EVERLASTING DARKNESS – SURVIVING THE ICELANDIC WINTER
Iceland in wintertime is not for the faint-hearted. Trying to find motivation in the depths of winter has been unequivocally tough whilst working on the Langjökull ice cap– but with light just round the corner, and before the current lockdowns, Montane Ambassador Jessie Leong learned what it’s like to celebrate the coming of calmer weather with a trip to the south coast of Sólheimajökull for some ice climbing.
For months, the honking great big beam of artificial light over the gravel yard has largely been the only source of light every morning. During the long, dark winter, there was little opportunity to enjoy the picturesque landscape of the Icelandic Highlands. At the time of writing during early February, first light would start to appear from half nine in the morning, but up until now it has been the norm to get used to light from as late as half eleven in deepest, darkest December.
Yet winter is a fickle and fleeting thing. No sooner have I lamented about the long, drawn-out evenings, the weather changes as quickly as it disappeared, the wind charts show signs of picking up, and cold winter air draws down from the far north. The cold penetrates deep within your bones, and the meltwater that floods the roads and turns the gravel tracks into a slush-puppy-esque, semi-frozen gully can easily turn back into menacing, hard ice.
The arrival of dawn slowly making its appearance earlier each day is not something to be underestimated. Its mood-enhancing powers are something else, watching the horizon change from an inky midnight blue to an illustrious shade of deepest green, to a vivid orange before fading to a pale vanilla yellow can lead us reaching for our phone cameras as the sway of a Nissan Patrol jeep ( our vehicle to get to the glacier each day) skids across the uneven gravel track. The morning light fills in details in the mountainous environment, giving one an elated feeling of hope. There’s an acknowledgement that something is taking place somewhere beyond us. It’s Mother Nature’s way of telling us that the darkness will soon be ending. Just be patient.
If the sound of everlasting darkness sounds too much to bear, then one must find hope and joy in the pleasure outdoor activities can bring – from snowmobiling to ice climbing, to exploring waterfalls whilst hiking, or making the most of a cancelled workday and going for a long soak in a swimming pool.
Living in commutable distance to Langjökull – Iceland’s second-largest glacier (‘Long Glacier’) – meant that I was in spitting distance of the many iconic tourist sights off the Golden Circle. From the dazzling blue waterfalls of Brúarfoss (‘Bridge Falls’) to the steaming Geysers, the small little farmstead in the Icelandic Highlands provided the ideal base to explore these little locations – but on the proviso that the weather was calm and clear. Nature was not a kind friend to unsuspecting tourists who did not come prepared with appropriate clothing and footwear – often ending up slipping and sliding over the icy surfaces, or soaked through when they forgot to pack decent waterproofs.
Finally, after what felt like an age working and living in Iceland, it was my first opportunity, at last, to go climbing outdoors, on some vertical ice. My climbing buddy Coops was due to arrive into Iceland – and was someone who seemed preferctly up for driving straight from the city streets off to the South Coast. With bags packed with essentials (ice tools, sandwiches, and flasks of tea) we set off in the classic tourist mobile; a white Dacia Duster, with Google Maps set to Sólheimajökull (‘home of the sun glacier’) in search of some adventure amongst the south coast glaciers.
Many people wonder what it must be like to live in Iceland during winter – which can be ‘make or break’ when it comes to the road conditions. As we drove out of the outskirts of Reykjavík, a mixture of clear tarmac to full-on, near snowy white-out conditions was the norm. We had localised snow fog, where we could only just make out the yellow poles to the right of the passenger window, before striking it lucky and following a snowplough that guided us along the way.
Heading to Sólheimajökull, I heard mixed reports about the changeable weather forecast. Having lived in the central highlands, which tended to have drier, colder weather, I had heard that the south coast was likely to be much wetter. Previous winter climbing experience has been a mixed bag, often ending up wearing every single layer of clothing and climbing in the very wet. As we drove along the south coast, the weather conditions surrounding the glacier on the approach looked familiarly Scottish. Coops recounted the week before where she’d had some time off work to head up to the highlands – only to find out that every day she went out into the mountains it had chucked it down with rain.
Looking up, I put on my Montane Anti-Freeze jacket, a few specks of rain beaded on the jacket. I hastily stuffed my waterproof shell in my bag, and hoped the weather forecast that day meant I didn’t need to pack my waterproof trousers…
We met with our guide, Bart who gave us the climbing paraphernalia we hadn’t brought. I chose to bring my own axes and crampons, and set off from the car park, with the glacier just out of view. A handmade sign, erected in 2010, reminded us of the harsh realities of our changing winter climate – the glacier line was a few metres from the car park just a decade ago. Now the glacier had retreated some 20 minutes away, exposing a deeply unstable cliff prone to loose rockfall. Helmets came out as we hurry along in single file, and not long later we put crampons on, their sharp teeth biting into the ice.
One by one, we follow the ash-covered icy tracks, hand-hewn steps that have been carved to help guide us through the vertical walls of ice. Some are exposed crevasses, weaknesses where the glacier is folding under its own weight, whilst other meekly go past small moulins and holes that we have been cautioned against falling into. We follow the winding path past beautiful sheltered landscapes, providing some shelter against the drizzle and wind. It was very different from the exposed but relatively flat, rolling landscape of Langjokull. It felt alive. A living, breathing creature.
A world of three-dimensional ice greets us. A beautiful swooping park of lines intersecting and crisscrossing. Dark shaded ash topped triangles, tinged blue by the light, with a thick snow line above and volcanic ash cloaking the ice to create the dramatic shapes of the calving glacier. Several icebergs stood awash, isolated sculptures in the partially frozen lagoon. Light blue, streaked with ash, made them look like oversized liquorice allsorts. Our guide cautioned us against the foolhardy tourists who went too near – this was after all a glacier, prone to extreme thaws, and we shuddered at the thought of plunging into the frozen icy depths below.
After 40 minutes of so or of walking, we arrive into our destination- a rippled wall of clear, consolidated ice, with some dips and bubbles, but otherwise clear, solid ice. It looks brittle, hard, dense. I turn to Coops and grin, despite the wind whistling through the crevasse, the conditions veer from spitting rain to clearing skies overhead.
Bart reminds us that the glacier can move metres in warmer conditions, the retreat shockingly visible within days. He shows us snow bridges – innocently filling in crevasses which we might otherwise think of as ‘safe’ and warned us against going off the main track.
We try our hand at moving along the glacier, kicking the front point of our crampon teeth into the hard ice, swinging from the knees and shuffling our body weight so our feet are parallel to the ice in front. We lean in, lean out, adjusting our body weight, trying to find the point where it feels right to be balancing just on our front points. One by one we move across the wall, gloves insulating us against the chilly conditions, grabbing the ice axes, which have been locked firmly into the ice.
Bart runs to the top of the glacier and sets up a top rope with an ice screw anchor, running the rope down to the bottom. We ready. The excitement is palpable.
Light on the glacier shifts and changes – a ray of sunlight creep through the low dense cloud. The ice has a bluer quality, and shadows created by the light create almost a shell-like texture, full of bumps and scoops. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever encountered. The possibilities for route-finding are everywhere.
I pick up my axes, clip into the rope, and look down on my crampons. The rhythm of kicking each foot in – kick, kick, establish balance, hook right hand up, left hand up, tuck body weight slowly forward into the ice, look upwards and work out where to head to next. It’s a totally absorbing experience and my body aches, using muscles I’ve not used in a while.
The rush to the head – blood flow round my body, the feeling of totally being absorbed in reading the ice, the security of a good axe placement, the mildly frustrating moments of trying to unhook the pick from the hard ice – each thought whirrs through my head. Climbing outdoors again feels so good, and the rush of endorphins feels at once highly addictive.
As I reach the top of the steep, vertical glacier wall, I pause and take a moment to realise the familiarity of being solely focused in the pure action of climbing, devoid of any other conflicting thought about what else was going on that day. I look down and realise I am at the top, and with my crampon teeth parallel to the wall, the feeling is one of calm, quiet elation. I slowly walk my feet back down, almost regretful at it all being over too soon.