Freezer Burn

How do you go native on an island made of ice? Scale glaciers, strip down, and steam it off.


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KARL IS SPEEDING THROUGH THE WHITEOUT, sanguine as a Viking in a longboat. The storm is swallowing the headlights like a black hole, but Karl is cool. He keeps the pedal to the floor, his large paws resting on the steering wheel, a rolled-up balaclava perched on his enormous shaven head.

“Never underestimate climate,” he’s saying, “or geography. Climate and geography are destiny. When Iceland was founded in 870, it was warmer, and the island was covered with trees.”

We’re crossing Langjöll—a 360-square-mile glacier in western Iceland, 50 miles north of Reykjavík—in a radically customized Nissan Patrol. It has balloon tires that float over the snow, monster-truck suspension, an extended wheelbase, and a low-gear tranny, not to mention leather seats and a killer sound system blasting Deep Purple. Veils of snow are washing over the windshield, enveloping us in whiteness. Our depth perception has vanished. We are inside a mother-of-pearl continuum—everything behind us connected to everything ahead of us.

“It began getting cold around 1200, and the glaciers began to grow,” Karl continues. “Snow covered the pastures, and the sheep were forced to eat tree branches. Eventually, all the forests were cut down for fuel.”

I’m listening but preoccupied. I glance at the speedometer: 90 kilometers per hour. I’ve always traversed glaciers in traditional nordic fashion: plodding on skis, dragging a sled. In a whiteout, it is considered prudent to move slowly to keep from plunging to certain death in a bottomless crevasse. Yet here we are, hurtling along. I imagine us shooting off the lip of a gaping gash in the glacier: Thelma and Louise go to Iceland.

“You know that the French Revolution was influenced by climate change,” says Karl, looking over at me in his sunglasses. “The climate had grown much colder by the late 1700s, causing the crops to fail and the peasants to revolt.”

“Are there any crevasses on this glacier?” I interrupt.

“Sure,” Karl replies, “but not here.”

Karl, 38, is operations director for Iceland’s Ultima Thule Expeditions. Built like a polar bear, he wears sandals year-round, snow be damned. Ragged trousers and a fuzzy Icelandic sweater are his work clothes. He is a mountaineer, ice climber, expedition skier, guide, father of three, and intellectual authority on the singular history and geography of his beloved Iceland.

“Changing climate can change people,” Karl says.

I glance at the side mirror. Behind us is another hypertrophic glacier jeep, driven by Thorsten Henn, 35, a dark-haired dead ringer for a young Rod Stewart. Thorsten is a German-born landscape photographer who transplanted himself to Iceland. “I was born in the wrong country,” he told me when we met. “I hitchhiked here on a boat from Denmark when I was 16. Iceland has the most magical light on earth.”

Riding shotgun with Thorsten is tall, laconic Tyler Stableford, 29, photographer and former editor of Rock & Ice. He and Thorsten are taking pictures of our Mad Max mission across Iceland. We have just five days to explore the rarest and most ephemeral morphological features of a glacier: ice caves. Given that a whopping 11 percent of Iceland is covered with ice—some 20 glaciers—there could be no better place in the world for this operation. We’ve been driving since 6 a.m. Now it’s night but still light, and our internal clocks are smashed.

Thorsten powers his rig up alongside ours, and Tyler motions for us to stop. Karl and I jump out into the blowing snow and crowd our heads through the window. Thorsten and Tyler are studying the screen of a laptop mounted on a rotating platform, Thorsten punching keys to improve the resolution.

“The caves are over here,” he says, pointing to an X on the edge of the monitor. “We’re here.” He indicates a small arrow in the middle of an ocean of contour lines. “We’ve got to change course.”

Off we go again, across the smooth, white-skinned back of the glacier. Thorsten isn’t looking out the windshield into the whiteout. Instead, like a pilot flying on instruments, he’s staring at the computer screen beside him.

Our arctic capsules eventually pass out of the blizzard, and we find ourselves barreling across an endless expanse of undulating white. White extending to the horizon in every direction. Not until after midnight, in an eerie twilight, do we sideslip around a medial moraine and discover two gigantic black holes in the silver glacier.

ICELAND IS AN ISLAND country the size of Virginia floating just below the Arctic Circle in the North Atlantic. Founded more than a millennium ago by Norwegian Vikings and Irish monks (whom the Vikings later enslaved), Iceland was isolated from the rest of the world for most of its history and consequently developed an iconoclastic, homegrown culture.

The 290,000 Icelanders still speak tenth-century Norse and revere literature. Young children can still recite medieval folklore: the Saga of Ref the Sly, the Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue, and Eirik the Red’s Saga (“Filth-Eyjolf killed the slaves near Skeidsbrekkur above Vatnshorn. For this, Eirik slew Filth-Eyjolf . . .”).

Hakarl (putrefied shark) is a national dish, chess a national sport, glacier driving a national passion, and the relentless weather a national conversation. Iceland contains Europe’s most powerful waterfall, Dettifoss—running at more than 21,000 cubic feet per second during late summer—and its largest glacier, Vatnajökull, which covers 3,240 square miles (although, like glaciers around the world, it’s shrinking).

Such superlative geography has bred an adventure culture in which ice-climbing routes far outnumber rock routes, and kayakers run whitewater one week and the squalling Denmark Strait the next. In recent years, Iceland has become a coveted destination for active travelers of all stripes, including those who engage in one of the most idiosyncratic of sports: glaciospeleology.

By one romantic definition, glaciospeleology is “the line of research having to do with the exploration of a glacier’s heart.” In practice, this means climbing through bright shafts and dark tunnels inside a moving glacier—three-dimensional ice climbing in passageways constantly deforming.

Who would be up for such an undertaking? The Iceland Tourist Board had one word for me: Karl. I e-mailed him two pages of questions—how big are the caves, how often do they collapse, do we need drysuits, oxygen tanks? He responded with two sentences: “You come over. We find out.”

“LOOKS LIKE THE MOUTH of a whale,” Karl says as we stand outside the entrance to the first cave the next morning. The four of us spent the night camping on the glacier and are now cranking down our crampons after a breakfast of blueberry skyr (sour-cream yogurt) and muesli washed down with syrupy shots of cod liver oil, Iceland’s all-purpose human antifreeze.

“Looks more like the devil’s arse to me,” says Tyler. The opening at the blunt terminus of the glacier is a massive black ovoid, 25 feet tall and 40 feet across. We walk in together, Thorsten and Tyler armed with cameras, Karl and I with ice tools and ropes.

After our eyes adjust, we find the walls to be a gorgeous translucent blue, the surface scalloped into smooth, symmetrical wavelets. Moving farther into the cavern, we discover a short vertical duct passing straight up through the roof to a peephole of blue sky. To acclimate ourselves, Karl and I rope up and ascend this popsicle-colored mine shaft, poking up on top like two marmots, blinking in the brilliance, then scurrying back down our hole.

Deeper in the cave, the walls close in, darkness enfolds us, and we switch on our headlamps. It now indeed feels as if we’re inside the throat—or the colon, depending on your perspective—of an enormous beast. Occasionally, basso profundo groaning, caused by the shifting ice, reverberates through the cave.

“This one could collapse soon,” Karl announces as we crampon around freezer-size shards of ice that have calved from the ceiling.

There are two types of glacial caves: “warm” ones, created by heat from thermal activity beneath a glacier, and “cold” ones, like the Langjökull caves, carved out by running water. A stream of meltwater flowing on top of a glacier drops into its bowels through a hole, or moulin. Rushing water cuts a shaft through the ice until it reaches bedrock, then burrows out the terminus of the glacier. Both types can have a life span of only a few months to a year.

After some distance, we can see light ahead and soon pass into a cavernous gallery with two cathedral-like vaults. Pale blue radiance bounces down from both shafts, flooding the main sanctuary. The architecture is astounding. Before us, hanging from the twin vaults, are gleaming white icicles—the stalactites of glacial caves—forming a semicircle of irregular pillars. Above us, both vaults swirl up for over 200 feet.

“See those stripes of black?” asks Karl, pointing to dark seams embedded in the cross section of ice. “That’s ash from volcanic eruptions, probably from Mount Hekla.” He studies the lines like an arborist would study the rings of an ancient tree. “This ice is somewhere between 200 and 400 years old.”

“What do you say we climb up and out?” I suggest, eyeing a route that ascends a narrow icicle into the right-hand vault, then disappears up into the nautilus.

Karl nods, seats himself in belay position, and begins telling me of Iceland’s famous volcanic eruptions.

For eight months in 1783, lava poured from the Laki crater, in south-central Iceland, the largest lava flow in recorded history. Tephra shot ten miles into the sky, pumping the atmosphere full of volcanic ash and gas. “The temperature in the Northern Hemisphere was temporarily lowered by one to two degrees centigrade; 70 percent of Iceland’s livestock and 20 percent of its population died.”

The Askja eruption of 1875 was the third-largest in history, Karl continues. “Southwesterly winds carried the tephra northeast and destroyed a few tens of farms.”

I’m probing the brittle icicle with my hammer, trying to find a way up. “How far back can you trace your family history?” I ask him.

“Over a thousand years.”

Above the icicle I find that the virgin blue ice, which looks ideal, is actually fickle and dangerous, tending to fracture wildly. At one point I’m certain the ice is about to shear off in a single slab (a “dinner plate” 20 feet in diameter) and provide me with the lead fall of my life.

Higher up, I discover something remarkable: The grim seams of spiraling dark matter provide the most secure purchase for my picks. This ice has a character different from the clear, unblemished ice, as if all the hardship of those periods congealed to create a solid, imperturbable substance.

We ascend through the belly of theglacier like mountaineering Jonahs, passing up through the blowhole to the surface and sunlight.

ICELANDERS ARE NORSEMEN, so ice runs in their blood. But thanks to geographical circumstance, Icelanders are also hot-pool aficionados. You don’t plan an Iceland adventure without periodic steam cleanings in the countless hot springs that bubble up in the country.

The next evening, on a remote gravel road, Karl asks me if I’ve “ever wanted to swim from America to Europe.”

“Swim? The Atlantic?” Maybe he has me confused with a hardcore athlete.

He stops the jeep, gets out, and starts off down a path that leads through a tar-black moonscape of pocked lava to a deep fissure. A series of ladders descend into the crack. Forty feet below the surface, a hot, deep, five-foot-wide river runs between walls of solid lava. Karl drops his clothes and slides in as easily as a big seal. He spreads his arms, one hand touching each wall.

“America. Europe.”

Iceland straddles the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Indeed, it is the spreading apart of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates and the concomitant volcanic activity that created the island 100 million years ago. Karl explains that Iceland experiences more than 400 earthquakes a year, although most of them can’t be felt. Geothermal heat warms 80 percent of the country’s homes.

The four of us lounge in the Grjotagja fissure until our muscles turn to jelly, then drive across the forbidding Askja landscape, one of the largest lava deserts in the world. It’s two or three or four in the morning when we arrive at the Kverkfjallaskali hut. A catfish dinner/breakfast, abbreviated sleep, another shot of cod liver oil, and into the Kverkfjöll cave we stride.

This cave is nothing like Langjökull. One of the largest warm caves in existence, it lies on the other side of Iceland along the northern edge of the mammoth Vatnajökull glacier. The entrance is A-shaped, the apex 50 feet above a steaming river, the sidewalls peeling off in gigantic seracs.

Karl and I walk into the cave. Within minutes, it’s so dark and so saturated with steam that, even with headlamps, neither of us can see our boots. We clamber forward, allowing our feet to find their own footing along the bottom of the river. Sometimes we stumble into a waist-deep hole of swirling warm water, unable to see it, only feel it.

The roar of the river bouncing off the unseen walls of the cave makes it impossible to talk. We simply stay within arm’s reach of each other, trading leads when we encounter an invisible barrier, allowing our senses of hearing and touch to guide us. We can tell the cave is constricting by the diminishing echo of the sound of the water.

Deep inside, we come upon a rock wall we delicately climb by feel. At the top we hunch under a ceiling of ice. Warm water flows through a two-foot-high hole in front of us. Going farther will require sliding on our bellies. Plus, I’m suddenly aware that something is seriously wrong. My head is throbbing, and I can’t catch my breath. My lungs feel like they’re being flattened.

“Karl,” I croak groggily, shaking his sleeve. “I can’t breathe.”

I can hear Karl gulping for air. “Mark, it’s CO2. We are being poisoned. We should perhaps turn back now.”

Without another word, we scramble down the rock and begin splashing our way back out of the black tunnel of ice.

ICELAND GREW OUT of its warrior adolescence long ago. Today it’s a nation committed to nonviolence. Icelanders have a higher standard of living than Americans, lower infant mortality, higher life expectancy, universal health care. There is hardly any poverty, there are no homeless, and most Icelanders have lived, studied, or traveled abroad.

And yet the enduring desire to experience the extreme lives on.

Staggering out of the Kverkfjöll cave, cloaked in steam, Karl and I plop down in the warm river, breathing deeply, surrounded by arcing walls of ice.

The water is luxuriant, and as we strip off our layers of wool and fleece, Karl tells me of the Tindfjoll Games, a mysterious Icelandic event he says no foreigner has ever witnessed.

“It is something that happens in the mountains at night, usually in bad weather. It begins with a feast.”

Karl says that, for this year’s contest, his friend Tomas has already shot the reindeer, and the hakarl has been fermenting on the beach for weeks. Prodigious amounts of liquor will be consumed before and during the events, all of which will be performed buck naked.

First there’s a race around the hut—barefoot, of course. Karl says it’s only really interesting during a blizzard, when it’s possible for someone to lose their way after the ninth or tenth lap. Then come games of strength, such as arm wrestling and its more bizarre offshoot, Inuit mouth wrestling.

But Karl’s favorite is the snow-angel contest. “I have a friend, Magnus Gunnarsson, who holds the unofficial world record: 530 arm and leg movements,” he tells me. “The snow was pretty frozen, and in the morning he had a hard time remembering why he lacked some skin on his elbows, heels, and shoulders.”

Karl and I absentmindedly eye our sopping pile of ice-climbing gear. Sometimes it happens that two people come up with the same brilliant idea at once.

“Shall we?” asks Karl.

We drag our plastic boots into the water and pull them on, snap on crampons, clip on helmets, tighten the leashes of our ice axes, and stand up.

Naked ice climbing, as it turns out, is a very delicate business, and I admit to taking an embarrassing fall.

Afterwards, we de-ice ourselves in the welcome, healing heat of the water. Glacial liquid laps at our chins. Steam rolls out of the cave and drifts downstream. I’m surrounded by blue arctic ice, but I’m deliciously, equatorially warm. It feels both entirely natural and supremely foreign. I realize that this is what Icelanders have been doing for 11 centuries.

“OK,” Karl says. “Now you are welcome to the Tindfjoll Games.” His big red face is one giant grin. “I just hope the weather is bad.”