31 October 2006

destination Grímsvötn (part 2)

First, for those of you who aren't familiar with Icelandic geography, I should mention that this most active of volcanoes I went to is also in the middle of the largest glacier in Europe, that covers 8% of Iceland's terrain. So, in addition to cozying up to my first active volcano, it was a twofer with a glacier thrown in. The drive to the edge of the glacier was still within the realm of the known for me, rather like driving on sand as a child on Cape Cod, only with mountains. We made quick time to the hut on the southwestern edge of Vatnajökull, then came the fun stuff.

Where the ice of a glacier meets the earth, all kinds of interesting things happen. There's tremendous shifting of sediment and ash from off the glacier, in addition to melting and shedding of ice chunks. All this makes for a bit of a thrilling time when attempting to climb up. We sloshed through the half-frozen and secretly fast glacial lagoon/river on the edge, pausing to winch H's Rover out of a tight spot partway over, then it was up to the ice. It turned out to be far steeper than predicted, and with little to no soil or snow to give us purchase on the ice, the vehicles were having a slippery time of it. Late autumn is also a challenging time to climb glaciers, since the summer melting cycle results in many cracks that may now be partly hidden by snow. G's vehicle found one of those (after I mentioned it looked a little dodgy) so then H had to winch us out.

The way didn't seem to be getting much better, so H-the-younger (brother of H) strapped on crampons and his lopapeysa, and armed with a walkie-talkie, walked up a few meters to see if it got better. Prognosis not good, so we turned around and headed down to the bottom again to attempt in a different location. However, in order to GET to the other location, we had to negotiate some sizeable mounds of sediment. I'm not scared of heights or being in remote places but the hairy near-vertical climbs and descents had me wondering what exactly I'd agreed to in coming on this trip.

Still, the combined mountaineering and glacier knowledge of the posse, and general level-headed sense made me feel that they weren't making foolish decisions and knew the capabilities and limitations of both the equipment and themselves. Plus, these cars were equipped- three kinds of communication methods, shovels, snow anchors, winches, fire extinguishers, waders, and who knows what else (plus CD player!).

And ok it was. Next attempt had us up on the blue ice quickly and easily, where I was soon able to marvel at the glowing depth and mysterious colors of the surface rushing beneath me. Ice! Lots of it! We progressed quickly then, following a GPS track from a previous trip, watching as the elevation rose rapidly on the dashboard display. Soon, the ice stopped appearing so blue and began to take on a mottled white as we hit snow. Time to stop to deflate tires- for snow driving, the tires were reduced to single-digit PSI, and eventually when we got higher and into deeper snow, down all the way to a squashy 3. In celebration of arriving on the snow, we all also had a piece or few of hákarl, then back into the cars to press on.

It was mostly silent for a while as we headed further, then over the radio there came a call from H. The box of hákarl had somehow shaken loose and had opened enough to allow its perfume to escape, and the French guys (C & F) were having a bit of a hard time with it. Then another call- "all ok, we're just driving with the windows opened"

The weather grew lower and grayer as we got higher, then soon became proper snow, eliminating the mountains in the distance and making it harder to see the contours of the snow ahead. In an expanse this large, the snow drifts and accumulates rather like sand, in dunes, in washboards, and small dips, so the ride was a little shaky as the visibility became thinner.

Another call on the radio "C & F can't handle it anymore. We've gotta switch". They gratefully piled in with G & me, bringing the fermented shark-scent in with them on their clothes ("good for the lungs", says H-the-younger), and then we continued further into the snow. Eventually even the horizon line was gone, and we were driving in a perfectly white landscape ("gives me vertigo", said C). I could only just barely make out the texture rushing by immediately outside the window, but everything else was as if I were under a clean bedsheet. At times we'd hit strangely deep snow and have to rock the car out a little, and had to take the tires down to 3 PSI at one point where it was too deep, but we made steady progress, and eventually on the left side we could make out a sooty ridge. Grímsvötn at last. We turned off the GPS track there and stopped at the base of a steep slope. Finding a shallower side, we climbed to the top of a knife-edge of marshmallowy reddish-black soil. Digging down a finger's depth into the sediment was almost too hot to touch, so vigorous is the geothermal activity there. Below us spread the wonder of geologic processes at their most active- a progression of explosion points that were at various stages of being once more consumed by the moving ice. Some areas steamed, and further below, shadowy crevices in the snow hinted at ice caves.

The easiest way to get down from there was to slide, so we all zipped down to the bottom and got back into the cars for the final ascent to the mountain huts on the highest ridge (about 1700 meters above sea level). These three hunkered-down buildings are atop another razor-thin edge of the caldera where Grímsvötn lurks, so they're equipped with tremendously toasty geothermal heat and even have electricity. Due to their exposed location, they're also entirely covered in thick ice that's required a complex double-door construction on all the openings- windows and doors. Unfortunately, the group there on Friday night had not unlocked the sauna hut, so we couldn't try out what makes this hut so legendary, but it was still a welcome and cozy place after the thrilling day.


tsduff said...

Maybe I'll get the nerve to get in a jeep and just bravely journey over the broken land like you - but then again maybe not. I'd love to see all of this from the air -seeing it all at once gives it a fabulous perspective one can't get on the ground.

Professor Batty said...

Simply amazing... and I thought I was being brave by going into Gaukurinn...

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a fabulous time!

mh said...

Best - Blog- Ever- !

Always interesting and uniquely descriptive observations applied to glacier navigation via a Rover and master pilot G... Couldn't have asked for a better way to start another middle America day. Great post. Did you get behind the wheel while you were out?

ECS said...

Terry- I've only seen Vatnajokull once from the air, and it was remarkable, especially where jökulsárlón is.

Batty- I think you ARE brave to go in there. I've never been, and it sounds like it was insane during Airwaves.

Bon- it certainly was, and this was still only partway through the first day!

Mike- glad it made your morning more interesting! There are two more installments to go still, so you'll find out if I did glacier driving soon enough :-)