Travel Journal: Hiking the Nigardsbreen Glacier Tongue

The first step off a massive stone slab worn smooth and onto gritty, crumbled diamonds—where travelers can get up close to the larger Nigardsbreen glacial tongue, tinged with dark crevices the shade of cornflower—is still 30 minutes out. The small boat at the end of its short journey ferrying my group across Lake Nigardsbrevatnet idles briefly, and then departs for the opposite shore as we set out on foot.

Thousands of years of compacted ice continues to calve here each year, flowing down the river and beneath a wood suspension bridge that shivers under our weight, ending its journey in the lake below. Today only water roars past as we traipse across the planks, hands skimming cool metal cables on either side.

Preparing to Hike Nigardsbreen

Our guide stops several times to explain more about the Jostedal Glacier, of which Nigardsbreen is a glacial tongue, and how safety is an all-important step in the process of performing the glacier hike. No one is allowed on the ice without a licensed guide for obvious reasons, and in case there are those to whom it is not so obvious, it quickly becomes a reality: at our final stop before the 3-hour ice hike, several tourists not part of our group step outside of the roped-off ‘safe zone’.

Our guide—shouting at the very top of his vocal register in order to be heard—manages to alert the nearest guided group, which in turn shouts to the erroneous pair and steers them back to safety. He explains his behavior to our group as we loop and twist the laces of our crampons: two hikers, acting on their own after a guided outing, ignored posted warning signs at the same location in August 2014.

He continues on by reassuring us that, when done right, a glacier hike in Norway is both a safe and breathtakingly unique experience. All glacier guides at the Nigardsbreen site are nationally and internationally qualified (many with additional registrations at UIAGM/IVBV—the International Federation of Mountain Guides—and NORTIND, the Norway Association of Mountain Guides), and as he explains how he intends to keep us safe, I become more engaged and exhilarated about the climb ahead. Especially as I get a better look at the view.

A few moments later I place my right foot down on the ice, hear the satisfying crinkle underfoot, breathe in the crisp Norwegian elements, and I’m sold.

Hiking the Blue Glacier

We crunch up the side of the glacier on a glassy staircase, and over the span of the next three hours I begin to understand why someone might wander off on their own. The short taste of this corner of Norway almost isn’t enough. There is a near-tangible impulse to understand more of what makes the glacier system work—an invisible drive to set off on my own.

As we ascend to our destination—an awe-inspiring windy vantage point near the middle of the glacier tongue—waterfalls cascade down the side of the fjord to either side of us.

Climbing down, the view is a fantastic series of icy canyons and crevices only the bravest would dream of skittering along alone. Our guide carves out a safe path for us, stabilizing our descent over steeper sections with a length of rope and two picks buried deep in the ice.

Visiting the Breheimsenteret Museum or Norwegian Glacier Museum

If you’re not the hiking type and prefer the educational route, there are some great alternative options. Both the Breheimsenteret Museum, with a picturesque view of Nigardsbreen outside its robust dining room and a timeline museum on the basement level, and the Norwegian Glacier Museum (an hour and forty minutes away in Fjærland) offer exhibits designed to both please the eye and pique the curiosity.

Fast Facts:

  • This tour is good for the beginner: at a moderate stress level, this tour can be done by active or sedentary adults. Older children can attend as well.
  • It takes a short ferry ride across a lake and a roughly 30 minutes’ moderate hike to reach the edge of the glacier ice.
  • Boot, crampon, and ice pick rental is provided at the hiking office. It is recommended that you wear your own boots to this excursion and ask your guide if they are appropriate, to limit the need for rental.
  • For safety and to keep the group together during the glacier hike, all hiking members are given a climbing harness with carabiner attached to one long length of rope. This helps to keep everyone going forward at the guide’s pace, and mindful of their fellow hikers. Make sure you stay with your guide at all times—including when not harnessed—and follow the signage in the area posted by authorities.
  • Nigardsbrevatnet, the glacial lake crossed before reaching Nigardsbreen, and the river flowing from underneath the glacier are both a deep aquamarine in color due to glacial silt. The color changes in winter.
  • There are two separate glacier museums in the area, Breheimsenteret Museum nearby and the Norwegian Glacier Museum in Fjærland.