Two layers of wool socks plus heavy leather boots and my toes are still burning from the cold but, the people I’m walking with have moved on with the jingle and scratch of crampons on ice, and I’m embracing this moment alone on a glacier. I have a momentary thrill of fear at standing on something as clear as glass, then I am swept into awe as I look past my feet into a galaxy of stars. Of the entire magical day, this is my most surprising discovery, that as it grows a glacier traps tiny air bubbles within its layers creating a universe you can stand on, as if you were in space, with breathable air.
The others seem disinterested, but I could stand here an hour or more. I want to lie on my stomach, cup my hands around my eyes and imagine I am floating through the stars. The reality of the cold holds me back, as does the guide who suggests I might stick to the smooth surface as if I’d licked a dry, frosty light pole – I’m 90% sure he’s joking.
It’s a clear day and looking up at the glacier’s white-blue surface sprawling above me it’s hard to comprehend what I’m seeing isn’t sun glinting off the showy surface of a winter mountain, but the bright blue of ice 50 meters deep. No wonder the priest in Halldor Laxness’ Under the Glacier, fell under the spell of Snæfellsjökull, the glacier at the centre of the world.
Yesterday I spoke to locals living on the farms around this glacier, expecting to hear equally spellbound elegies and descriptions of how the ice influences them. Mostly they told me how the sheep don’t like crossing it and how close it came to the ocean in the days of their great grandparents. I’m a bit disappointed but maybe they’ve just got used to it, like Romans get used to the Parthenon, or paintings become part of the wall.
We reach the glacial caves; tunnels like giant wormholes diving in and out of the ice sheet. Through the rippling walls I see tree rings of history: ash from volcanoes, soil from winds, colours as if the sky itself has been captured, air from every era. Standing surrounded by this giant frozen river it’s hard to imagine 2500 years of frozen history vanishing within the next 100. Because human brains are designed to adjust and forget, I have to refer to annual photos and the markers placed at the edge of the flow last year - now standing in dry earth amongst rocks that haven’t seen sky for 500 years - to make sense of this speedy decline.
We’ll have a plethora of these references to glaciers when they’re gone: images, texts, plaques in their memory, artistic, scientific, and historic commentary from every visitor or community that lived in its cold shadow.
But the glaciers will still be gone, and when I imagine describing the feeling of standing on one to someone who’ll never see them, using an ice-cube as the closest point of reference, I’m reminded of trying to describe an entire elephant by one of its parts.
I think about the end of these great ice-beasts of mythology a lot. Not just the environmental fall-out, but about never seeing their majesty again, only giant scratches of dusty earth and mysterious items like ancient trees and old aeroplanes left behind in their retreat. Yet, I also understand how in the effort of day-to-day living we forget the big, important things surrounding us, until they’re gone: mountains we walk past every day no longer amaze, stars are vanquished by city lights, glaciers become just part of the scenery.
Climbing back on top of the ice at the end of the day, I let the others get ahead of me again. I stop in the growing dusk to look down one last time, trying to etch the awesomeness of this galaxy below my feet into my cells so I can take it with me. A gust of freezing wind finds its way down the back of my jacket onto my neck and I shiver. It’s time for me to leave.
Text: Emanda Percival