The English name “Iceland” — the land of ice —conjures up dreams for those of us who love this material. In fact, the view of the island from the airplane window, painted pink by the last rays of the sun, was already something magical. None of the three of us had ever been to Iceland, neither I, nor my partner Marco, nor our friend Maurizio, who accompanied us on this trip. This is why we were all so curious.
After picking up our Defender 4x4 and meeting our friend and local guide Matteo, who has lived in Iceland for seven years, we set off toward the southeast of the Island, in the direction of Vatnajökull National Park, the largest ice cap in Iceland, where we wanted to spend the next few days.
To cover the 340 kilometers that separated us from our destination, we estimated about five hours of driving on roads that are often icy in winter. On the way, we made a brief stop at the “black beach” with its distinctive basalt columns and famous stacks.
Our goal for this trip was to climb three different types of ice: ice caves, glacier mills (vertical shafts in a glacier), and classic frozen waterfalls. Already during our preparations prior to departure, Matteo had cautioned us that in winter the glacier mills could be plugged by snow, which unfortunately proved to be the case. But we definitely wanted to see for ourselves before giving up on the idea. Unfortunately, both the mills we found that afternoon and those the following day, in another area of the glacier, were completely closed by the snow, and there was no way to get inside to climb them. We still had the opportunity to see an amazing glacier, though, and to walk across the ice and snow dunes that had created marvelous formations.
What we were sure of, though, is that we would find the ice cave, regardless of the snow or high or low temperatures.
No sooner said than done! The first sight of this natural ice cave took our breath away! A long blue tunnel created by the stream entering it. Noisily, it crept into the glacier tongue. The ice was sparkling at the entrance, and darker and darker further inside. Attracted by this opportunity to climb on overhanging ice, we quickly set to work to equip a line with ice screws, and immediately afterward we attempted a first climb.
Matteo’s idea of going to the ice falls, as an alternative to the mills, gave us the chance to experience some real Icelandic off-roading. The off-road driving was quite adventurous, along a snow-packed track with stretches of dirt road scattered with deep holes and puddles whose depth it was impossible to determine.
When we arrived, though, we were enraptured by an ice wall that ran along the edge of the glacier. The sight of this looming wall of very compact ice left us speechless! Using ice axes and crampons on this 200-year-old ice seemed almost a sacrilege, but fortunately Matteo explained to us that holes close up again quickly, with fresh snow and the sun, and our tracks would disappear in just a few days. We immediately identified two lines to climb; both had an overhanging exit, like a sail swollen by the wind, and the color of this ice changed from black at the bottom, due to the lava ash, to blue at the top. A spectacle of nature, one of a kind, a real gem for those of us who love this discipline.
Matteo and Maurizio decided to climb the only waterfall in the area that still offered safe conditions after the warm days the previous week. Marco and I opted instead to go ahead on reconnaissance, with the aim of verifying access to other glaciers, and to enjoy some of the views that the trip could offer us. We reached and explored a lagoon that revealed its amazing uniqueness. We saw huge icebergs breaking off the glacier and slowly making their way toward the sea. Other pieces of iceberg were thrown back onto the beach by the force of the waves, where the effect of the sun turned them into diamonds of ice of various sizes and shapes. This demonstrated the origin of the name of the beach that had so intrigued us, Diamond Beach.
The next day we returned to the ice cave to attempt the free ascent of our route. I started out very motivated but, halfway through, my ice ax got stuck and wouldn’t come out of the ice. I had probably driven it in too deep. I had to struggle for several minutes, suspended on the almost horizontal ceiling of the cave, before I was able to remove it and continue the climb up to the chain. I was very happy to have been able to climb this type of formation for the first time in my life. Beautiful, difficult, with very compact ice. Impossible to find a formation like this in our mountains. Maurizio also managed to complete the route, so, unlike on the other days, we did not return home in the dark and took advantage of our free time in the late afternoon to cook a nice leg of Icelandic lamb with roasted local potatoes. Food is also important when traveling in such a remote location!
In Iceland it’s essential to keep an eye on the weather forecast. In fact, a day with a lot of snow had been expected for several days, and when it suddenly arrived with the addition of a very strong wind, close to 150 kilometers per hour, it was immediately clear that this would be a perfect rest day. Given the poor visibility and the strong wind, the local civil protection had completely closed all the roads. During the night we could hear the strong wind blowing continuously, and in the morning the first analysis of the weather for the following days disclosed what would be a great disappointment: another storm was approaching, worse than the first. At that point we realized that the only way to be sure to reach the airport with a certain margin of safety was to leave immediately for Reykjavik. So we made the most of the last two days by visiting sights such as the geyser and the historic center of Reykjavik. Climbing during the blizzard would have been unthinkable.
For our trip we had a total of 11 days available, including the two travel days. We didn’t climb much the first three days; we used them primarily to reconnoiter and check the conditions of the ice and to choose the best locations for the photo and video shoots we needed to do. Another three days were dedicated exclusively to climbing, while the last three days were, unfortunately, affected by the arrival of the bad weather. Our original idea was a little different: we would have liked to climb for another two days and then go sightseeing, but it wasn’t possible. In Iceland, nature’s beauty seems infinite, but so is its power. In the end, it’s always Mother Nature who decides. Our thanks to Matteo Meucci for guiding us through this harsh but spectacular land.