Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Chilling in Iceland (Part 3): Lava Tubing and Ice Caving

Possibly what struck us the most about Iceland was the fact that we could witness firsthand the impermanence of it all, while at the same time being able to appreciate the enduring geological processes that formed its landscape long ago.  We went into both a lava tube and a glacier cave--the former was born thousands of years ago, and the latter took shape literally over the past year by glaciers melting over the summer and solidifying in the winter.  With layers of volcanic rock and endless blue ice directly over our heads, it felt like we were being let in on some of our planet's best-kept secrets.  Of course, we had guides - there's no way we could have done any of this on our own.  Both of these tours were nearly cancelled because of temporarily unsafe environmental circumstances, so we felt really fortunate to have been able to go into these caves and have some pictures to show for it.

Huge props to the knowledgeable and laidback tour guides of Arctic Adventures and Local Guide for getting us off the beaten path and into the depths of these natural wonders.

On the second day of our stay, just before we snorkeled the Silfra Fissure, we entered the 2,000-year-old Leiðarendi Cave. It is one of hundreds of lava tubes throughout Iceland.  These lava tubes are carved out over time by flowing hot lava while freezing temperatures on the outside harden the lava flow into tunnels.  I think of it as a result of the rigorous competition between fire and ice, way back in time.  Iceland is still alive with geysers and hot springs today, which is quite scary!

We walked about five minutes through the Tvibollahraun lava field to get to the entrance of Leiðarendi, which is in the Blue Mountains region, about a 30-minute drive from Reykjavik.  It was cold, windy, and bleak, but beautiful in its own way.

The opening of the lava tube... looks very inviting, doesn't it?  I wonder how people were able to find these... seems like they'd be really easy to miss if you weren't looking.  So, we couldn't get the clearest pictures inside of the lava tube, it was literally pitch black in there without our lights and VERY narrow.  We only brought our phones and Go-Pro in, so excuse the graininess!

It was pretty cool when the tour guide had us all turn our head lamps off for a few minutes to listen to an ancient Icelandic ghost story.  The darkness was intense... I had to blink to make sure that my eyes were actually open.

Here he is pointing out the map of the lava tube - it's 900 meters long in total.

The Leiðarendi lava tube gets its name, "end of the road," from this pile of bones.  Not to worry, it isn't human, it's the remains of a lost sheep (one of the characters in the ghost story).

The textures of the walls and ceiling were really interesting and varied, due to all the movement of the hot fluid within the tube while it hardened over time.  This lava tube will withstand the test of time for ages to come.

Wes decided to take a drink from these "lava nipples."

There were some awesome ice formations in there also.  Apparently, they're only there in the wintertime.

It was actually really nice in the lava tube, temperature-wise.  It totally protected us from the wind outside, I wanted to stay in there!

We almost didn't get to do this because the weather was so bad on the day that we had originally signed up to go, but good thing we were able to reschedule!

The glacier cave that we went into was a bit more than 200 miles away, all the way on the Southeast border of the country.  After a day's worth of driving (it doesn't take that long, but we stopped often to ogle at... everything), we arrived in Skaftafell.  We received another ominous email from the touring company, saying that the cave was flooded and unsafe to enter earlier that day.  There was a good chance that we wouldn't be able to go in more than a few meters, but we could only wait until the morning and see.

We waited, and we saw!  The water in the cave had cleared out overnight, and we were able to go all the way through.  The first chamber was amazing to see, with the sunlight flushing bright blue through these great domes of ice.  Then, we squeezed through natural corridors and practically military-crawled our way into the back chamber, which was just unbelievable.  Vaulting walls and ceilings, smooth and cold, almost artificially blue.  Dude, we were inside of a glacier!

The cave lies on the edge of Iceland's largest ice caps, Vatnajökull (the Vatna Glacier).  Glaciers don't really sit by the road, so we had to go via monster truck.  It was like a 45-minute Indiana Jones ride through the snow - and no, Wes did not drive it.

We even got stuck in a deep rut and had to get out of the truck and wait while our tour guides shoveled the back wheels loose.  His facial expression says it all.

No complaints though, it was a beautiful day to be out - the air was still and there was nobody around but us!

The guides told us that it's rarely this clear at this time of year (which is why we ended up sticking around an extra night out here to watch for more Northern Lights!).

They also explained how the glacier caves are formed before we headed in.  Meltwater from the surface of a glacier drains downward through crevasses, which are enlarged over time to form shafts leading to the base of the glacier.  This happens constantly, so the caves are never the same and can be pretty unstable.  They change in location and depth from year to year, and they can be totally different on the inside from day to day.

On the Local Guide website, it says: "In autumn each year we start looking for the ice caves for the winter. Normally we find caves in several different locations on the south side of Vatnajökull, sometimes they are special and sometimes not as special but become very special in the right light and conditions."  Basically, you never know what you're going to get.  We were prepared to be let down, but thanks to nature's mercy, we were not only spared, but spoiled.

(the coloring is way off in the video by the way)

After a few minutes of intense crouching, we see this:

Absolutely breathtaking.

Nature is constantly at work.  The cave is melting, a drop at a time!

It was an unforgettable experience.  With the global climate changing so quickly, who knows what Vatnajökull will be like in the future... we're just glad that we were able to preserve what we saw in our memories forever.

1 comment:

  1. Wow that is so beautiful! What a different experience. I think I would be super scared to go in for fear of all the ice collapsing on me. But that ice cave is so incredible. It must have been literally freezing. Your travel is so adventurous--I love it! Very inspiring :D