Wherever there's ice, there are ice caves, right?
Ice caves are a special feature that only form in certain conditions, and if you want to ever step into one of these on your Iceland trip, you better make it there in the winter. From looking at documentaries on National Geographic to following Sir David Attenborough’s BBC series, I’ve always been interested to explore the intricacies of ice caves and meet other professional photographers there, and Iceland in winter made this possible.
I’m sure that while many of us have heard of the existence of ice caves, most haven’t been inside one. If you’ve ever had this dream, one way to fulfill this would be to get a ticket to Iceland. But not so fast! Ice caves are in some ways like volcanoes; in other words, you’ve got to catch them in the act, and so need to have perfect timing. Well, as a matter of fact, if you visit Iceland between the months of December and February you’ve got an excellent chance of finding one you can visit. During summer months, however, the ice melts just enough to close in the cave walls, so it is dangerous – and probably impossible – to approach them then. Therefore, our second visit to Iceland had to be in December, and it was a short one essentially tailored around a trip to the ice caves. Our goal: to photograph in the best possible light the blue-shifted wavelength, its reflection, and its sheer vibrancy through the refracted layers.
We had been to Iceland on one occasion before, but that was during October, which is a “shoulder” month. For venturing inside ice caves, while we patiently waited until December, we feared whether the global climate change might have shifted the narrow window of time later in the winter, like it had done in many aspects of animal behavior and migration patterns. Thankfully, this bit of nature’s equations hadn’t changed. All the same, climate change was most definitely on our minds as we boarded our flight for Reykjavik.
But is it okay to bring your family along for the ride? Aren’t ice caves nature’s freak shows, ready to buckle anytime under their own weights? Turns out, a family visit to these places will make you wiser in more than one way. And your children will thank you for bringing them along. But first, it would make sense to know a little more about ice caves in general.
There are usually two types of tours that you could arrange to visit the caves, and I suspect that most will opt for the first one. This is where you’re taken to one of the closer caves that will involve only light activities; most companies would let you bring children on this tour. But the second is geared towards professional photographers and filmmakers, involving more money, time, and technical skills. Here, you’d walk significant distances because these caves are far more inaccessible. On these, you do not share your trip with others, and so will also be given individualized attention. In other words, if you’ve been chasing for the next National Geographic centerfold all your life, this might well be the way to go. Nonetheless, whichever one you choose, you’ll always need certified professionals to accompany you. This makes sense considering the dangers that a trip such as this can pose.
The locations of these ice caves change every year depending on where they form, and experts scout the region each year to come up with detailed maps of the terrain, assess the thickness of the ice, and set up safety parameters. The tour lasts for about a couple of hours, and it’s a good idea to sign up for this in advance. The tour bus would leave Höfn in the early morning, and after some serious maneuvering through glaciers and ice fields, reach its destination. Usually, there’s just a few people on the bus, so you should never find the tours jampacked. On our trip, it was just our own family for the entirety of the tour. The bus drops you approximately fifty yards from the cave you’ll be exploring, and from the moment you get off that bus you’re bound to learn about the slipperiness of the ice underneath your feet. Unless you’re an Olympic gymnast, I suggest that you wear what are called “crampons” which can be described as a type of metal shoe covering with pointy ends penetrating the ice when you walk. The rentals are free, and they will be ready to assist you to wear them, and I promise once you’ve done so you’ll wonder why you didn’t do this more often. If you’re willing to do this in other places, then it might not be such a bad idea to buy your own crampons. Amazon has them at a reasonable price, and trust us, it’s well worth the investment if you’re into this kind of things.
Before we move on, I feel that the scientists in us need to explain the nature of ice from a more technical standpoint. So, here we go. The blueness of the ice, as well as its transparency, arise from the chemical composition of water. But the macrostructures they collectively create, the bubbles, the glasslike edifices, are all something out-of-this-world. This is why irrespective of the exact makeup and composition of the molecules themselves you end up with ice that’s never the same. If you plan it just right, this would be one of the most memorable experiences of your lifetime.