After a night of wind and torrential rain, we woke to a monochrome world, our red jackets and yellow tent stark against the ice and rock. We hauled our heavily laden sleds across a collection of melt-rivers to the base of the glacier, the water wider and deeper than the night before due to the incessant rain. The cloud level had dropped further still and soon after beginning our ascent up the lower slopes of the Breidamerkurjokull, we were engulfed in white.
We were glad to be on the ice, dragging our gear, rather than suffering through the backbreaking toil of carrying 50kg each on our backs. Despite our best efforts to reduce weight and only take the bare essentials, we still had a mountain of gear – a bi- product of attempting a multi- disciplinary, unsupported expedition. Packrafts, drysuits, skis, tent, sleds, food – enough kit to survive the Icelandic interior and a wild river for three weeks. The ice beneath our feet was crystalline, its surface flecked with rock and gravel and pocked with small holes carved by the falling rain. We made our way up the ever- steepening slope, still well below the snowline. Navigation was challenging in the low cloud and our progress was hindered by a maze of crevasse fields. We camped that evening beneath the Esjufjoll mountains, our efforts rewarded by a break in the weather revealing the craggy spires and tumbling glaciers to our North and West.
Our second day on the glacier saw us clear the troublesome crevasse fields and we walked for the best part of the morning with good visibility. We travelled now on blue ice or rotten, soft snow before reaching the snowline at around an elevation of 800m. Shortly after strapping on our skis, the weather turned, bringing wind and driving snow. We fought our way through the white-out, the gradient of the glacier kicking up sharply as we neared the Vatnajokull plateau towards the end of the day. We collapsed, exhausted, into our tent, the blizzard still blowing hard outside. A fitful night was spent reinforcing the tent and trying to prevent snow accumulating on the lee side, the warnings of broken, buried tents on Iceland’s glaciers, hanging uneasily in our minds. We woke the following morning to water dripping on our faces and sleeping bags. Temperatures had risen in the night and the driving snow was replaced by a steady, malevolent rain. Spindrift that had worked its way through the vents and settled on the inner tent was now melting and we found ourselves sleeping
amongst puddles, our down jackets and sleeping bags soaked through. With our spirits low, we pulled on our wet weather layers and headed out into the rain and our first day on the Vatnajokull plateau.
The Kolduksvislarjokull glacier, our exit point from the ice sheet, was approximately 100km Northwest of our current location on the Breidamerkurjokull glacier; we hoped to reach it in 5 days. After leaving the coastal mountains behind, our days on the Vatnajokull were a world of never-ending white, a cap of clouds blown by the northerly winds, sitting on the ice. The spectral promise of clear skies and a warm sun was only ever a chance gust of wind away, yet remained elusive. Those long, fluid hours of skiing felt empty and isolated, as if we were adrift on a glacial ocean, the ice running away unhindered to the white horizon in every direction. The damaging winds and storms that we had worried about and trained for, never materialised, the success of the journey threatened only by broken bindings inventively fixed and soggy down layers laboriously dried by the heat of our stove.
The Grimsvotn volcano lay in hibernation south of our route, the cliffs and crevasses of the caldera visible from our high point, 40km to the North. Temperatures dropped and winter returned. A bitter wind from the North arrived, bringing nights of freezing rain and mornings cocooned in rime ice. At the Western edge of the ice sheet we neared two sub-glacial volcanic lakes, marked by two huge craters in the ice, the East and West Skaftakatla. We skirted North with caution, the ice sloping away Southwest as if falling into a vortex, our pulks gently drifting toward them like filings to a magnet. Our safe vantage point afforded views of the ring of crevasses plunging deep into the ice. The air was tinged menacingly with sulphur.
We pushed on through our last day on the ice under clear skies. Cresting the final rise before our descent off the glacier, we caught our first site of the Icelandic Highlands. Dark and forboding, the black interior proved intimidating after our days in the white snows of the Vatnajokull. We pitched our tent on the ice one final time, the light in the Western sky retreating toward dusk, rivulets of cloud on the horizon rising like smoke from the embers of a dying fire.