Mars on Ice

Exploring Europe's Largest Glacier

Jun 1, 2002
Outside Magazine

I WAS ON EDGE of the Vatnajökull Glacier in a modified monster truck staring out at fog as thick as our driver Addi's Icelandic accent. I was here with a volcanologist, Haraldur Sigurdsson, to hut-hop and explore the geothermal vents and volcanic craters of the 3,247-square-mile Vatnajökull—the largest glacier in Europe. But instead of tackling our planned 100-mile route on skis, we hired a "super jeep." This tricked-out Toyota Land Cruiser came equipped with two steel ladders for bridging crevasses, and giant knobby tires deflated to a flabby three psi to plow through snow up to three feet deep.

WE BUMPED ALONG THE ICE, surfed through deep drifts, and used the ladders to crawl over crevasses. But we were oblivious to the dangers outside the vehicle, thanks to Dire Straits blaring from the CD player and the built-in GPS device charting our course. Four hours and 40 miles later, we reached the rim of Grímsvötn caldera, where an elaborate cave system carved by geo-thermal vents stretches for miles below the glacier. We rappelled into the caldera, then hacked our way back up the soft ice of a 70-degree couloir bordered by columns of black volcanic ash. The next day, we used crampons and ice axes to down-climb through a deep crevasse at the lip of the caldera into the slippery ice passages of Vatnajökull's underworld. At night, we sipped cold beers and relaxed in the geothermally heated sauna next to the Grímsvötn Hut, one of the Iceland Glaciological Society's half-dozen widely spaced cabins scattered at points across the glacier.
THREE DAYS LATER, we set out for the far northern end of the Vatnajökull, 25 miles away, to explore Kverkfjöll volcano. When we arrived, we dropped our packs at the nearby Kverkfjöll Hut, a ten-by-ten-foot wooden box, and walked to the edge of the half-mile-long crater. Mud pits littered the floor of the chasm, while sulphur bubbled and dozens of smaller vents hissed scalding-hot steam. After pounding several pitons into the soft lava rock, we made an easy rappel into this 200-foot-deep Martian landscape. The ground beneath me trembled with volcanic force, and suddenly Kverkfjöll sent forth a geyser of boiling mud 50 feet from where I stood. Simultaneously, a block of blue ice calved from the overhanging glacier—a frightening reminder that life is never static in the land of fire and ice. —Mark Synnott
The Icelandic Glaciological Society has six huts spaced 30 to 50 miles apart on the glacier. (If you are skiing, plan on tent bivvies to bridge the distance.) The huts cost $20 per person per night. For information on the huts or super-jeep tours ($400 per day, accommodations extra), call Icelandic Adventures (011-354-569-1000;

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Got Wanderlust?

Escape your daily grind with Outside’s best getaways.

Thank you!