The following minutes passed slowly, staring through the mist at the snow mantle that stretched ahead, my knees firmly dug in the snow. There was no real reason to be stressed about the situation – good experience, a rope, and an ice tool should make for a certain rescue, and I knew that we would shortly see our guide again. But I realised that my head was getting especially fuzzy, not a good sign. The bite of the cold had been unforgiving over the last hour, as we moved slowly across crevassed areas, cautiously probing the terrain around us. This sudden halt represented an even harsher trial.
The temperature had to be a few degrees below 0 up there, at almost 1,800 metres above sea level. A strangely comfortable torpor and sense of dizziness began to envelop me in a soft but inexorable grip. However ridiculous that may have been, the idea of just lying down and taking a nice nap on the snow felt particularly tempting, even wise – after all, why not make the best out of that nuisance of a stop? In my mind I recognised what looked like the first symptoms of a hypothermic reaction, and that needed to be fought back. Keeping awake became a commandment, and I tried to focus my attention on absolutely pointless but engaging operations: setting my anorak’s zippers open and close with the mouth only, grabbing stuff from the rucksack without taking it off my shoulders, moving small items from one pocket to the other.
It seemingly worked, but only for a short while – the will to resist soon failed me again, and I indulged in blaming my state not on the effect of the cold, but rather on the exhausting hours that lay behind. I knew deep inside that this was not the case, but the alternative explanation did not sound completely unlikely.
The alarm woke me up at 3:30 in the morning, the time I usually go to sleep when in more urban environment. Rendezvous was set at 5:00. “This is the longest guided tour in Europe, so we need all the possible hours of the day,” the guide explained later. If you spend enough time in this country, you will get acquainted with all these strange records that Iceland prides itself on.
Requiring some ten to fifteen hours walking, the ascent to the 2,119 meter summit of Hvannadalshnjúkur is no short practice indeed. It was a clear and chilly morning; it appeared to have snowed during the night and frost had lain on my tent’s walls. I soon found out I was not the only one who needed to sprint along the avenue of the Skaftafell campground to warm up in view of the day’s first occupations. After a generous breakfast and the necessary ‘good morning’ cigarette, I packed up the rucksack with all the essentials for the day (an extra layer of clothing, some pairs of gloves, camera and films, an abundance of food and water, a thermos for hot tea, and of course ice axe, harness and crampons).
As we met up at the Mountain Guides tent and base camp, I was delighted (as much as surprised) to discover I was not the last one arriving, as the party was still slowly assembling. Doddi would be our guide for the day. A lively fella, with a quick smile, and almost a childlike expression – at a first glance you would not credit him as an experienced mountaineer. Not until he puts on cap and sunglasses, at least. But then a staggering change occurs – the outdoor enthusiast reveals himself – and you can no longer doubt that you are in absolutely secure hands. This is the second year in a row he is working for the Icelandic Mountain Guides. All of the party members were finally introduced: seven of us, plus the leader. Some did not talk at all, perhaps burdened with expectations. Some talked too much. Expensive gear and winter clothing on display; that was how a fashion competition for mountaineers would look like, I guess.
Spiking up from the southern edge of the Vatnajökull glacier, Hvannadalshnjúkur – which for our comfort we will simply refer to as ‘the Summit’ – is no less than Iceland’s highest peak. And as such, it constitutes a favourite destination of seasonal pilgrimage for both local climbing devotees and enterprising visitors. To add further charm to the location – as if the altitude and being towering above Europe’s largest glacier were not enough – is the fact that we are also in a highly volcanic territory: “the Land of fire and ice,” you must have heard that. At about 1,800 metres a big caldera should be visible, just on the route to the top. “But in case of sudden eruption, we’ll still have some time to flee and run for cover” we were reassured. There are different alternatives for tackling the ascent to the Summit – walking in an almost straight trajectory due North over the Sandfell mountain represents the most direct and easiest option, the one commonly proposed in guided tours.
A short 10-minute drive took us to the roots of the hills, where the actual walk started – at a leisurely pace, to spare energies in view of the long effort and not pay a bitter toll on the initial and steepest part of the ascent. Even there, at only 80 metres above the sea, the thin layer of snow deposited during the night conferred an arctic flavour on the surrounding landscape, vast and still asleep in the dawn’s sharp air. The horizon enlarged and disclosed awe-inspiring sights as we gained altitude. The westernmost slopes of Vatnajökull loomed clear in the distance, as well as Mýrdalsjökull, the other great glacier of the south where Katla is nested, Iceland’s moodiest and most unpredictable volcano.
Reaching 1,000 metres above sea level revealed an abrupt and relatively quick affair, and there, acting like a threshold, a ridge of snow-clad moraines signalled the entrance into glacial terrain. Spaces became ampler and more open, exposing us to the chill of the blowing north-easterly winds. Harnesses made their appearance (for safety’s sake, we would carry on as a rope-party from that moment), and Doddi got a first opportunity to show his skills. With quick and secure hands, he began to handle carabineers and apply knots on the ascension rope. “You’ll be the last in the line” he told me while securing my harness. I replied with a giggle, flattered by the thought that covering the rearguard represented a special honour and a token of trust. Unfortunately for my ego, I later read in a mountaineering textbook that it is a common norm to reserve the last position in a rope-party to the slowest climber.
As the snow mantle grew thicker, I felt the steps becoming increasingly heavier and slower. Weariness began to surface – not so surprisingly, as we had already been climbing for nearly six hours – but it still was well counterbalanced by the sense of achievement given by the surroundings: inebriation for the rising altitude, and wonder before the icefalls and remote peaks gradually appearing under the midday sun. Also the Summit had finally revealed itself, emerging like a dome in the distance. Weariness apart, I was feeling especially galvanised by the fair weather that seemed to be blessing our endeavour – very unexpectedly, as compared to the former day’s pouring rain. Under such a clear and luminous sky, the scenario stretching before our gaze truly held a terrific power. At 1,600 metres, after probing the area for possible hidden cracks, our guide quickly erected a basic snow wall, behind which we found repair from the winds and took a slightly longer and most enjoyable break. It was not the Summit, but the apex of our trip – unfortunately, our fortunes were rather swift to change.
As the glacier gained in incline, the risk for crevasses also increased – even more insidious because of the new snow that fell during the night. Our march slowed down. Even the most experienced guide and the most willing group is helpless against the volubility of the weather. Passing from summer to winter took only a few minutes. The light of the sun suddenly vanished behind a curtain of thick clouds, and we found ourselves walking in mists, with a visibility of barely a couple of dozen metres ahead. And then the party-leader disappeared into a hidden crack.
It is hard to reckon how many minutes passed before we got to see him again. I can only say that the sight of Doddi re-emerging from the crevasse, so thoroughly covered in snow that he resembled a puppet, was so relieving and at the same time so comic that it immediately brought more warmth back to my body than all the concentration exercises I had tried to undertake in the meantime. We pushed forth again, but it was just a matter of minutes before we came to a halt again, and the guide exhorted us to gather around him. As the last member of the rope-party, at least, I had the honour of being waited for.
“I will not proceed further with so little visibility and such a high risk for crevasses,” Doddi explained “I am afraid that the circumstances are against us, and we should turn back.” Upset expressions appeared on most faces. Finally, Doddi took the initiative again: “I know, it sucks… But in such conditions, and with so much fresh snow on the slopes, it may even happen that we get to walk parallel to a crevasse all at the same time, and that could prove disastrous.” Correct. A party of merry and enthusiastic mountaineers falling simultaneously into an evil chasm does not really sound like an enjoyable plan, and everybody did actually seem quite inclined to recognize the argument as very reasonable – no more words were needed before we inverted our course and took aim to the valley again, with lower spirits, bent backs, and under a thin drizzle.
As for me – who, thanks to the newly quickened pace, had eventually come back to my full faculties – the thought of giving up when already so close to the goal felt disappointing. At the same time, I recognised that the ascent to the summit of Hvannadalshnjúkur – which I was attempting for the first time – had already become a new favourite of mine, having part of the accomplishment left to be completed just represented one additional reason for starting to look forward to the next assault.
Following that effort, I spent two more days in the Skaftafell National Park, joining what other activities Icelandic Mountain Guides run there – a thorough exploration of the nearby glacial tongue Svinafellsjökull, as well as a first introduction to the thrilling discipline of ice climbing. Less strenuous than the ascent to the Summit – but not less enjoyable – demanding less stamina, and allowing a more casual approach, both offers appeared excellent as a first introductory step, suitable for all, to glacier travel and the basics of mountaineering (as some part of the time was dedicated to teaching the essentials of the gear).
I was pretty favourably impressed by the service Mountain Guides provided, and in a number of ways. First and foremost, the young guides proved able to facilitate humour and enthusiasm with undoubted professionalism, adding a light touch to the experience. It was equally positive to notice the great care that was constantly given to the surroundings; I was nearly scolded by Haukur, my guide, on the second day as I inadvertently dumped onto the snow a tiny piece of the aluminium foil wrapping my chocolate. Finally, and much to my delight, it was surprising to see how no budget had been spared on gear. The harnesses, axes, and crampons supplied to each tour participant were all in good shape and of top-quality, the sort of stuff you would be advised to buy by any expert, or in any respectable store.
A highly positive experience, in definitive, and one that can safely be recommended to any wilderness traveller or outdoor enthusiast in Iceland.
Icelandic Mountain Guides run climbing tours to Hvannadalshnjúkur, as well as many other activities, both in the Skaftafell National Park and elsewhere.
Tel: 587 9999, www.mountainguide.is