Ice Caves, Glaciers, Northern Lights, Puffins and Volcanoes in Iceland: Interview With Ryan Connolly, Hidden Iceland

Svinafellsjokull Ice Cave (Photo Credit: Mark Hoey)
Svinafellsjokull Ice Cave (Photo Credit: Mark Hoey)

Ice caves, glaciers, Northern Lights, Puffins, volcanoes – these and other adventures await all year long in Iceland. AJAY JAIN chatted with Ryan Connolly, Marketing Manager, Co-Founder and Glacier Guide at Hidden Iceland about all the excitement they offer their clients. And how they go about their business in a responsible and sustainable manner on a best-effort basis.

Most people – especially those from warmer regions – are not acquainted with the idea of ice adventures. What is the special attraction and joy of such activities?
The most important thing we portray when running trips to glaciers and ice caves is that what our customers are seeing is 100 percent unique to them. The glaciers are constantly moving like a river, cracking open, squeezing shut and collapsing under their own weight. Not to mention the increased level of melting due to climate change. This means that every day is special. Even our beautiful ice cave trips to the South East of the country only last for one winter before they collapse. Then it’s up to us to find a newly formed ice cave for the next winter. 

Can you share some of the adventures that you offer and strongly recommend?
Our specialty is to show you the most revered places in the country while immersing you in Icelandic nature at the same time. This can mean following the more celebrated routes to the Golden Circle but also bathing in the Secret Lagoon and having lunch at a Geothermally heated Tomato Farm on our Golden Circle: Platinum Tour. Or going off the beaten path to find hidden gems like on our 2 day Ice Cave Discovery tour that allows us the time to hike across a distant glacier to find less explored ice caves. If you have a very short time period in Iceland, which many do, then we always suggest booking a 3 day private trip that incorporates the above into an action packed 3-day trip. This ticks off the must see sights like an erupting Geysir, walking behind the Seljalandsfoss waterfall, strolling on the Black Sand Beach but also allows you to relax in front of the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon and Black Diamond Beach. 

Personally, have you undertaken any extreme ice adventures? What was it like?
All our guides are passionate about what they do so this inevitably means on our days off we get up to all sorts of adventures. I don’t want to speak for all our guides but myself, Scott Drummond (co-founder), Dagný Björg Stefánsdóttir (co-founder) and Joe Kane (Lead Guide) often find ourselves on one of the 400 lesser explored glaciers climbing out of holes, finding new ice caves and traversing ice fall areas. It’s our passion but it also keeps us sharp for our days guiding in remote areas with customers too. There is something really freeing discovering a hidden ice cave that no soul has ever stepped in. The danger in these moments is real, but calculated and understood so we never feel in real harms way even in new terrain. 

Do you have concerns arising out of global warming and other changes happening around us? How do you see life being affected around you?
Absolutely. The glaciers we hike on are melting at unprecedented rates. We’ve lost more ice in the past 15 years than in the previous 150 so when I tell our customers that every trip is unique they don’t know how right I am. It’s our job to discuss climate change and how warming temperatures have a material impact on all of nature but certainly the sea level glaciers. It will be a sorry day for all of us when the glaciers melt away so far up into the mountains that we won’t be able to access them anymore but it is the way things are going. It’s up to us to show people these places before they disappear so they can spread the word and share their experiences. 

Do you see any positive action by stakeholders in Iceland to address environmental and climate change concerns?
Iceland is a very environment friendly country in the most part. They produce almost all of their energy needs from Renewable sources, notably from the heat of the volcano (Geothermal) and the melting of the glaciers (Hydro Power). However, more can and is being done. The Icelandic government are committed to planting millions of trees per year and installing electric charging stations across the country to encourage the use of electric cars. Sadly, the available technology doesn’t allow our company to run our trips fuel-free yet. So we offset all our carbon emissions every quarter with investment fund with Climate Care making us a carbon neutral company. Many other tour operators and businesses will have strict environmental policies. In practice, it’s hard to see these in action but governing body, Vakinn, sets ambitious criteria for many organisations to follow. Our environmental principles and actions are inspired by their suggestions. 

What more needs to be done by Governments / regulators / businesses / individuals?
These suggestions from Vakinn are fantastic and the overwhelming rhetoric is that we want to preserve our environment for future guests and generations. However, I would personally like to see more companies offsetting emissions and showcasing it to their customers to differentiate themselves.

Do you see greenwashing being done by travel businesses promoting themselves as eco / sustainable / responsible companies?
There are a few companies in Iceland who are promoting green practices and yet upon further investigation don’t seem to be doing anything beyond promotion which upsets me. I won’t say the names of these companies but they will likely be found out. In the most part most companies in Iceland believe very strongly in protecting their environment and the guides who run the trips will enforce careful management too. My problem is more with the big bus companies who drive 40 passengers to a location and tell them to return in an hour with absolutely no concern for what impact this influx of unmonitored people will have on the surrounding environment. 

How can travellers identify and choose Responsible Tourism companies?
It’s hard actually to tell on face value. We have our climate neutral stamp on our front page and have a blog released detailing our actions but is often overlooked. I always suggest any traveller to look a little deeper before paying for a tour in the raw nature of Iceland. An easy way to know you are limiting your impact though is to book small group, guided tours. This at least suggests the guide will have a keen understanding of their surroundings and keep the group from damaging any of the areas they enter. 

What can organisations like ATTA and their members do for the cause of Responsible Tourism?
Again, showcasing what actions they are taking to become more sustainable. Saying you do something is one thing. Proving it and being publicly accountable is another. Let your customers be the judge if you are doing enough.  ATTA can promote good ways to become more sustainable to its members and actively promote the companies doing the most. 

Puffin (Photo Credit: Mark Hoey)
Puffin (Photo Credit: Mark Hoey)

Five reasons why everyone must plan a holiday to Iceland:  

1. Puffins: We guarantee Puffin spotting on our Westman Islands trip. Aside from it being the largest Puffin colony in the world in the summer it also houses the country’s only Puffin Sanctuary for rescue Puffins. While there, we hike to the top of a still warm volcano that erupted in 1973 in the hope of seeing whales swimming off shore.
2. Northern Lights: A winter-only opportunity but worth the cold. Our company refuses to run standalone Northern Lights trips due to their elusive nature but we do run overnight trips to quiet areas of the country with no unnatural lights for miles around so that if we are lucky enough to get a light show then we’re in the perfect spot for it. And if you don’t see them, it’s ok. Get a good night’s sleep and we’ll be hiking on a glacier the next day anyway.
3. The Midnight Sun: A summer-only opportunity but worth the sleepless nights to watch the sun literally not set in a select few days of the year. A 4 day trip up to the West Fjords, a forgotten part of the country devoid of many tourists, gives you ample chance to peer out from the 440m Latrabjarg sea cliffs towards the arctic circle waiting for the perfect light.
4. Ice Caves: This is a winter activity, though smaller more fleeting ice caves can still be discovered in the summer while hiking with us on the glacier. Ice Caves are either formed from melting summer ice carving out large tubes or from the physical folding and movement of the ice itself known as compression arches. Both are temporary and it’s rare that the same cave will survive from one year to the next.
5. Hidden Gems: Iceland is yet imperfectly discovered. Or as Jules Verne asserts in Journey to the Centre of the Earth, “I dream with my eyes open!” This means even in the most celebrated parts of the country can offer up a quiet spot, hidden waterfall to sneak behind, sunken crater or black sand beach. We travel in the footsteps of Jules Verne as we day trip up to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula

Volcanic Westman Islands (Photo Credit: Norris Niman)
Volcanic Westman Islands (Photo Credit: Norris Niman)
Wild Westfjords (Photo Credit: Norris Niman)
Wild Westfjords (Photo Credit: Norris Niman)
Jökulsárlón Northern Lights (Photo Credit: Tom Archer)
Jökulsárlón Northern Lights (Photo Credit: Tom Archer)
Latrabjarg - Wild Westfjords Tour (Photo Credit: Scott Drummond)
Latrabjarg – Wild Westfjords Tour (Photo Credit: Scott Drummond)
Falljökull Glacier (Photo Credit: Emily Sillett)
Falljökull Glacier (Photo Credit: Emily Sillett)

ABOUT Ryan Connolly – Marketing Manager, Co-Founder and Glacier Guide at Hidden Iceland
Ryan’s role includes the marketing of Hidden Iceland as well as planning trips for guests and running trips that focus on exploring glaciers and ice caves. Along with Dagný Björg Stefánsdóttir and Scott Drummond, he set up Hidden Iceland in 2017 with one goal: run trips that we’d be proud to take our friends and family on. He has personally travelled to all seven continents and guided on multiple terrain types around the world. His favourite being glacier ice as it changes constantly. 

Ryan Connolly - Marketing Manager, Co-Founder and Glacier Guide at Hidden Iceland
Ryan Connolly – Marketing Manager, Co-Founder and Glacier Guide at Hidden Iceland
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