Reaching for the summit in Iceland
Ryan Summerlin April 28, 2012
For many, the chance to summit Europe’s biggest glacier is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, combining incredible views with the experience of Iceland’s unique culture and raise awareness of global warming. For the past four years, Icelandic clothing company 66 Degrees North has partnered with Icelandic Mountain Guides to provide such an opportunity.Climbing Hvannadalshnukur peak on the Vatnajokull Glacier is a little bit like climbing Long’s Peak, insofar as you have a really long hike before you reach anything technical, and it’s best to leave by about 4 a.m. Luckily, on the southern coast of Iceland, it is already light at that time of day, making it much easier to get up and get moving. In fact, the area averages about 19 hours of daylight during the month of May, making it great for staying up late and getting up early, but not so great for sleeping.Iceland is a small country with a small population – about the size of Kentucky with little more than 300,000 people. They have no standing army, but many villagers and citizens belong to the all-volunteer national search and rescue teams, inspiring confidence in those of us playing in the country’s oceans and glaciers.The climb to the glacier and summit begins at approximately 100 meters above sea level. It tops out at 2,110 meters above sea level (6,900 feet). The peak itself is located above the northwestern rim of the Orfajokull volcano, within sight of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano that erupted in 2010, causing months of air traffic delays and coating the region with ash.The climb began socially, as there were many of us climbing. Twenty-five guides from Icelandic Mountain Guides were on hand to guide and assist the more than 100 climbers who would attempt to summit on an unbelievably clear and beautiful day. It was bluebird skies and temperatures hovering around the 50s – something that local residents told me was somewhat rare, and again it reminded me of climbing in Colorado on a perfect spring day.Stopping about 400 meters up the trail to fill water bottles from the glacial run-off was something those of us from the States could especially appreciate. Iceland is proud of its natural resources and provides most of its power from the volcanic activity, hot water and steam produced underneath the island.More than 100 words for snowThis trip was partially inspired by the Icelandic clothing company 66 Degrees North to remind local residents to get out and experience first hand the natural wonders of their own country and to bring global awareness to the region.A rough trail hike on volcanic rock gave way to snowfields by about 6:30 a.m. As snowfields turned into glacial ice and snow, groups divided into teams of eight and roped in together. As the glaciers are constantly moving and changing, the dangers of crevasses are fairly high.The next stage of the climb was a somewhat grueling 800-meter snowfield. It wasn’t so much the pitch of the slope that made it hard, just its unrelenting nature and the bright sun beating down from above and the constant reflection from below. Needless to say, everyone was smearing on lots of sunscreen, especially the fair-skinned people of the North. I was extremely happy I had my trekking poles for this section of the climb.At the top of this pitch began the rim of the volcano Orfajokull. After a short break, we traversed the rim of the volcano to reach the base of the summit pitch. Here we again took on some calories, traded trekking poles for ice axes and strapped on crampons for the short 300-meter climb to the top.As we began the ascent to the summit, it started to become clear why Icelanders have more than 100 words for snow. We were not even halfway done with the day, and I had already experienced a number of varying conditions. This was a semi-slushy slog to the top of a relatively steep pitch. We negotiated it slowly, as other teams were already descending and passing us.Cresting the gently sloping ridge, we shared the summit with four other rope teams, but it didn’t feel crowded. Clear skies with weather moving in and out around us and 360-degree views kept people busy celebrating and taking pictures. My favorite views were south overlooking the North Atlantic Ocean and the western views to the adjacent volcanoes and crags. I chatted with my guide Johan about other climbs in the area and his experience as a seasoned climber and Icelandic national.The climb down began quickly and easily, staying roped in and working together across the snowfields that had been changing with the warming daytime temperatures. We reached the end of the volcanic rim and began the descent of the long snowfield that has now become slush. We postholed our way down to the rock outcropping marking the bottom of the glacier and unroped, rested briefly and started the final descent.It had been about 11 hours now, and I was ready to trade mountaineering boots for something a little more comfortable. The hike out is a great way to reminisce about the day’s climb, the scenery and to chat with fellow climbers from Iceland, Europe and the U.S.I reached the glacial creek just in time, as I had exhausted my water supply and was really beginning to warm up. The view of cars in the parking lot is all the motivation I needed to high-tail it down the trail. At the bottom, the staff of 66 Degrees North was there to welcome us with hot soup, clean t-shirts, soda, beers and Icelandic chocolates. It was a summit and an experience that I will not soon forget.Aaron Bible is the Arts & Entertainment editor for the Summit Daily News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.