Making up. Winter on Vatnajökull.
Before I write a little about the trip I’ve just returned from, it would be impossible not mention the tragic loss of Henry Worsley. An analysis of his remarkable journey at this moment would be crass. Chasing poignancy too would be wrong, as I feel social media has already seen far too much of that clamouring. Most attempts end up being more about that person rather than poor Henry himself, and his goals. Many I’ve seen putting themselves forward for TV and radio interviews have come out of the woodwork – opposite to the quiet reflection true close friends will exhibit. At least two can’t even spell his name. I’ll just say two words about the man who – on the day he was due to fly South with his mind likely full to the gunnels - took the time to send a quite unnecessary email of thanks for some minor assistance. They are: Humility. Quality.
Now, to more mundane news.
January of this year was very important to me. The previous three had been spent chasing huge polar goals and had brought both wonderful, immersive experiences and frustrating setbacks. The February of the year before that, 2012, lays claim to a tough experience. After around eight days making my way with a friend over snow-covered lava fields, through waist-deep rivers, and up onto the mighty Vatnajökull icecap, the endlessly stormy weather upped its pace. Winter in Iceland is utterly reliable in its unpredictability – a succession of storms, blizzards and a dangerous freeze-thaw oscillation that soaks then freezes. That was the attraction. The grumpiest icecap on Earth, perhaps.
The wind speeds had been tolerable at thirty, forty and fifty miles per hour. It had risen though to seventy and eighty, with body-blowing gusts well over a hundred miles an hour. We were in the middle of the icecap and the snow quality was so poor that a wall could barely be built to protect our tent. In line with the wind it had a chance of survival, but from the side it was weak. The wind turned at right angles. Our tent’s demise was complete. The next day, after a sensible conversation with Iceland’s ICE-SAR (volunteer search and rescue) and having secured our immediate safety by burying half the ripped, stricken tent, we were picked up by skidoo.
The ensuing storm, not from the skies but from the media, was disorientating and harrowing. The Icelanders were phenomenal – the press positive and receptive to the statement that ICE-SAR believed our management of the emergency was textbook.
In the UK however, tabloids stuck the knife in, inventing quotes and stories that mischievously tried to paint a picture of childish incompetence when the reality was the opposite. The ignorant Daily Mail and Daily Star led the way – the latter’s article being so comically wide of the mark that I did not even bother to contact them to demand retractions. For a twenty-five year old it was a trial of the sort I’d not prepared myself for. I had only the positivity of my circle of friends and colleagues, and the Icelanders themselves, to console me.
‘Come back – try again’, were the parting words of one of the ICE-SAR team.
Earlier this month, we did. Quietly - by design.
Though a different team (my 2012 teammate is a climber by passion and has left icecaps behind him entirely), and with a newly malleable route plan, it was a journey I had to make. Compared to a thousand mile ice sheet route it is short, and it isn’t even above the Arctic Circle. That did not matter. I needed to make peace with Vatnajökull. James Wheeldon, with whom I’d lived and driven dogs with in the extreme north of Greenland in 2014, and Brad Jarvis, formerly of a UCL medical research team on Everest, would be my accomplices.
Our lightweight, low-cost plan saw us catch one of the infrequent buses from Iceland’s capital Reykjavik, and travel the hundreds of miles along the south coast. We planned to step off in the rough region of Kirkjubæjarklaustur (Klaustur to most) and cross the lava field of Eldhraun (the largest in human history) to access the western edge of the icecap at the Síðujökull glacier. The lava was unimaginably bumpy, so snow cover would be critical. Early January is early/mid-winter for Iceland, and annual snow cover peaks from late February and through March, so we risked danger through uncovered chasms, rivers and crevasses.
With some challenging night navigation (we enjoyed less than six hours between sunrise and sunset), we snaked our way up the Eldhraun towards Miklafell and the mighty Laki volcanic fissure. We weathered a twenty-hour period of ferocious winds and low contrast by creating a fortress of snow in large ‘one ton’ bags, a tactic I wanted to pioneer on windy polar journeys (the principle I’ve latterly found is not unlike the Hesco bags in military desert use).
The wind never really ebbed much – either strong or moderate as Miklafell was left in our wake and we followed the series of volcanic craters towards the ice. Snow at sea level was perilously low, but we had approached 1000m elevation and now had a three or four feet snowpack. I was even able to joyfully dig my trademark trench in our tent vestibule to allow occupants to stand up inside. We’d not undertaken a ski journey as a trio before, but had settled into a functional routine with high morale, despite slow and sticky snow surfaces.
Mountainous moraine at the icecap foot made for a clumsy transition from lava to ice. In 2012, we’d found extensive melt rivers there and a thicker snow pack, but this time it was thin snow and no water. It took around three days of steep skiing up slippery ramps to access the Vatnajökull ‘proper’. Low contrast and gusty storms of the lowlands made way for better visibility, but a perpetual easterly head wind accompanied heavy drift, which obscured our view ahead. We badly needed vision ahead to assess where the large, hazardous crevasse fields were or weren’t.
A waypoint on a Vatnajökull crossing is the remarkable caldera volcano of Grímsvötn. Right in the middle of the vast icecap and active, emitting a sulphurous odour, it adds near sheer cliffs of rock and ice into the mix. In zero visibility and with a navigational error, it could be deadly.
As we passed to the south of Grímsvötn – a narrow sector below the ridge where crevasses could lurk – the wind grew and grew as the light dimmed. With a forecast of a night of extremely high winds and being only a mile from a collection of small huts maintained by the IGS, we decided to make for those instead of the two hours or so of shovelling to make a ‘bombproof’ fortress of snow around our tent. We also needed to discuss our route across the ice, our exit glacier and our pace. The snow surface had been torrid – slow and sticky, and then large sastrugi (hard snow ridges) at right angles to our travel. We had managed only 70% of our daily distance targets.
The toil up the hill was significant. The rise was steep at 20-40 degrees and surface poor as ever. I navigated our trio in the dark, with a snowy, strong -20deg headwind towards the volcano. I had to trust entirely in my maps, crevasse chart and limited view of the snow ahead to not lead us into serious trouble. With some relief, lots of shovelling and a quick phone call to the IGS, we were into the snow-buried hut. We could conduct some minor repairs, have a serious planning session, and then move off as the wind lessened a little.
Our time, bizarrely, was not limited by food or anything as straightforward, but ironically by my work commitments, of which I had many in the final week of January. We had tabled a number of glaciers for our descent and exit back to the ring road, and it was likely to be down to snow levels and their condition. We would have no time to spare if we pushed for the short Lambatungnajökull in the east, so opted for the vast, wide Skeiðarárjökull in the south. We estimated two to four days.
Our descent and conclusion of a near two week Iceland winter journey would not be simple. I’d not done extensive research on Skeiðarárjökull but luckily did have mapping and low resolution crevasse charts. I had, with James and Brad, devised a very detailed set of GPS waypoints to ‘thread the needle’ between ‘red’ zones of extremely hazardous crevassing. At times it would be like walking a narrow, precipitous ridge with invisible danger to either side.
The drift and gusty wind made those dozens of miles and few days especially hard. The drift killed our visibility to the front. We had to ‘feel’ our way down.
To the left were towering fields of jagged, pyramidal glacial ice. To the right, twenty foot wide partially snowed-in crevasses.
Eventually the snow thinned and glassy ice protruded, intermingled with crevasses and large moulins (scary, vertical, deep sinkholes where water escapes in the melt season). We attached slings as brakes to our skittish sleds and wiggled our way down on the final dawn of our journey. Our map beckoned an old 4x4 track that would help take us our final dozen miles or so to the ring road. It was out of date. First, we and our long suffering plastic sled shells negotiated a few kilometres of steep black sand hills and river beds. Then, unbeknownst to us, a mighty thirty-foot wide melt river. Swimming was out of the question as we couldn’t be sure our destination was on the other side, and our holed sleds would sink.
I led Brad and James east along the thin ledge of ice attached to the steep ground on the bank. Twice, our sleds tipped into the water or broke the ice and needed rescue.
We eventually found the source, a vast glacial ice lagoon, and tentatively hopped from iceberg to iceberg, and then across a 500 yard stretch of open, thinning ice. As Brad later remarked nonchalantly – it was the most ‘iffy’ part of the trip. My eyes, as the scout, had been out on stalks, repeatedly testing the ice for strength. Lakes in Iceland are notoriously dangerous when frozen.
My GPS promised a short but steep rise onto a black sand plateau, and then another old 4x4 track, perhaps two hours of hauling, to the road. We stepped off the route and onto our finishing spot, a drainage ditch beside the road, and awaited our transport. Journey complete. It was the first moment for the entire duration that the wind had calmed a little and we enjoyed a final roadside flask of hot chocolate. For me, the demon has been put to rest. The technical and self-care challenges of Icelandic winter travel had been bridged and we finished as a cohesive and satisfied unit. We began our celebratory drinks in Reykjavik that night at 1am. It was Friday night after all…
Note – having had an excellent relationship with ICE-SAR over the past years, including a 2014 lecture at their Rescue conference to advise on good practice as a recipient of assistance, we were very glad to give their volunteers no cause for action and thank them as always for their time meeting beforehand. They have had a controversial and busy winter, and we hope that some of you might wish to donate to them as a wonderful non-profit organisation. http://www.icesar.com/support-us
Here also is the link to Henry’s fund: http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-web/fundraiser/showFundraiserProfilePage.action?userUrl=ShackletonSolo