The Delicate Beauty of Ice Stalagmites

Written by  Karl Fabricius

Outside, the thick layer of ice caked over the surface of Lake Baikal – the oldest and deepest lake on the planet – was beginning to thaw. Somewhere a bat fluttered it wings; the wind whistled through the crumbling entrance to the tunnel. The weather in April in this part of Russia is still bitterly cold. As the team entered the first of the caverns, it was not without a certain amount of trepidation. Even after years of adventure trying everything from ice climbing to snow biking, there was something special about spelunking in the viscera of the Earth's crust – mines slowly carved out many years before. And what spellbinding wonders awaited within – albeit wonders of a far more evanescent magic than the forces which created this vast and imposing setting. 

In the thick gloom, barely penetrated by the flickering flashlights, at first only a faint sparkle was visible. Then suddenly they loomed large, like a gathering of glimmering ghosts. Some were of a more cylindrical shape, narrower at the base and projecting up as if mocking gravity with their design; others were wider and sharper in appearance, like blades – the scythe of the grim reaper, perhaps – and yet all it would take is for warmer air to issue into this subterranean grotto to sound the death knell for these delicate frozen structures. The word beauty barely did justice to the figures that lay before the party's eyes, at once majestic and hopelessly fragile. They had arrived at the underground kingdom of the ice stalagmites. 

Ice stalagmites form when very cold air flowing into a cave or tunnel freezes, “but, because the air near the ceiling is much warmer, water seeping through the roof remains liquid...  as the water drips onto the frozen floor, it quickly freezes. In this way, the stalagmites grow drop by drop.” To find these special conditions requires you to be in just the right place, at just the right time.  

Photo by Tom Olliver

To travel to Slyudyanka is to experience much more besides these gleaming, frozen forms. Located in the Irkutsk Oblast region in south-eastern Siberia, it may not be the place to go if beaches are your trip of choice, but this remote stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway holds the allure of distance from the pace and over-populated frenzy of modern life – an increasing rarity. Slyudyanka is famed for the crystal deposits in the area (its name comes from the Russian word for the mineral 'mica'), but its ice crystals are less renowned. In the winter, people and snowmobiles can be seen skidding over the frozen-solid surface of Lake Baikal, while during the warmer months, a cruise in its waters might beckon – for those not already off in search of more ice stalagmites. 

Photo by Tom Olliver

Iceland is another corner of the globe where the spectral marvels that are ice stalagmites can be found, clustered together beneath the ground, hidden from all but those intrepid souls in search of eerie scenes, glittering with intricate splendour. Mighty Mount Kárahnjúkar – in the east of the country, recently in the spotlight owing to the violence of its volcanic fury – casts its shadow over tunnel networks where ice stalagmites materialise in the torchlight – myriad aliens guarding the first few hundred feet of the passageway before temperatures rise further in. Now that construction works related to the huge hydroelectric scheme in the area have been suspended, nature has begun to reclaim her own, as embodied by these otherworldly sentinels.

Photo by Tom Olliver
Some have likened these dome-headed icy invaders not only to extraterrestrials but to mushrooms, flourishing on the tunnel floor. Either that, or ice mountains, their true scale difficult to determine in their subterranean settings where nature conjures all kinds of tricks and illusions. At first, explanations as to the causes for these geophysical wonders seemed as hard to come by as the formations themselves. A spell of sub-zero temperatures was clearly needed, but what else? Still, for a time we were content to live in mystery, for when these features rear up in the darkness we're as much in the realm of aesthetics as science. And those yearning to play amateur speleologist can always take flights to Iceland to embark on their own ice stalagmite tours.

Moreover, anyone with wanderlust and the urge for adventure can also find these incredible frozen objects closer to home. Holidays in America don't get much more awe-inspiring than a trip to Lava Beds National Monument, nestled on the north-eastern flank of California's Medicine Lake Volcano. The numerous lava tube caves that riddle the area are a spelunker's dream, and within these volcanic recesses, as if taunting the tremendous capacity for heat that surrounds them, are yet more pockets of ice stalagmites populating the hard, stony rock. Here, explorers are less haunted by these frosty forms than tempted to take a bit out of them: like ice pops they look as though they might be tasty and refreshing on a hot summer's day.  

The National Monument's spiel reads: "Crystal Ice Cave contains some of the most spectacular ice formations among Lava Beds’ many caves, because of the sensitive nature of this cave's formations and air flow, it is open to park visitors on small ranger-guided tours only during winter months.” Its ice stalagmites are smaller than some – but of course no two are alike. Some measure as little as ten inches, others rise up five feet and more; some are frosted and opaque, others composed of extremely clear ice. All, however, are scintillating and sublime – wherever in the world you might discover them. 

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Comments, questions and reviews by other travellers

Ohio Caverns located near West Liberty, OH and off State Route 68N has the most beautiful ice stalagmites and stalactites that can be found in that part of the country. It's a cool 55 deg in the cave all year long and you'll need a carry a sweater or light jacket. Be prepared to climb approx 120 steps to get out of the cave at the end of the tour. Well worth the time and money. Also, in the same area are some castles worth your time. Beautiful Ohio! at it's best coming the second to third week in October when the fall leaves are at their peak.

1 Reply

Seeing the leaves as well is an excellent suggestion. What a perfect Sunday!

This is just amazing!!!!!!!

pretty damn cool

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