01 November 2006

Glacially cozy (part 3)

The huts at Grímsvötn were built to house volcano researchers, and are remarkably equipped given their location. A large cloakroom is naturally a necessity, with lots of space for soggy hiking boots and puffy coats, then inside, a functional kitchen complete with all kinds of spices, a gas stove, and special snow-melting contraptions for water. There was a collection of books in several languages (Icelandic Little Prince anyone?), literature on the volcano, and maps and atlases, then a long table and benches near a window that was totally obscured by the massive layer of accumulated snow and ice outside.

The rest of the hut was taken over by a bunk bed area that probably could sleep 16 comfortably, with another table in the center. On one side, tucked under the sloping roof, was a nook with a skinny mattress and a few spare benches. I was informed that this was the nooky-nook, the only chance at privacy in this open hut. The construction of the interior was all pale wood, the bed-frames detailed with carved accents, and strewn with dark-green throw pillows (stylish!)

Soon after we arrived, the other two from the group that had been down helping to fix a broken-down vehicle further down the glacier appeared, and we were complete for the night. Then came dinner. As I mentioned earlier, B at Hrauneyjar had piled us with provisions, but we also had already come with two legs of lamb and salad fixings. Someone fired up the grill outside and put the lamb and reindeer to cook, and then N (one of the late-arrivers) went to town in the kitchen making a sauce while H-the-younger did the traditional Icelandic caramelized potatoes. G pulled out a white damask tablecloth from the back of his Rover; we scrounged candleholders, opened wine, and prepared salad. It may have been a group of mountaineers and able to rough it very successfully, but this night it was pure elegance.

When everything was cooked to perfection, K (late arriver #2) carved the lamb and the deer and we gathered round the table near the bunks (very Roman). The food was incredible- the best sauce I’ve ever had, impeccable lamb, and the first time I’d had reindeer steak. We ate ourselves silly, the conversations still rolling in three languages- staccato Icelandic, bubbling French, and occasional English. We finished up with chocolate, but nobody had much space for dessert after such a meal. We slept early that night, although I was without clock or phone the whole weekend so I have no idea how late it was.

Later that night, I shimmied out of my sleeping bag and into my lopapeysa to head outside to go pee. Since there were no usable windows in the place (all were covered in ice), the only light came from the door, and even from the back of the dark hut, I could see the green cast to the square window. Outside, the snowstorm had cleared away, leaving the full expanse of open sky above, all of which was blazing with northern lights. I’d always thought that they only appeared to the north, but there, that night, they surrounded me in leaping, scrolling illumination. I stood on that ridge for probably 20 minutes, the gently persistent glacier-air nudging my back as I stared above. I think I’ve tried to explain the eerie effect of the lights before, but it’s never quite good enough. At its most genteel, they are the nighttime equivalent of a rainbow, a pale swash of green arcing in the sky. The most vigorous swirls in horizontal tornadoes, then straightens out and flickers, waves like banners in a breeze, and on special nights there's a curious tumbling-dominos effect. There on the glacier I got it all, plus static light-tassels that hung from nearly directly overhead, all in a scorching alien-green so bright it turned everything below it green too.

When I managed to tear my gaze away from the sky and look lower, the silent snow spread in all directions, without a single light or sign of another human. This experience was so far removed from anything I thought I’d be doing in my life, and such an amazing synthesis of serendipity- the massive natural forces at work around me: volcanoes, ice, perfectly clear, still weather, and astounding northern lights. I almost felt like an intruder on this stoic and deceptively peaceful expanse of snow. I know that glaciers are furious and inexorable things on a grand scale, and if the weather is disagreeable, it’s far from a friendly place, but that night it was exactly where I wanted to be.


Sarah said...

What an incredible post - I actually have tears in my eyes, I'm not kidding! Amazing.

-Sarah :O)

Jade said...

That sounds like a trip with incredible sights and great food.. I don't think it gets much better than this!

sb said...


You heard SILENCE!

You saw the night sky DANCE like it's never danced before. That is how I know my Iceland, that is what I always try to explain to people. The intensity of the silence, the intensity of the night sky dancing!

WOW!!! I miss my home

You are SO lucky, so blessed to have found such amazing people who go glacier-ing. WOW, I'm so thrilled for you

Angel said...

Beautiful description. Maybe you should become a travel writer?

Yeah my mittens made the picture! I was thinking about their travels actually when I saw that picture...

Those mittens started "life" at the "bottom" of the world, on the back of a South American sheep in Uraguay. That sheep was then sheared, and the women's collective that owned him, spun and dyed the wool which makes up the mittens... then the yarn ended up on a store shelf in North Carolina where I bought it and turned it into mittens. Then they got sent off in an envelope to Iceland, where they have dound themselves literally on the top of the world.... on a glacier... quite a journey for a pair of lowly mittens don't you think?

Maybe next year I'll make you a pair of more "traditional" mittens- Norweigan rose pattern anyone?

ECS said...

Sarah- I'm glad I managed to communicate some of the astounding experience. It's still something I hope you get to see someday.

Jade- welcome! I don't think I've seen you here before. And I do agree that it'll be a difficult experience to top.

Sirrý- actually, after a few glasses of red wine on Saturday evening, the sound inside my head was almost louder :-) But yes, it was the most perfect silence I've ever experienced, matched only by the last time I got close to a glacier in June.

Angel- You're not the first person to tell me that, but my range of abilities is very limited :-) As for the mittens, I thought you'd like that photo. I also liked the addition because of the two different textures, and because it shows the scale of the snow-hills. That travelling thing is something I think about often- shoes that have trod the streets of so many countries, a necklace or ring that's been with me since that tiny dorm room our first year in school.

Jade said...

Hi E!

I've been reading your blog for a while (I think I've read it all by now). I'm currently in the US but will be moving to Iceland next year with my wife so I very much enjoy your POV.

Anonymous said...

Your experiences are incredible! Thank you so much for the brilliant posts. It must be so amazing to see such extremes of nature all in one scene.