surface. We enjoyed our sandwiches while ogling our frosty environs. Then we refilled our water bottles in the glittering falls. Someone passed around cookies. When everyone was rested and full we began our descent.
Our return trip was uninterrupted and uneventful although we did pass a massive field of crevasses on the far side of the tongue. As we neared our entry point, Thor stopped us to talk about two unique phenomena, glacier kames and glacier mice. Kames are mounds of sand and gravel that collected in a depression on the ice, then invert as the ice melts around them. He then pointed to the many egg-shaped balls of thick green moss that littered the area. Glacier mice form when a small stone gathers moss. When that stone is dislodged by the high winds that are so prevalent in Iceland and flipped over, moss gathers on its other side. Once completely encased in soft spongy moss, these floral rodents become nomadic, blown hither and thither by the prevailing winds and seeming to scurry across the ice. In Iceland, rolling stones do gather moss.
We left the kames and mice behind and headed for terra firma, sorry to step off the glacier and unstrap our crampons. We could have stayed a couple more hours. Back at tour headquarters, we said our goodbyes and thanked Thor. He smiled his irresistible smile. Lisa only looked back once or twice as we walked to the car. The 3 hours we spent on Falljökull were an exciting and educational adventure. I would do it again without hesitation. My fear of glaciers has … melted? ♦
Date: July 16, 2015
Location: Skaftafell, Iceland
Trailhead: 63.968927, -16.802086 (aproximate)
Distance: 5 miles (estimated by our guide)
Elevation Gain: unknown