A Glimpse into Glacial Experience Research

My name is Bjartur Snorrason and I’ve been a glacier guide for Tröll Expeditions since shortly after the company started their glacier operations. I have kind of been living a double life during this time, because I’ve also been studying Tourism studies at the University of Iceland. My life, these past couple of years, has therefore been devoted to a lot of reading and writing inside a concrete building, as well as visiting beautiful landscapes, meeting fantastic people and witnessing them experience the breathtaking sceneries that are found in our glacier expeditions.

Research about a Glacial Experience

When it was time to decide the subject for my thesis, it was kind of a no-brainer that I wanted to research the experience perceived on a glacier hike. This was decided because of the reaction I’ve witnessed when my guests on the tours experienced the nature and landscape of glaciers, often for the first time. The gasps I hear when we reach a view point on the glacier, the total focus on just listening to the streams of water flowing down the glacier and into moulins and crevassess and how it sometimes seems that people lose touch with reality for just a brief moment when taking in what they sense on the glacier. I could by no means explain what it is that happens inside a person’s mind in these moments, because even though I appreciate the beauty of this landscape, I am probably a bit spoiled when it comes to Icelandic nature. I therefore decided to interview some volunteers that completed a glacier hike with Troll Expeditions on Falljökull glacier.

While most researches on tourism in iceland have used statistical methods, it was clear that when it comes to explaining a glacial experience, a statistical approach was not possible. I decided to use the methods of phenomenology, which is a philosophical study, concerned with the phenomena that appears in acts of consciousness. I’m not going to bore you with the details of the methodological approach, but the most important thing was giving my volunteers the freedom to express their glacier experience, without me or any external ideas getting in the way of their story. As an interviewer, my role was therefore not to ask different questions, but simply listen to the narratives with an open mind and then later try to make sense of it all with the help of philosophical theories.

At the end of a very challenging and interesting process, I was able to match the wonderful stories of my interviewees with respected theories and previous researches in nature-based tourism. My conclusions discuss three different actors that shape the experience perceived in a glacier hike on Falljökull glacier.

The Bodily Sensation

What you will experience on a glacier hike, all starts with your senses. The body is busy sensing the surroundings at all times. Your eyes catch the beauty of different phenomenas, such as the stunning icefall, crevasses or the changing landscape, your ears will sense the sound of rocks falling, water flowing or the silence in nature, you might sense by touching the glacier or even taste the clear glacier water. Your mind also plays an important role in this process, because whenever you sense the surrounding, your mind will create an understanding of what it is that you’re sensing. In those moments, when my interviewees where fully busy sensing the surroundings it often led to the feeling of wonder. Wonder has been described as if you’re experiencing the world for the first time and can leave you unconsciously saying things like “wow” or “amazing”. As part of the feeling of wonder, you’re also curious about the phenomena you’re sensing. The participants would look at a crevasse and start thinking about how it is formed or even ask the guide all kinds of questions about it. One of the clear feelings of wonder, described by one interviewee, was when a raven came flying down from the sky and took a seat on the glacier. This body did not make sense in this environment, the participant said and was so foreign to him that he got all curious about the bird.

The Imagination

When on the glacier, you’re likely to experience certain moments when the bodily sensation can’t fully create an understanding of the phenomena. In these moments your mind might try to create an understanding but can only do so by imagining things. I found it very interesting to listen to some of the narratives, where people would describe how they imagined the movement of the ice and the mountains, the water rushing down into channels inside the glacier, or when one woman started imagining that there were a lot of dead bodies buried underneath the glacier. This however is actually quite a typical reaction, described by Immanuel Kant, in his description on experiencing the sublime. Sublime is a word often used to describe something stunning, but in reality, you can’t use the word sublime to describe an object, but rather the feeling of the subject. Therefore nature isn’t sublime but nature will evoke the feeling of sublime. According to Kant, you will experience the feeling of sublime when you witness either the great power of nature or the size of nature. Your senses can’t create an understanding of nature, like for example when water rushes down into a moulin and you cant hear or see how far down it drops. The imagination will then take over and you start to imagine the great size of nature below you and ultimately the imagination will lead you to the feeling of sublime, when you feel how small you are compared to the surrounding nature. Sublime is often described as a mixed feeling of grand beauty and terrible beauty, so what you’re likely to feel is a sense of awe, as well as feeling a bit uneasy

External Factors

Even though the phenomenological method of this research emphasizes how important it is to try to ignore all external factors that might shape the experience, such as respresentation of nature, theoretical knowledge or the identities of a human being, these factors where unavoidable and play an important role as kind of the “luggage of the mind”. The most important luggage is the representation of nature and glaciers, especially in these times when the glaciers are rapidly disappearing. It became clear to me that the idea of a glacier was often so otherworldly to the interviewees and to be able to experience it was highly appreaciated. It often seemed that a glacier was thought of as far away from human society as you could possibly get, and therefore it didn’t seem real that some people were able to walk on it. This representation of glaciers, how people identify themselves and knowledge about glaciers melting, created a sense of accomplishment at the end of the tour. In fact, every single one of the interviewees mentioned the pride and accomplishment that followed being able to walk on a glacier. Some of them mentioned that the safety gear provided, helped them feel as if they where accomplishing something.

The conclusions therefore describe three dominant feelings, the feeling of wonder, the feeling of sublime and the feeling of pride but were all perceived in different ways. Firstly with bodily sensation, secondly with the imagination and finally because of unavoidable luggage of the mind. Therefore my thesis got the title “The body, the mind and everything else”.