09 May Iceland
Iceland – ice climbing in the land of the glaciers
By Mario Sertori
Modern man is at the mercy of the climate changes that are turning the planet upside down. Does this mean that in the future the ice-climber will have a hard time? Listening to the sorry tales of Italian ice climbers, it would seem the answer is Yes. The idea of going to Iceland, the remote island in the middle of the ocean, and a stone’s throw from the Arctic Circle, to go ice climbing isn’t so crazy then.
Maybe there is better climbing in less remote places or in areas more easily reached from the main European airline hubs, but just the name of the place – Iceland – is a good guarantee of finding our raw material, even if your arrival happens to coincide with an unusually warm spell of weather. Peter, our correspondent on the ground and future host, was anxious to reassure us that the place would meet our requirements, that the frozen waterfalls were well-formed and that the weather forecast was favourable.
As proof, he sent us a splendid photo of his house with a rocky buttress in the background, literally carpeted with a huge amount of ice. After several hours of flying over never-ending gloomy seas, we stirred from the torpor of the pressurised cabin, dazzled by the brightness from the windows: there it was, the mysterious island which, without any cloud cover, seemed to our curious eyes to be white, luminous and apparently uninhabited.
Ice…sure, lots of it, but flat, with seracs and crevasses. We were overhead Vatnajökull, Europe’s biggest glacier, which descends southwards and seems to want to dive into the sea. Further away, large emerald rivers carved arabesque designs on the white surface. I was convinced I’d be landing in an icy desert, when I felt the plane start to descend and on the horizon there appeared the first traces of human civilisation: in the shelter of a bay, I saw what I reckoned must have been Reykjavik, a geometric plethora of houses, huddled together to best defend themselves from the pitiless Arctic winds.
Once we’d landed and collected our gear, we completely filled a good-sized 4X4 and set off, heading north then east. We had just under 400 km to drive and calculated we’d need about 4 hours. But after having crossed a fjord through a dark and gloomy tunnel (which we found a bit worrying, given the area’s seismic activity), the swirling snow caught us off-guard, the road became an ice rink and the car a sledge, and our destination seemed ever further away. After 5 hours of tense driving, we finally reached the outskirts of Akureyri, Iceland’s second-largest city after Reykjavik.
We were relieved to be once again surrounded by other people, after all those wild kilometres. It was 11 o’clock at night, the thermometer showed -13 and the visibility was finally acceptable. At a roundabout, the car rebelled, and the back end slid out, but no worries: two big lads in short sleeves energetically pushed us back onto the road. Friendly, the Icelanders! After one last fjord, and down a country road, in 40 cm of soft snow, we arrived at Peter Hlöðver’s farm.
A big man with a lively smile and kind but firm manners came to meet us. In just a few minutes, he’d put us all to bed in a big house near to his own. Konny, his companion, looked after us for the whole week, feeding us, but above all chatting to us about thousands of things. The dinners at the Hlöðvers were memorable, with Peter describing his fisherman grandfather and the terrible winters when the men who went to sea often didn’t come back, or the sheep and cows that were led to the summer pastures through a tunnel excavated out of the bare rock.
Now that the tunnel has collapsed in one of the island’s many mysterious upsets, the animals have acquired the right to go on holidays by boat, on a barge, between the spouting of the whales, which are common here. The Icelanders speak an ancient form of Danish which could have emerged from a hole in time, maybe from the year 1000. Modern words have to fit in: “telephone” is “wire that talks” and “computer” is “the witch that counts”. There aren’t many Icelanders, and live mostly in the capital, and in the phone book are in alphabet order by first name. Fairies and elves strenuously defend their rights, even requiring roads to be built to go around their secret dwelling places.
To make up for this, Iceland has the highest penetration of internet in the whole of Europe, so that despite the geographic isolation, you can be always online with the world. You’d never want to get up from the Hlöðver’s table, but we were here for the ice climbing …or, more correctly, I was being paid to come here to ice climb. We set out with a promising blue sky on a track Peter had prepared, in a vehicle rather more aggressive than our tranquil 4X4. There were five kilometres of buttresses plastered with ice and we couldn’t help but stop every 100 steps to gaze up at the crystalline marvels that were winking at us.
We finally arrived at the beach, a real beach: black sand shaped by the ocean waves and overlooked by the most beautiful ice cliff you’d ever seen. Vertical ice falls straight down to the dark sea, and the walls are suspended above this marine scene. You climb with a geometrically-perfect backdrop, with the horizon meeting the cliffs at 90°. Frenetic seagulls dived around us, calling us to action, and happy to see some movement that isn’t the boring to-and-fro of the waves. Eric the Red set off from these shores towards the unknown and conquering turbulent seas landed at the then-unknown Greenland.
We, less audaciously, were content to climb vertical glaciers with the funny sensation of having the Arctic sea under our feet, a combination of euphoria and fear that is really what’s splendid about this crazy kind of climbing. At night, as we were returning home, hypnotized by the streaks of the aurora borealis in the sky, a nice surprise: Konny’s daughter came to meet us with a Thermos flask of hot coffee and biscuits. In the following days we experienced the real winter Icelandic weather: we didn’t see the sun again, and we had to try to get used to climbing at the mercy of the swirling winds, in a sort of blind dance. Konny showed me photocopies with the frozen waterfalls and the routes so far explored by the locals and the Austro-German-Canadian team that had scoured the area in the last winter.
Top ice-climbers like Albert Leichtfried and Markus Bendler, and the explosive pair Ines Papert/Audrey Gariepy, made some important ascents which were captured by the photographer Hermann Erber and even a German TV crew which made a film about the girls: 1000 metres of ice in 24 hours. On one of the images that I had in my hand, Leichtfried had drawn the line of the area’s first mixed route, a monstrous overhang bristling with upside-down candles: Captain hook, M9+ and dedicated to the late Hary Berger. On the icy curtain before Captain Hook, I’d seen a big detached pillar which isn’t on the maps, a crystallized tree trunk, a nightmare: Stefano and I clung onto its hollow shell, a mush produced by the local genius and spat onto the smooth surface of the glacier.
This climb was a good test, a real war of nerves which occupied us for several hours right up to the edge of the wall, where furious gusts of wind from Greenland tried to tear us off. By now we were high up, our gaze extending to the milky horizon and we could still hear the angry grumbling of the waves. After so much cold, we treated ourselves to a hot bath in the natural pools of Lake Mivatn. To float in this opaque water gives you a sensation of total wellbeing, as you are made a bit drowsy by the strong smell of sulphur.
Boiling jets of steam shoot out of the glacier, and you can see patches of black earth and lava. Around, there is snow as far as you can see, volcanic and glacier debris and the unnerving litany of the boiling waters. A terrible landscape, from the dawn of time. This is Iceland: fire and ice, dazzling whiteness and freezing cold, silence and roaring noise. Maybe Jules Verne was right to put the entrance of the Journey to the Centre of the Earth right here?
You fly to Iceland via Amsterdam or Copenhagen. The ticket costs about 700 euro. To rent a 4×4 (strongly advised) costs around 700 euro a week. Speed limit on tarmaced roads 90 km/h.
Where to climb
Kaldakinn is in the north-east of the island and is reached from Keflavik International Airport following the signs for the capital Reykjavik (about 40 minutes) and then for Akureyri along highway 1. At Akureyri keep following Highway 1; just before the famous Godafoss waterfall, turn north on Road 85 and continue in this direction towards Bjorg (the last section of the road is numbered 851). The ice climbing is located on the rocky band that starts near the farm and finishes after 5 km at the ocean. The nearest climbs are reached in just a few minutes; for the others you can follow, snow permitting, a track which runs under the crag right to the beach.
Mulafjall is an ice-climbing site fairly close to Reykjavik (about 45 minutes) in the end of the Hvalfjörður fjord. From Reykjavik follow signs for Highway 1 and, at Saurbær, turn right (highway 47) for Eyrfjall. Proceed following the edge of the fjord for some 30 km. Park at the edge of the road and walk to the ice falls.
Glymsgil: a little beyond Mufjall, 4 km from the end of the Hvalfjörður fjord, is a spectacular gorge, usually in condition at the end of February, with ice climbing of all grades of difficulty.
Haukadalur is situated in the west of the island at the end of the Hvammsfjörður fjord, two-and-a-half hours from the capital and is reached following Highway 1 and then Highway 60 for Búðardalur. Lots of hard ice climbing.
For more information:
Icelandic krona which you can buy at Reykjavik airport.
Where to stay
Hotels are usually very expensive, but it’s easy to find accommodation at prices that are more than reasonable in Farmhouses (private rooms inside the farmhouses) or in Farmers’ Guesthouses (on the farm, but separated from the owner’s accommodation) where you can cook. Consuult the site www.farmholidays.is..
At Kaldakinn a good place to stay (half-board or only to sleep) is at Bjorg’s farm (email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org ): good prices and good cooking. Website Bjorg’s farm and info ice
At Haukadalur the Stóra-Vatnshorn farm on road 586 is good.
Bizzarre, unpredictable and changeable. It’s not that cold, but you should be prepared to climb when it’s windy and snowing. There are frequent warmer spells even in winter, due to the influence of the Azores anticyclone. You get the best conditions when the anticyclone meets the low pressure area which sits over the island, generating northerly winds which cause a marked drop in temparatuires.
Best time to go
From January to the end of March. In December the hours of daylight are very limited.
Things to see
Iceland is a varied, fascinating island with lots of places to visit. The Lake Myvatn area is very interesting, not far from the Kaldakinn climbing area, with its natural hot pools and numerous vulcanic craters. In the Snæfellsnes peninsula there is the Snæfellsjökull, the volcano where the Journey to the Centre of the Earth starts in Jules Verne’s novel. About 40 minutes from Reykjavik there’s the famous “Blue Lagoon”, a thermal station with bluish hot water, located in a desert of lava and black beaches.
Mario Sertori 2/2008