If you find yourself on the southern coast of Snæfellsnes peninsula on a clear day and can tear your eyes away from the crashing waves, vast lava fields, and impossibly picturesque fishing villages, you can't miss the white-caped Snæfellsjökull glacier looming to the North. It's gorgeous from afar, with swirly onion-dome structures like the peak of a Dairy Queen vanilla cone.
When the friendly front desk manager at the Budir Hotel mentioned that there was a two-hour snowcat tour leaving at 2:00 pm (winter hours), we jumped at the chance to see the mountain closer up. There was also a full-day hike up the glacier for those with the time, stamina, and appropriate hiking gear on hand, but the easy way up sounded just right to us.
We met our driver in the tiny fishing town of Arnarstapi and followed him to the foot of the hill, climbed up onto the massive tank-like snowcat, and settled down on a wooden bench for what we though would be a comfortable ride part-way up the glacier.
The driver cranked up the diesel, shifted into “up-the-hill” gear and the cat lurched forward. The rig rattled and shrieked as it moved along, its metal track ridges clawing into the snow. We tested the traction a few hundred yards ahead when the level track banked sharply towards the precipice, threatening to slip and tumble us off the edge. But the cat stuck fast and climbed steadily onward, to everyone’s relief.
The hill was steeper, bumpier, and longer than it looked from sea level, and we kept wondering where the cat would stop…certainly it wouldn’t attempt to climb to the top. Around each turn was a different white wonder. Looking back was dizzying.
I couldn’t stop snapping photos, but the squinting whiteness made it impossible to see my camera’s screen so I used the “aim blindly and cross fingers” method, trying to compensate exposure for the white-on-white color scheme and hoping the vibrations from the cat wouldn’t completely mess up the focus.
On we pressed with no sign of stopping, dazzled and awed, gripping the rusty rails to avoid sliding into the other passengers…all the way to the very top of the glacier, at 4,744' (1,446 m)
Those Tasty Freeze structures looked more like soft, snowy caterpillars and spires from where the cat parked, but close up were actually fantastical ice structures made up of zillions of crunchy crystals blown by the wind into the the shapes of fish scales and feathers.
The hikers who had left at 10 am made it to the top at the same time, so we had some company, and an intrepid skier who had ridden up in the cab with the driver pointed his tips downhill and carved his way down on his own two legs.
We wandered at the top—but not too close to the edge—for about 20 minutes, then piled back in for the trip down, which was just as hairy and steep, but with less fear of imminent death by capsizing or avalanche. We had made it to the top of a glacier, and, although all we had done was hang on, it felt like we had accomplished something monumental.
The trip isn’t for the faint of heart or someone with a fear of heights, but it’s not strenuous or uncomfortable. And if a visit to the top of Snæfellsjökull isn’t on your bucket list, you might want to add it.
Here's the scoop:
To book a Snow Cat tour up Snæfellsjökull, contact Snjófell (tel. 435-6783; www.snjofell.is). They run scheduled trips from mid-February to mid-August, with two evening departures in summertime to enjoy the midnight sun.
Prices include snowsuit, gloves, and helmet.
The wind is cold year-round, so dress warmly. Lap blankets are provided.
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