Ice Climbing in Iceland (aka the day the glacier ate my GoPro)

Those of you who follow me on Instagram (or know me in real life) are probably aware that I lost my GoPro (and more than 4,000 photos) while Ice Climbing in Iceland. This post outlines that story in detail.

One of the things I really wanted to do in Iceland is ice climb on a glacier. So when we got to Skaftafell, I booked a 6 hour glacier hiking & ice climbing tour with the Glacier Guides. This is the tour I booked, and I highly, highly recommend these guys. But more on that later.

This is the area where we hiked and climbed, it’s called the Falljokul glacier, and it’s actually an outlet glacier of the Vatnajokull ice cap, which is one of Europe’s largest glaciers. Vatnajokull is also the glacier that the volcano bardarbunga was erupting under while we were climbing on it, which is pretty insane when you think about it.

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The story of these glaciers are actually quite sad, and you can learn more about it by watching the award-winning documentary Chasing Ice. I watched it while gearing up for Iceland and it got me pretty pumped, but also a little depressed to see the rapid rate of decline. These outlet glaciers poke out all over the ring road, and they’re truly a sight to see.DSC_7361 (Small)

While 20 or so people can get on the glacier hiking tours, the Glacier Guides keep the ice climbing tours down to 5 people in order to allow everyone the best experience. It worked out well for me since the tour already had 4 people booked and I was traveling by myself. Nick was our fearless tour guide and he had some experience as a professional rope person (who knew there was such a thing), so I felt like I was in good hands.

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We hiked for about 15 or 20 minutes before we even hit the base of the glacier, but as we approached, you could really get a feel for just how massive these things really are.DSC_7364 (Small)

The hike into the valley was just gorgeous. DSC_7367 (Small)

Before we got to the glacier, Nick explained to use how to use the crampons and the ice picks, and basically let us know what we were getting ourselves into.

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This was the start of the glacier hike, you can see some people off in the distance.DSC_7440 (Small)

I asked what these were, and Nick said they were GPS responder units. I guess some people get in there without a guide and get lost, so the responders try to locate them with the GPS units. Iceland is actually really, really good about recovering people who wander off and get lost (which I imagine happens quite often). They even have a private group who operates as a search and rescue team and they created an app, 211, which I highly recommend for anyone driving anywhere outside of town in Iceland. It allows you to check in via GPS and provide your intended route, so if you don’t make it to your destination, the crew is alerted and will seek you out. The problem with the GPS units on the glacier is, as the glacier melts and moves, so does the unit.

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Since I was focusing on the hiking, I put my SLR away for most of the ice climbing, therefore the majority of my pics are on my GoPro in the bottom of the glacier behind me. But I’m happy I did manage to get a few selfies on my phone and SLR as well. You can see the pure stoke on my face in this shot. This is the reason I came to Iceland.DSC_7459 (Small)

The first time you step on a glacier, it’s a pretty trippy feeling. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the ice was pretty solid and quite dirty.DSC_7476 (Small)

These are the crampons. There are a few sections when you’re climbing where you can only use your front spokes, which kind of require a bit of balance and some leg strength. Nick told us to be sure to walk with a little wider stance so you don’t clip the crampons on your pants. I admit, I did it once and came home with a small hole in the foot of my pants.DSC_7493 (Small)

A glacier this large produces quite a bit of runoff, so we encountered lots and lots and lots of streams and waterfalls. The water creates these big crevasses, holes (moulins), streams, you name it. And if you’re not careful, you could very easily fall into one. I was sure to always stay behind Nick.

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Nick said that glacier melt is some of the best water in the world, so he advised us to fill up our hydroflasks, and even showed us how to drink it the proper Icelandic way.

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Good thing I had been practicing my planking! And yup, that water was mighty cold and refreshing.DSC_7551 (Small)

See how the water carves out little pockets under the glacier? You could never quite get a comfortable feeling that you weren’t going to fall through a crack somewhere. DSC_7559 (Small)

He also pointed out the little moss that grew on all the rocks. He told us a cool story about how the lichen on these rocks would keep growing and tumbling until they had covered every possible inch of space on the rock … but I will admit, I was too into the photography to listen intently. If you get a chance to hike with Nick, be sure to pay more attention than I did 😉DSC_7561 (Small)

In fairness to me, it is insanely difficult to concentrate when this is your view.DSC_7565 (Small)

This was a little practice hill  where Nick demonstrated the technique we’d be using to ice climb. You basically kick your toe into the side of the hill so that you’re balancing on the two prongs at the front of your crampon and repeat with the other leg. It took some balancing skills because your initial reaction is to want to lean forward so you don’t fall back. Everyone in our group got the hang of it real quick. This is also where I put my SLR away and opted for all GoPro shots.DSC_7576 (Small)

After learning how to climb uphill and walk sideways and climb downhill, we pressed on to this area, which would form the walls for our ice climbing.DSC_7589 (Small)

Along the way we crossed quite a few of these glacier melt streams. DSC_7606 (Small)

Like, a LOT of these waterfalls.IMG_8359 (Small)

The altitude, combined with the gear and crampons and just the fact that you’re hiking on ice, made this trek a little bit of a doozy. We hiked for about an hour before we actually got to the ice climbing, so I really wouldn’t recommend this for people who know they aren’t in the best of shape. The glacier hiking is probably a better choice for people who aren’t into huffing and puffing.

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Totally worth it though, in my humble opinion.DSC_7617 (Small)

We scouted a few walls before settling on our first climbing wall. We were looking for something 20 to 30 feet tall that had a good shape and would hold well. Nick would climb up to the top to scope out the anchor for the top rope and then let us know if he liked that route or not.

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He didn’t like this route for some reason or another.DSC_7632 (Small)

This is the first wall that we climbed. It was a fun route, but I was wishing it was a bit taller.DSC_7641 (Small)

One of the guys we were with had climbed in patagonia before, so he pretty much killed it.DSC_7646 (Small)

There was one other girl on the tour with us, and she had so much energy and was so stoked on life, I loved it! She and her boyfriend were from the Czech Republic and they had just taken a couple years off of work to travel the world. They had no concrete plans after Iceland and I was officially jealous.IMG_8409 (Small)

While everyone else took their turns climbing, I took the time to admire where I was and to appreciate my life.DSC_7651 (Small)

These glacier peaks were mind boggling. I couldn’t stop staring.DSC_7658 (Small)


Seemed like a good time for a selfie.IMG_8448 (Small)

And then it was my turn to climb. I had set up my GoPro in prime position here, so I kind of didn’t really worry about having anyone take other pictures for me. A guy had asked if I wanted some shots on my phone, so I figured – why not? Turns out these are now the only pics of my climb so I’m glad he offered!

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I started rock climbing while living in Washington DC in 2009 and I’ve done some top roping here and there, and am an infrequent member at the rock climbing gym in Hawaii, so the basic climbing knowledge definitely helped. IMG_8394 (Small)

The trickiest part for me was getting the ice pick to stick. The wall we were on wasn’t facing the sun, so the wall had pretty much hardened into thick slabs of solid ice. It was tricky to hit the wall with just the right strength to get it to stick, be able to hold you, then easily maneuver out. I got the hang tho, and it was more fun than you could imagine. IMG_8396 (Small)

The other thing is that the ice kind of shoots back into your face when the pick goes in. It’s not a big deal, but definitely not something you need to worry about while rock climbing.IMG_8397 (Small)

After you get to the top, it’s pretty much the same as rock climbing, in that you just rappel down. With ice climbing though, you need to be sure you don’t poke yourself with the ice picks. IMG_8402 (Small)


After a few climbs on the first route, we moved over to a second route that to me felt a little easier, but also more fun, because there were some overhangs to get through. I’m not sure why the guy who took my pics was compelled to shoot in B&W or to zoom in so close, but I’m still appreciative he got some pics since I lost all of mine.

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We did a few climbs on that route, then Nick asked if we wanted to rappel down into a 150+ foot ice cave. Ummmm … yes, please!!! We began the long hike back down and encountered more streams and waterfalls along the way.IMG_8410 (Small)

So we left the ice climbing area and hiked back down toward the bottom of the glacier. And thus begins the story of how the glacier ate my GoPro.DSC_7693 (Small)

I’ve had a hard time explaining this story before because people really can’t get a sense of what I am describing. The other day though, a nat geo photographer posted this photo, which clearly depicts exactly what we were doing when I dropped my camera. Essentially, what were doing was ice climbing in reverse. Nick rappelled us down into these giant ice shafts, which are hundreds, if not thousands of feet deep. You really can never know how deep it is because the waterfall blocks your view of the abyss below. This photo is by Jonathan Irish, a nat geo photographer (insta: @magnumji)


Here’s us in real life. We were instructed that if we weren’t on belay (tied up to a safety rope) then we were to stay far away from the moulin. Nick and the person on belay were the only ones allowed anywhere near the top of the moulin. DSC_7663 (Small)

The feeling of anxiousness was so intense because I went last, and everyone who climbed out of the moulin had this expression on their face like they couldn’t believe what they had just seen.

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Bear in mind, we had been hiking and ice climbing for around 5 hours at this point. It was very strenuous work. So by the time we were dropped into the hole (and we were lowered down about 30 or 40 feet  – which was the lowest you could go without getting completely drenched by the waterfall) we were exhausted. The other girl who went down before me had reached her exhaustion point and had requested to be pulled up. You can see the guys hoisting her up in this pic.DSC_7670 (Small)

And a few minutes later she appeared!DSC_7672 (Small)

These ice screws and caribiners (and Nick’s stellar rope tying skills) were the only thing standing between us and certain death if we were to drop into the bottom of that moulin.

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And then it was my turn!IMG_8477 (Small)

I’m not gonna lie, it was scary backing into that thing.IMG_8480 (Small)

Initially, I had wanted to just wear my GoPro head harness, but I had the extra battery pack on, so it wouldn’t fit on the head clip. I had to go with the pole, but I figured it wouldn’t be a problem because I could easily clip it onto my harness and I’d be fine. Here I am with my set up, about to drop down into the moulin.

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So when you get into the moulin, Nick drops you as low as you want to go. We all pretty much opted to get as close to the waterfall as we possibly could without getting wet. The waterfall itself shoots out at an angle (rather than dropping straight down), so it cuts across the middle of the moulin until it reaches the other wall. You actually rappel down in between the near side wall and the edge of the waterfall. It is beyond cool. DSC_7674 (Small)

On the way back up, the sides of the walls were rock solid because the sun can’t get in to melt it and soften it. I was able to climb up a few steps, but I couldn’t get a firm hold and I’d slip back down. After 5 hours of activity, I was beat and exhausted. I got as far as I could up the wall and then called on Nick for help. I shot a bunch of video and pics on my GoPro while I waited for the guys to set the rope, and as they were pulling me back up, I realized that the GoPro pole had gotten tangled up in the leash of my ice pick. I tried unsuccessfully to get it untangled, but I didn’t want to risk getting stabbed as they were pulling me up. On the very last tug that hoisted me up and out of the moulin, the belay rope clipped the cord that was connecting me to my GoPro, and I watched (well, more like heard) it drop deeeeep into the abyss. I was instantly devastated. Nick felt really bad for me, and even said that if he thought there was even the most remote chance that he could recover it, he’d climb down. But we all knew that hole was bottomless and that my GoPro was gone.DSC_7683 (Small)

The way that it works is that these glaciers the top layers of these glaciers are hundreds of feet deep, while the bottom layers run thousands of feet. You never can tell how deep a moulin is, but what we do know is that eventually, the water flow creates a self-made internal plumbing system under the glacier, eventually releasing at the foot of the glacier into all of those ponds that you see at the bottom, which in turn run off into the ocean that you can see way out yonder in this pic.DSC_7690 (Small)



This is the main area where all of that glacier runoff pools into. You can see here that if my pole and camera ever managed to get out from underneath the glacier, this is where it would end up.DSC_7429 (Small)

It’s not exactly the cleanest of waters.DSC_7397 (Small)

Yeah, really not the cleanest.DSC_7372 (Small)

That being said, it is pure beauty.DSC_7371 (Small)

Nick was really good about giving us the science behind the glaciers. Although, he doesn’t believe in climate change, so I took everything he said with a grain of salt. DSC_7395 (Small)

One thing I couldn’t quite wrap my head around was how dirt and land get on top of the glaciers. Nick said that as the glacier grows, it pushes forward and shoves itself underneath whatever is in its path. The glacier moves at an alarming rate too. He showed us areas where just the week prior, there had been a usable path, but a week later when we were there, it was now a river.DSC_7385 (Small)

So yeah, somewhere underneath all of this raw beauty lies 4,000 pictures from my trip to Iceland and some of the most wicked photos from inside that mind blowing moulin. I would really, really like to have those back, so if you’re the lucky soul who finds that camera 2, 10, 50, 100 years from now, please do contact me =) DSC_7374 (Small)



I would like to stress this point though … Don’t sweat the small stuff. And in the end, a camera is small stuff. Yes, even the pictures. I obviously still got a ton of great photos from the trip (save for the climbing and the moulin), but more importantly, I will always have these memories of adventuring through Iceland by myself. And that is a lot more than most people can say, so I am forever grateful. Sure, I was bummed for about two days. But after that, I made the active choice to let it go, and thats exactly what I did. The good folks at GoPro already sent me a replacement camera and I’m already off making new memories with it. And I am confident that one day  down the road, perhaps when the glacier recedes, or when someone is snorkeling off the coast of Iceland, they’ll find that lost GoPro. And will see the most epic pictures of all time =) #RIPGOPROIMG_8465 (Small)


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