02 November 2006

driving through rainbows (part 4)

(note: all links here are photos I took on the trip)
The next morning everyone slept late in the dark hut, and when I awoke, I was again alerted to potential beauty by the tiny square of bright color in the hut's glass door pane. Outside, I was just in time to see the sun cresting to the left of Iceland’s highest mountain peak, Hvannadalshnúkur and turning everything it touched pink and peach. We’d missed the view when we came the night before, since the snow had closed itself around us, so this moment of reveal was astonishing- the crisp deepness of the blue shadows accenting the tiny and large contours in the snow, the sparkling frigidity of the sun winking through the textured snow and the massive blue arc of sky above. On a micro-scale, the surface here is not like the surface of a usual field of snow. It’s prickly from wind and frost, in tiny ice-crystal mountains that crunch and squeak underfoot.

We cleaned up the hut and secured the door from the winds, then set the GPS for a northwesterly direction. The weather’s complete clarity promised good views to the northwest from another peak beneath the glacier, Bárðarbunga. We first stopped at a hot area near the hut where the glacier had melted and the land steamed beneath in crusty hot patches. The temperature of the air there was so instantly cold that filaments of steam had frozen in delicate ice-straws on the ground. Even the slightest vibration from my foot was enough to collapse a 2-foot section of these fragile formations.

Back in the car, we continued across the open landscape, able now to see all the dunes and undulations in the snow in the sparkling day, unlike the day before. On the horizon, mirages appeared over features of the landscape, making mountain contours hover darkly, then shrink and disappear like water on a hot pavement, or whole sections of the glacier ahead heaved in time with the jouncing car. We stopped for coffee near a snow gauge sprouting from the glacier, where N reported that the temperature was –17c. It was hard to believe though, since I was cozy in just three layers- a tank top, a lopapeysa, and a wind shell. I’m starting to think that the major key to Icelanders surviving here so long is the magic of Icelandic wool, and thanks to my cold-weather youth training, I’m comfy having it directly next to my skin.

As with all stops, I wandered away from the vehicles slightly to inspect the snow and the view. It was in wind-packed chunks there, and I worked one loose with the toe of my hiking boot. Underneath, the snow glowed dimly blue, the life-force of the glacier humming beneath the surface. Two days in a white landscape opens your eyes to all the colors that are actually present- blue, gray, yellow, and later I even saw red, green, and orange. Paring away the usual landscape noise that people introduce brings a special kind of visual freedom with it.

We drove on to the Bárðarbunga peak, another ecstatic reveal moment of the trip. None of the members of the group had been there on so clear a day, so everyone exploded in superlative words when the ridge curved away to reveal the vast landscape spread out below. Photographs simply didn’t do it justice, although we all did our best. From this peak on one glacier, we could see three others, the furthest in the distance the always-beloved MFG (my first glacier), Langjökull, and then chains of enfolded mountains dusted with snow in all directions.

On the way down from the peak and on the way to the edge again, G offered me the driver’s seat of the Rover so I could try the feeling of snow-driving. I learned to keep my hands outside the steering wheel in readiness for unseen surface irregularities, how to navigate the curious texture of the landscape, and where to pay attention for cracks. When we got to the steeper part, I relinquished it again, to the ovation of C&F in the back seat. I’m not much for driving but this was rather fun and I wouldn’t mind doing it again.

Our glacial dismount was much smoother than going up, and soon we were climbing the moraine at the base. We paused to inflate tires (built-in air compressors on these vehicles) and that’s when I noticed the multicolored sparkles in the snow. Rather than the usual clear twinkle, I could make out all the colors of the rainbow. When I pointed it out to everyone else, I got gentle questions about the state of my eyes or the quality of whatever I’d been smoking. I kept seeing it though, as we drove through the snowy landscape and across rivers, and after insisting a while longer, finally everyone else in the car saw it. Rainbows in the snow, but only when we were angled a particular way relative to the dropping sun and the crystal snow-surface. They followed us for the next hour, sometimes appearing in three directions and leading straight to the horizon.

It’s always a little heart-wrenching to come down from a remote and spectacular place and see civilization approach bit by bit. First road signs, then road features like bridges, banked corners and the yellow road-edge posts, then pavement beneath the tires, then powerlines and guardrails. We pulled into Hrauneyjar as the light was fading from the sky to find B waiting in the kitchen door, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. We unpacked C & F from the Rovers, had some coffee and cake, then took a final photo of the posse before everyone parted ways and headed back to lights, traffic circles, and crowds.

The next day I woke early in the darkness and pulled on a sweater that had been with me on the glacier. Although I hadn't worn it, its mere presence there was enough to become infused with a faint fragrance of hákarl. It's not a generally friendly smell, but that morning it was a comforting reminder that I'd been to this great place. My lens solution bottle had also become compressed from altitude like I'd been on an airplane. Four days later, the smell of shark has faded from my clothes and the bottle is back to normal, but I'm still thinking of being up there, out in the silence and open space. I actually brought a tiny pouch of sand with me from a beach on Martha's Vineyard, and on Sunday morning I sprinkled it over the snow near the huts, the wind snatching it and distributing it invisibly among the snow crystals. It's still up there, gradually working its way through the layers of snow, and eventually, maybe, someday it will once again return to the Atlantic ocean in a few millenia. I like that thought.


mh said...

Words & photos, an amazing documentation of an epic expedition!

To attempt to convey the scenery and senses it triggers is daunting...to master it throughout this 4 series posts is infinitely impressive.

Thanks for sharing E!


tsduff said...

Imagining your sprinkling of the sand from one part of the earth to another so far away made me catch my breath for a moment. You add so much to my daily life - just in the snippets of thoroughly visual descriptions you give, and in the simple but magically transporting pictures you share. Just wanted you to know that. I can relate to the vague comfort brought to heart with a single whiff of hákarl... like a memory brought back to life. I just wanted you to know how much I love the experience I get when I come here to your place. Thanks E :-)

Professor Batty said...



ECS said...

Mike-Glad you liked it! I'm rather exhausted from all this effort and output now :-)

Terry- I brought that sand with me a year and a half ago, collecting it on a trip to the Vineyard with my parents before I left the States. It's been with me ever since, and I've waited for the right place to sprinkle it. I like to think about it up there now, a little piece of New England on a massive piece of ice.

bmp said...

incredible...brings back some great memories