On a windy, rainy morning in July, I approached Austerdalsbreen bundled in full winter apparel. Located in Norway, Austerdalsbreen is an accessible side branch of Jostedalsbreen, mainland Europe’s largest glacier.
In previous GlacierHub posts, I’ve written about last chance tourism, but now, I was actually living it – traveling to a destination threatened by climate change, a place that may not exist in 100 years.
For a few hours, we had Austerdalsbreen all to our ourselves. Our small group included Icetroll guide Jonas Henreksen, my Dad, and me.
Following a short, exciting boat ride across the dammed lake, I stepped onto the rocky shoreline. I couldn’t help but stare at the massive, jagged wall of ice in front of me. Its icy blue color and sheer size were mesmerizing. I looked around and saw a rushing glacial river flowing from a nearby peak and scattered boulders along the coastline.
But enough looking. It was time to start climbing. Jonas instructed us on how to fasten spiked attachments for our boots, called crampons. Next, he helped us get into our harnesses and secured a climbing line at the end of the glacier, where there was a 15-foot-wall.
Then, Jonas demonstrated the basics of ice climbing. Swing with the axes; kick straight in with the feet. And, make sure three out of four points into the ice are always secure.
In the beginning, it was challenging. I had never done anything like it before, but now I was hooked.
Practice Makes Perfect
After a few practice rounds on the edge of the glacier, we decided to walk up onto the glacier to find additional climbing spots. Once on the glacier, we noticed it was a little “dirtier” than expected. Jonas pointed out that the dark debris was actually volcanic ash transported by a powerful Icelandic eruption in 2010.
When I asked Jonas if he had noticed any other changes to the glacier, he pointed out two human-related impacts. “When we have more tourists, we see more pollution of plastic … on the glacier, ” said Jonas, who studies Outdoor Life at the University of South-Eastern Norway.
Therefore, it is important to adopt a leave no trace motto when exploring all that mother nature has to offer.
He added, “Last year was a very warm summer, the glaciers melted more than we were used to seeing,” revealing that Austerdalsbreen is one of the many worldwide glaciers impacted by warming temperatures. He also mentioned that last year was one of the earliest years that they were able to access an ice-free lake to get to Austerdalsbreen.
Next, we walked on top of the glacier. While we were walking, we heard a very loud rumble. Jonas calmly pointed out that it was probably a large piece of ice breaking off at the edge of the glacier. At this point, I knew that I wasn’t in danger, but it was unfortunate to see the glacier melting right in front of me.
After about 15 minutes of wandering around on this maze of ice, Jonas located an opportune spot to test our newly learned ice climbing skills.
Our next climb was up a crevasse, or open crack in the glacier. Ultimately, it was the same application of skills just a little more nerve-wracking due to the dark, “bottomless” hole beneath our feet.
Finally, we went on a site-seeing tour around the top of the glacier. We snapped a few pictures and saw some red algae on the snow and several, deep crevasses.
But ultimately, it was time to say see you later to Austerdalsbreen. Fortunately, by this point, I didn’t really mind because I was exhausted from the day’s efforts.
Back at the carpark, I asked Jonas what he found most rewarding about his job. He responded by saying that he’s grateful to be outdoors all the time, guiding people that do not have the skills to walk alone on the glacier.
“Sometimes I’m lucky having people with disabilities [visit the glacier] … I had a woman with a prosthetic leg and getting her up there was a struggle, but she was so glad afterward that we took the time to almost carry her up there. So, seeing people who aren’t normally used to doing adventures like this be able to do it [is a rewarding part of his job],” shared Jonas.
He added, “ It’s just so popular to go to Norway and see all the tourist attractions.”
Ultimately, as it becomes more common to travel to endangered locations such as glaciers, hold yourself accountable for your travel emissions. And remember to be aware of how humans are impacting our planet.
This post is the first in a series of posts about firsthand experiences visiting Norwegian glaciers, famous fjords, and well-known hiking destinations. Check back to GlacierHub in upcoming weeks to read more about my travels in Norway.
A special thank you to Jonas and Icetroll for a once in a lifetime experience on Austerdalsbreen.