Ice climbing in Iceland

A beginner’s guide to ice climbing in Iceland

Did you know that Iceland has 269 named glaciers covering about 11% of it's land area? With glaciers pretty much everywhere, experiencing the magic being on one of these massive frozen ice fields seems to be unavoidable. Why not try ice climbing? I tell you, you don't want to miss that! I had no experience in ice climbing whatsoever, only some indoor climbing skills, so if I can do it,  you can do it to. Get yourself a mountain guide, some ice climbing crampons and you're set to explore deep icy crevasses. For this first ice climbing experience, we were guided by Bia from the Icelandic Mountain Guides. We went to the Skaftafell National park to ice climb on the Svínafellsjökull glacier.  

The Svínafellsjökull glacier in Skaftfell National Park in Iceland
The Svínafellsjökull glacier in Skaftfell National Park in Iceland. Photo: Hannes Willems

First of all, what is ice climbing? 

Well, it's pretty straight forward. Ice climbing is often referred as the winter sport activity of ascending a wall of ice made from a frozen waterfall or a giant ice falls. Usually, you'll be able to practice this activity in winter when the temperatures are freezing. Luckily, in Iceland, it is possible to ice climb all year around thanks to its many glaciers. In the winter months, it is possible to ice climb on giant waterfalls and in the summer, the glaciers are prefect icy playgrounds for us ice climbing beginners. Some say that ice climbing is similar to rock climbing. On that matter, I'd say that there are some similarities like climbing up a wall, and that you are secured by a rope but that's pretty much it. You'll feel totally different sensations and will need to use specific ice climbing gear.

This is the ice climbing gear you'll need 

For the proper ice climbing gear, you don't need to worry about anything, the Icelandic Mountain Guides had all the equipment we needed. For our glacier expedition we got special ice climbing shoes that look a lot like hiking shoes, ice climbing crampons, a helmet and ice axes. The temperature on the glacier was about 10 degrees celsius. Yes, indeed that wasn't as freezing as we expected. But during the 4 hours that we spent on the Svínafellsjökull glacier, it was raining. Fortunately, we could get some waterproof pants cover from the Icelandic Mountain Guides.

Showing his ice axes while being lowered, photo: Pauline Klieber
Showing his ice axes while being lowered, photo: Pauline Klieber
Ice climbing crampons, photo by Pauline Klieber
Ice climbing crampons, photo: Pauline Klieber

Tips and tricks 🤓

To make this ice climbing experience as amazing and fun as possible, here are a few tips we wish we'd knew before:

1. Take good gloves with you. Even better if they are water proof, you'll be touching the snow a lot and you'll feel more comfortable with warm and dry hands.

2. Wear a beanie (without a pom pom) underneath your helmet or an ears cover. The temperature is not too bad but since the weather in Iceland is really unpredictable, it's better to be prepared and keep your head nice and warm. 

3. Think about the layers. You'll be moving a lot while ice climbing but there are going to be moments when you have to wait for the security rope to be placed in the ice. Therefore, plan on wearing warm clothes in which you can move freely and a good waterproof jacket.

A little bit of ice climbing technique tips

Thanks to our guide Bia, we got to know the basic technique and were able to ice climb some glacier ice walls in a few hours. The most important is to remember that you have crampons under your feel which stick to the ice. You can use these to keep from sliding even in  steep angle. 

Once on the ice climbing wall, you'll be secured by a rope and have 2 axes in your hands. The trip is to stick the front crampons of your feet in the ice one by one while hanging on the axes, then you will have to swing one axe at a time to get some grip in the ice and lift yourself up. Repeat till the top. A good feeling of balance in your feet is key to feel secure and being able to have a good stability to swing your axes in the ice. 

Hannes mastering the axe swing, photo: Pauline Klieber
Hannes mastering the axe swing, photo: Pauline Klieber
Using the campons to stick to the ice, photo: Hannes Willems
Using the crampons to stick to the ice, photo: Hannes Willems
Pauline ice climbing up in a crevasse, photo: Hannes Willems

Safety first  

The glacier is a dangerous playground. You never know what is under the ice and how strong it is. To avoid any problems and keep safe, stay behind your guide, keep your carabiner attached to the rope when needed and do not look over a crevasse without the permission of the guide. It might seem pretty straight forward now but once on the glacier, your curiosity might take over. You'll feel enough adrenalin while being lowered in the crevasse or crossing an ice bridge!

Some insight on Svínafellsjökull glacier

You'll see that the ice on the glacier looks brown or seems to be a bit dirty. But it is actually ashes that come back up while de glacier moves forward. When you dig a bit deeper, you'll find beautiful blue coloured compact ice.

This part of the glacier is accessible by foot near by  Skaftafell. However, make sure that you have the write equipment and are accompanied by a guide before you go for a little hike. 

Now it's time for some ice climbing

This is how your ice climbing experience will look like. An amazing 5 hours of glacier hiking mixed with ice climbing in glacier crevasses. 

Icelandic Mountain Guides

Want to go ice-climbing in Iceland? You'll find more information about the Icelandic Mountain Guides below.

Pauline Klieber
Pauline Klieber

Passionate surfer, climber, snowboarder, outdoor adventures enthusiast and traveler. Co-founder of The Active Place.