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Icelandic Saga: Crampons and Axes


Days of camping without power and Internet access interrupted the story of my trans-Icelandic journey with Nat Geo Student Expeditions. Now I’m back on the grid, and the saga continues…

After a rainy night of camping at Skaftafell—newly consolidated with other territory by the Icelandic government into Vatnajökull National Park, which is Europe’s largest—the weather clears, and we gear up with ice axes, climbing helmets, ropes, and sharp steel spikes called crampons for our boots. We’re ready to tackle some serious glacier.


Our destination: Svinafellsjökull, one of many outlet glaciers or tongues of the massive Vatnajökull glacier, Earth’s third-largest. The ice that feeds Svinafellsjökull comes spilling down from Iceland’s high interior in an icefall…


… that riddles it with deep and sometimes treacherous fissures called crevasses.


After hiking to the glacier’s edge, we use ropes to climb down rocks—familiar, perhaps, as the filming location for the high “Himalayan” monastery near the opening of Batman Begins.


We then head out onto the glacier itself.


Without our crampons for traction, we’d slide down the ice and into a crevasse in no time, to melt from the glacier years from now as archaeological curiosities for Johan Reinhard. So we quickly get accustomed to taking firm steps, digging our blades deep into the frosty slope.


A few hours of climbing…


… bring us to a perch high up on the glacier, from which undulating ridges of ice resemble waves rolling away to the moraines and outwash plane below.


Uly helps Pavane take geotagged photos with a GPS-enabled camera, so we can return to the same spot in future years and see what’s changed.


Then we set anchors, rope up, and grab pairs of sharp-tipped axes for a little technical ice climbing.


Scaling ice resembles climbing an invisible ladder, kicking toes deep into the glacier and planting axes higher and higher to set new “rungs” as you climb.


Coming down is a simple rappel, and all about trust. You just lean away from the ice, plant your feet flat against it, and walk backward down the frozen face. (Ethan, show the people how it’s done!)


After long hours on Svinafellsjökull, we call it a day, and point our crampons back toward solid ground.


It’s hard to believe these miles and miles of solid ice could melt away in a few years’ time, as climate models and current rates of glacial retreat suggest. I guess we’ll see, and James Balog’s Extreme Ice Survey cameras will show us. But for the record—if anyone’s wondering&#8212I prefer my glaciers frozen.


Next up from Iceland: Puffin Quest.

Photographs by Ford Cochran