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"How I Discovered An Ice Cave" - a story by a glacier guide Francesco

A guide journeys back through time on a frozen Icelandic glacier

|November 8, 2022
Francesco comes from Sicily in southern Italy, but his heart resides here, in Iceland, where he came in 2016 and has been working as a glacier guide ever since. Besides working on glaciers, Francesco enjoys drawing and discovering pizzas all around the world.

Finding a new ice cave is never easy. This mission starts around the first two weeks of September, after a storm and, possibly, a glacier flood, the elements needed to carve a new ice cave. We never know what to expect, as the structure is different every year and the very nature of the cave varies significantly depending on how it formed.


At the end of August, when the first storm worth its name arrives, I know: summer has come to an end. For us, jöklamenn (“glacier folks”), the coming of winter is always great news. That’s the time when our beloved glaciers gain some life back, stabilize their foundations, and, most importantly, all the meltwater turns to ice.  

The beginning of a new winter has a further meaning as well. With temperatures dropping drastically and the ice getting stronger and more solid, nature finally invites us to explore the new glacier features—like ice caves—carved by the infinite rivers of water flowing freely over the summer ice.

Glacier Guide Walking in Glacier Crevasse

Francesco - Arctic Adventures glacier guide walking up from Dolphin ice cave, Iceland

Ice caves are the most exciting glacier features to discover with the arrival of winter.

- Francesco Li Vigni

A lucky discovery

As a glacier guide, I know glaciers and their dynamics well—where they compress, where they extend, where most of the sliding over the bedrock and the general movements happen. These are the essential signs that signal that a new ice cave is out there. And so the search begins: me and my fellow guides start moving rocks, digging out moraine and exploring every inch of the designated area, looking for any signs of the new ice cave. A discovery can happen very quickly. 

In September 2021, we noticed a small cave entrance in an area where we thought I’d find something. It was very rough and not easily explorable, but I knew it had a lot of potential. A storm was brewing, so we marked it and decided to come back in a few days. Later that week, the whole entrance was buried under meters of moraine, rocks and glacier debris. We were extremely lucky to find what would later become one of the best ice caves in years. A glacier artery, where water had been flowing through for the whole summer, has become a perfect hidden gem—a 70-meter-long frozen solid tunnel with several mesmerizing spacious chambers in between.

We were extremely lucky to find what would later become one of the best ice caves in years.

- Francesco Li Vigni

Guide Sitting in Ice Cave of Glacier

Francesco inside the ice cave found in 2021, Iceland

Following the water

The summer of 2022 was different. There was too much melt water, too much retreating. The glacier has suffered a lot of heat damage, it didn’t shift, and the area has been deflating. There was no trace of a promising opening.  

Once again, I took my team in the hope of finding a new ice cave. We took a fair amount of time to explore those areas as this process must be careful and without haste. However, after 10 days of looking, we were certain that, unfortunately, we would not find a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

At that point, we were close to giving up and making peace with the idea of winter without ice cave thrills.

- Francesco Li Vigni

At that point, we were close to giving up and making peace with the idea of winter without ice cave thrills. However, the last important thing left to do was to follow the water.

We searched for any river bed or trace of running water left from the summer. Once we found it, we followed it for hundreds of meters until it disappeared over the edge of the glacier or down crevasses. 

We finally came across a water stream that fell 12 meters down a void as well as a horizontal shaft in a glacier made hollow by meltwater. The water stream went through it before disappearing into an even darker, deeper moulin which worked as an escape drain for the water that was likely reaching into the depth of the glacier, if not all the way to the lagoon.

*Moulin – a vertical or nearly vertical shaft in a glacier, formed by surface water percolating through a crack in the ice.

Water Colour Illustration of Ice Cave on Glacier

Dolphin ice cave illustration by Francesco with watercolor

Before starting any actions or works, we had to double-check. Therefore, we went down with ropes and were mesmerized by the deep blue color of the ice walls and, above all, by the discovery of a small natural water-carved ice cave hidden deep down the hole.

We noticed its potential right away. But how to make it accessible? Luckily, in glacier access, we are the best around. We carved an 8-meter ice staircase leading down into the ice sheet. It was something that looked straight out of Elsa’s castle in the movie Frozen.

Stairs on Glacier to Ice Cave in Iceland

Carved out stairs leading towards the Dolphin ice cave, Iceland

It was something that looked straight out of Elsa’s castle in the movie Frozen.

- Francesco Li Vigni

We ventured inside and set down to work, channeling the water out, creating a path of dry ice, measuring the depth of the place. Naturally carved by water, the ice cave was a hidden gem, living and constantly changing. We decided to name it ‘The Dolphin’, because the water flow down there was strong, fast and fun.

I look forward to witnessing our new glacier cave evolve with time.

Group Visiting Ice Cave in Iceland

View from the inside of the Dolphin ice cave, Iceland

Visit the ‘The Dolphin’ ice cave now on the Skaftafell Blue Ice & Glacier Hike tour.

 

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