Langjökull glacier has always been out of bounds – but now a new tour takes you deep inside Europe's second-largest ice mass, on a tour of the icy underworld
I sneaked ahead of the group, running my fingers along the smooth ice wall until I could no longer feel the tips. My nose tingled, the cold air made me gasp – but I hardly noticed. The twinkling ice lights led me deeper, revealing a warren of carved-out caverns and even a tiny chapel hewn out of the frost, its altar a giant ice cube. A small sign informed me that 200 metres of thick ice lay between my feet and the bedrock; I shivered at my insignificance.
“You will literally go back in time as you walk through the tunnel,” Orri was saying as I crept back to the group. “At the mouth of the tunnel, the snow is from last year – but the deeper we go, the older the ice gets.”
As we walked, Orri pointed out grey stripes in the ice; “This is volcanic ash,” he said as I tried to count the seams, which radiated out like rings on a tree trunk. “Every time there is an eruption, ash settles on the glacier.” I quickly lost count, the faint lines blurring into a grey haze – a physical reminder of Iceland's ferocious geology.
“If there is an earthquake, it is safer to be in here than in a building,” said Orri. “'We have never found pieces of ice on the floor and there's no danger of it falling in.” That said, the tunnel isn't a permanent fixture: like all glaciers, Langjökull is moving – and melting.
“The cave has a lifespan of 10 to 15 years,” said Orri. “When it's no longer safe we will pull out the power cables and benches, and it will be like we were never here.” Global warming is a tangible threat in Iceland: environmentalists believe that the glacier tongue will completely melt within 150 years.
We walked further, marvelling as the gin-clear ice deepened into a sapphire blue. After roughly 1,000 years of compression within the glacier, all of the air bubbles have gone – and it is stronger and more dense than 'regular' ice. Thanks to its colour and clarity, it is sought after by expensive bars all over the world – where it ends its life jangling in vodka glasses.
The older ice also has great acoustics – and the last gig of 2015's Reykjavik Summer Solstice festival was held within these frozen walls. “It was great fun, and a totally cool location for the DJ set,” said Orri proudly. “We could smell the wine for days though – the tunnel is naturally ventilated, but that wasn't enough to cope with the aftermath of the party."
I hope the Geology department from the University of Iceland were invited to the knees up: they provided the first burst of hard graft in the tunnel, gathering data as they bore through the ice with specialist tools. A team of farmers were enlisted to help too, some travelling up to four hours to lend their manpower to the cause. The tunnel – a 500-metre circular loop – took just a few months to excavate, and it opened for visitors in June 2015.
A few metres from the end of the cavern, the excavation team stumbled upon a 30-metre cravasse – a spectacular natural finale to the tunnel tour. It's a whopping rip inside the glacier, all metre-long icicles and glittering ice razors, like a Disney villain's lair.
We stopped, slack-jawed at the sight of this menacing toothy grin – without the warm glow of LED lights everything looked colder and harsher. Inside the gloom, below our sturdy wooden walkway, a couple of cameramen scuttled around in the narrow wedge, their flash guns flooding the cravasse like lightening bolts. I shivered again – insignificant yet invigorated – and turned towards the light at the end of the tunnel.
The author travelled with Discover the World, on a 7-night Journey to the Centre of the Earth itinerary. Into the Glacier is available as an additional excursion, all year round – click here for more details.