After the three weeks spectacular in Svalbard I had a week back home to take care of mundane issues and repack for another two weeks on the ice. This time the destination was Iceland and the plan was to guide an Avotunturit ski expedition across Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Europe.
This would be my third time crossing the Vatnajökull, this time from East to West once again visiting the Grimmsfjall volcano, a high-point in the middle of the glacier with spectacular views and a cozy hut on top of it. I was looking for a nice, relaxed little ski expedition with easy-going, good food and good company, mixed with little bit of infamously bad Icelandic weather.
But it didn’t go quite as a hoped for. The tour turned to be quite different from the three superlative-packed weeks in Svalbard. Good with it’s own highlights, none the less, but different.
The logistics of getting at the Eastern edge of the Vatnajökull are little more difficult than getting to the fjells in Lapland (or to Svalbard in that matter). We flew to Keflavik, took a rental car to Reykjavik were we shopped for food and fuel and spent a night in a familiar cozy hostel. The next day we drove along the Southern coast to a small village of Höfn near the glacier. The last time I did the drive straight from the airport, driving in the dark and missing most of the beautiful coastline so this time we took our time stopping every now and then to admire the sights. It got windy quite soon on the way, a state of conditions that would define our little excursion.
The views along the coast were not too bad.
In Höfn we returned the car, made ourselves home at nice bed & breakfast accommodation and readied our gear for the start. And of course we made time to enjoy the geothermal heat in the pools nearby. It was windy. And colder than it should be in early May. When walking from the pools back to our rooms the wet swimming suits and towels didn’t dry in the wind but instead froze into hard plates…
The next morning we got a ride to a pass near our entry to the glacier. The previous night I had asked about the road conditions (a small private road recreated every summer after the spring melt washes it away) and I was told they hadn’t yet driven up to the pass that spring but would go for a reconnaissance drive in the evening. In the morning I was told they didn’t go but instead would “just wing it.” And that’s what they did. Excellent driving once again.
And no, we didn’t all die on the way.
The drive wasn’t too long in kilometers but it took about two hours. We didn’t get quite to the pass because of sloping snow blocking the way but this was expected. So we carried our ski expedition gear in 20-24 m/s headwind over the pass and down to the glacier where the valley protected us from the worst of the wind.
Down in the valley we repacked the gear once again, this time for 11 days of skiing and manhauling, and set on the glacier after searching for a safe route. Because of the heavy hauling and carrying, we skied just a short stretch to a safe and flat campsite before calling it a day. It was beautiful but windy day.
The next day started beautiful with very little wind but while pushing up from the glacier to the plateau of ice, the wind picked up. And it wouldn’t stop. For five days.
In the afternoon the drifting snow hampered the visibility and wind got bad enough (15-20 m/s) that going downhill to the plateau wasn’t safe anymore so we camped. The next day we spent a good hour digging our tents out of the snow (mostly a single geodesic dome, the tunnels did a lot better) and got back on our skis but stopped again after four hours because of bad conditions.
The next day we postponed the start by two hours, then again by another two hours and then once more by two hours to decide it would be a full weather day. Wind wasn’t impossible but around 15-20 m/s with thick drift lowering the visibility to 5-10 meters at the worst. On the evening’s radio call the inhabitants of the dome tent, referring to themselves as the bear cubs, asked if someone would bother to come and dig them out of their tent. And of course we did. And the next morning we once again dug up and packed the tent, an hour of group effort…
The weather was only slightly better than the previous days but that was enough for us to start the push towards West. We skied some 15 kilometers in eight windy hours before setting up camp. This time the dome tent stayed in the bag and we utilized the extra space in our three person tunnels to make things faster – and cozier. We did the same on the following two days after skiing nine hours in varying weather. On the fourth day after the storm we got the Grimmsfjall in our sight and climbed the icy slope up to the cabins. A small victory! We relaxed at the cabin, enjoyed the volcano-powered sauna and went for a little walk at the edge of the caldera to witness a beautiful sunset.
The next morning was gorgeous but we missed most of it sleeping long and relaxing in the cabin. Soon after we had departed from the safety of the cabin we skied into very humid wind. Those who have been to Iceland know what I mean. But that doesn’t really stop one from skiing so we continued towards the Western edge for half a day.
The next day offered the best skiing of the trip: good weather, good condition and nice looong downhill. It was not difficult to persuade the group to do a longer day of full ten hours on skis to reach the edge of the glacier, and another Jorfi cabin. And that was it. The biggest glacier in Europe was crossed!
The next day we were picked up by a trusty super-jeep driver and delivered safely back to the cozy hostel at the heart of Reykjavik through the snowy (and officially closed) highlands. After ski, dinners, a visit to Bluelagoon and other appropriate pastime followed until we returned to Finland.
The ski season was over for me for the year but I wouldn’t quite get rid of the snow. But more about that later…
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And as usual, more photos in my gallery.