Photo Credit: Mark Hoey
26-year-old Australian, Stephanie Langridge (aka Polar Steph) upped sticks from sunny Australia and moved her life to Iceland to be a Glacier Guide. Despite never having been to the country before the move, she’s never looked back. Here, she explains what a typical day in her life looks like.
I moved to Iceland six months ago to live and work on Europe’s largest ice cap, Vatnajökull, as a hard ice guide with tour operator Arctic Adventures and Glacier Guides. We operate year-round, in the height of summer and under the northern lights in winter.
I often joke with my customers that, like the Stark children from Game of Thrones, I’m a child of summer and I don’t quite understand the threat of winter is coming. When I first arrived in March it was still snowing and raining sideways (typical for Iceland, it’s why umbrellas don’t exist here) and so it was a baptism by fire. Very slowly, I’ve adapted to the climate and instead of requiring a basic 25-degrees Celsius to strip down to a t-shirt, I now get a satisfying t-shirt burn at around 9-10 degrees.
We live in the national park in Skaftafell, four hours from Reykjavik. All the guides from the various companies live in semi-permanent housing physically close to the national park centre, all with internet and hot water and whatnot, but without much proximity to the “real world”. With a population of approximately 334,000, and 220.000 living in the city, we’re fairly remote and cut off from a lot of services. Simple things like grocery shopping involve creating a house shopping list to send to a supermarket two hours away that drops our food off at the local gas station – the only station for an hour in each direction.
I’m very grateful for my life here in Iceland and for the opportunity to be improving my skills as a hard ice guide. For the past five years I worked in event management and logistics, and the last two years I focused on climbing, mountaineering and rope skills. With a stint as an IRATA rope access technician (AKA high-rise abseiling window washer) in Sydney, I’ve built on the group management and ropes skills I already possessed with hazard perception, navigation, and technical ice skills. I live and work with an incredible, enthusiastic and supportive team, and so everything feels like it’s come together into an absolute dream life and job.
Morning – the first shift
I generally wake up between six and seven in the morning, with the first shift kicking off at 7.45am sharp. We only live a fifteen minute walk (or five minute drive) from the office in the national park, so sometimes if you’re late you find yourself run-walking through the campground past the waterfalls in stiff mountaineering boots with a radio harness slung on one shoulder and helmet bouncing around on the outside of your bag. Sleep is essential and I’m guilty of pushing the line on punctuality.
Our shifts are about ten hours a day, so if you start nice and early at 7.45am you can expect to be done around 5.00pm, depending on the tours you take, with the other shifts staggered hourly from there to match our departures. It means in the morning there are a variety of people in the kitchen going about their routines. Despite there being fifteen people in the house, it’s rare to have to wait for a shower. Getting your plate in the dishwasher proves a little harder.
Breakfast-time is a hodgepodge of getting our guide bags ready for the day and scavenging in the kitchen for portable food. Our bags contain our edge kits for personal and client safety on ice, first aid, extra clothes and waterproof layers (if we’re not already fully-clad, readying ourselves for a wet one!), helmet and crampons. Sometimes your bag seems heavier than anticipated and you have to stop and wonder if the other guides have snuck a few sneaky rocks in there under the guise of “helping you with your training”.
If you don’t check the weather forecast it’s at your own peril. In summertime, wear thermals under waterproofs on the wrong day and you’ll cook (at a raging 15 degrees Celsius). On a wet day if you go with quick-dry pants instead of waterproofs you’d better hope you have a nice lunch-snack to tide your emotions over until you can get home to stand in the shower. For weather, Vedur.is is the go-to for guides, and I recommend tourists check it on a regular basis as well!
Food-wise, I try to eat a lot of protein and cram in as many vegetables as possible for carbs. If I have too much sugar I tend to flop halfway through, which isn’t ideal when you have to be 100% on presenting and looking after people’s safety. Because we get our food delivered to the national park once a week I get creative at the end of the week with the vegetables I put in the pan for breakfast. Spring onion, pineapple and eggplant mixed with some leftover rice and eggs if there are any is pretty typical – you get resourceful!
Once we’re at the office it’s right into getting things on board. Our departure times have to be spot-on to keep to the bus schedule. We all work as a big team and despite our different roles (bus driver, guide, office staff) you’ll often find us all out on the front porch rain or sunshine, cramponing folks up and introducing ourselves. This is where we meet our first groups and begin the short bus ride from the national park car park and head out to the two glaciers our company guides on – Svinafellsjökull (Pig-hill-glacier, or “Hollywood Glacier” where they film Game of Thrones) and Falljökull (Falling-glacier).
Midday – hiking and exploring with the group
We generally guide two group tours each per day. Glacier Guides runs four unique tours through the summertime – a short, two-hour tour on Svinafellsjökull, a longer three and a half hour tour through the moraine valley and on the lower part of Falljökull, and icefall explorer tours where you can choose either to hike or ice climb in the icefall about 450m or 1400 feet up on Falljökull amongst the stunning blue and white seracs. Currently I run all tours except the ice climbing, but next season hopefully I’ll join the ranks of badass lady ice climbing guides.
Being a guide on hard ice involves both interpreting the local natural environment for your clients, informing them about Iceland, and contextualising the ice in front of them in terms of the larger history of the world. It’s both fun and safe, with a lot of our time spent training and discussing the best ways to keep clients safe while helping them experience these huge, gorgeous pieces of frozen natural architecture. We spend about 8-9 hours of our shifts trekking through the valley, walking up and down the ice, and chopping staircases up through steeper sections.
Our tours range from 3 – 8km walks, with an average day consisting of around 8 – 14km of hiking up and downhill quite steep faces. The terminal face of Falljökull in particular is receding quite quickly and steeply, so I definitely noticed the change in my fitness once I started guiding fulltime. I love each tour differently for its unique value and the different customers it attracts, but my favourite tours to guide are smaller groups of Explorers, or Half Day Hikers where we wind up through the crevasses and onto the waves underneath the ice fall. On the best days we go for a massive explore that exercises my guiding skills as we free-guide through the ice with no set path, chopping staircases, hunting for beautiful blue features, gaining height and dropping down to peek into bottomless crevasses and moulins.
If we’re not guiding clients we’re heading off up the ice to smash our way through the crevasses, knock down potential overhanging pieces of ice or shift rocks, maintain access to the glacier by way of bridges, and cut steps. When I was first talking about becoming a guide all my mountaineering buddies would reference the huge amount of steps (and, in some cases on glaciers around the world, helipads!) I’d end up cutting. It’s all about working with the natural shape and flow of the hard ice, of the water flowing over the top, of the consistency and the size of crystals. I definitely romanticise the process of cutting and maintaining beautiful blue staircases up through the crevasses and icefall, but at the end of the day aesthetically and physically it’s very satisfying work.
Generally I eat lunch or something resembling lunch with my clients. If I get my first tour back to the bus five minutes early I might sit on my pack and stare out at the black sandur and Lomagnúper, the giant cliff visible about 50km in the distance across the flat, black plains of Iceland’s south shore. Other times we take a break in the icefall high up on the glacier, surrounded by big beautiful ice sculptures. Occasionally the two local ravens will come to visit and poke around, but we have to be careful not to feed them – as tempting as it is. If you’re very lucky, you might get five or ten minutes to yourself to take a seat on a newly cut stepline and take it all in. I once saw a guide bring his Jetboil up and make a fresh cup of tea, and I can tell I’ll be lugging a thermos full of tea around in winter time just to warm my hands.
My personal snack favourites are Skyr, Iceland’s traditional whey-heavy answer to yoghurt (just not the Lakkris/liquorice flavour, although at the end of the week I’ll eat anything). Chased with a handful of nuts, maybe a CLIF bar if a client is generous (we can’t buy them here in Iceland but sometimes I get “tipped” in international snacks!). Recently I tried getting into the famous dried fish, but it’s so pungent that it’s been days and even though I wrapped it in layers and layers of plastic and aluminium foil my bag still stinks and the other guides enjoy making fun of me! So be warned, that stuff is delicious, lightweight, high in protein and for all other purposes a great hiking or climbing snack… but good luck getting the smell out!
Our tours, for reference, are here: http://www.glacierguides.is/GlacierTripsFromSkaftafell
Afternoon – tour group number two
Depending on what shift we’ve been on for the day, the afternoon starts whenever we pick up our second tour. I often get quite sad when I drop my first group back off at the bus. You really get to know some clients very well and they can have a big impact on you. The sharing goes both ways, and people are inspired by a lot of what they see and learn up on the ice, so it’s very fulfilling.
After we’ve finished our second tours or maintaining access to the glacier, we get to jump back on the bus to the national park office and finish up for the day. I’m responsible for inventory and checking the personal protective equipment (PPE) so if there are defective or broken items that need fixing I’ll check those out, otherwise it’s home time. I try not to indulge in the free coffee we have in the office, otherwise I’m awake all night!
We’ll be done for the day anywhere from 5.00pm to 8.00pm. The early-risers will be back at the house preparing dinner and at 8.00pm when the later shift comes in we all have dinner together at a big family dining table in our kitchen. As many of the guides are vegetarian, pescatarian, vegan, or have food allergies, the people cooking are very considerate and we always make sure people are catered for. There’s generally very little left over after dinner for lunch the next day! This is one of my favourite parts of living here in this big house in Skafatfell, there’s a real sense of community.
With the height of summer in mid-June, there were a couple of disorienting months there where the sun wasn’t setting at all and our schedules were out of whack. Your body wants to stay up and run around and explore, but you have to remind yourself that you need sleep. Blackout shades help, but it’s more about curbing your enthusiasm. In late-August we have about five hours of night a day, which will extend out through the year until December which is five hours of almost-daytime with epic extended sunrises and sunsets – unless it’s cloudy, in which case it’s all grey! But every day is a different day with the weather here, and I’ve been extremely surprised and lucky with how “warm” and dry it’s been the last three months of summer.
Evening – downtime and bed
Generally we all pitch in or snack a bit more (we all have hollow legs, as my mum would say) until dinner. Most people go to bed some time between 10pm and midnight; everyone knows their body and personal rhythms pretty well and despite living in close proximity we’re all considerate of space and noise. Somehow, I’m not sure how, it all works extraordinarily well!
On the odd occasion we have some brilliant events in the national park staff housing area that we share with the other mountain guiding companies and park rangers. A little friendly competition, a lot of beer drinking (and subsequently donations to ICE-SAR, Iceland’s voluntary Search and Rescue legends) and collaboration. Last week we had the annual fireworks an hour away at the famous jökulsarlón glacier lagoon and we all piled into a bus together to check it out, so Skaftafell is a lovely place to live away from the “big city” of Reykjavik.
Everyone is different here in the house and people use the evening to take their own personal space. A few guides are into doing yoga, which is good considering the battle we put our bodies through. Some go running through the glacial outwash plains, up the mountains, or out and back to the glaciers, others play foosball or kick a soccer ball around. I should definitely do both of those things more than I do! You find yourself quite exhausted at the end of the day and it’s a balance between getting in a personal adventure or getting some rest, as our shifts can be about 7-8 days long with a few days off in between.
Sometimes there’s a huge rush to get in the van and drive all the way to the city for some ‘weekend’ adventures around Iceland. Definitely a bonus if you have your own car! Because a ‘weekend’ could be mid-week it means we’re hitting the road and ready to go as soon as we finish our shifts, off to drive the Ring Road in search of other ice, caves, mountains, summits and adventures.
The isolation is one of my favourite things about living in Iceland, and in the national park in particular. An afternoon run is a run on the largest glacial outwash plain in the world. Out my kitchen window I can see the round domed peak of Hvannadalshnjúkur (2110m), Iceland’s tallest mountain. The storms roll in for hundreds of kilometres across the big black sand plain and each valley contains a glacier that’s slowly been sliding down the mountain for over a thousand years. It’s a magical place to live.
Thank you, Steph!