Iceland is frozen in time. Arriving there in February 2012, it was exactly as I remembered from 1998 when I was there to climb with Jay Smith and the late Guy Lacelle – grey, windy, and remote. It is the largest land mass along a mountain ridge that begins under the ocean, where the North Atlantic and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling apart. The soil is poor, so most food is imported or grown in greenhouses. The horses, sheep and cattle are 1,000-year-old purebreds, brought over by the Vikings. The quiet is only disrupted by the sounds of millions of birds born in the undisturbed sea cliffs.
My mission, along with Dawn Glanc, Pat Ormand, and Jay Smith, was to do as many first ice climbing ascents as possible in two weeks. Prospects looked good, since Iceland’s coast is barely eroded and most of the snow on the plateau above tends to melt and refreeze. Rapid changes in temperature produce wild features on frozen waterfalls such as tunnels, hanging umbrella-like roofs, and daggers that freeze horizontally. Iceland is not well-known in the climbing world and there are only an estimated 40 local climbers – most of whom find enough ice near Reykjavik to keep them content. Or so they led us to believe. In exchange for a slide show for the Icelandic Alpine Club, we diplomatically pried inside information from a very welcoming group. They confirmed our suspicions: the West Fjords, just below the Arctic Circle, was the mother-lode.
[Dawn Glanc and Pat Ormand on Angel of Mercy. All photos courtesy of Kitty Calhoun]
After a six-hour drive, we arrived in Isafjordur, founded as a salting station for the once-plentiful cod coming from Greenland. We were keenly interested in meeting Runar Karlsson and Sigi Jonsson who have a business, Borea Adventures, in which they sail to a nearby nature preserve or to the east coast of Greenland to ski, kayak, or climb. We hoped the temperatures, which hovered around 32 F, would drop so we could do some boat-assisted ice routes.
After spending the first day on slow winter roads and driving as much of the peninsula as possible, we finally discovered the prize – a cliff band in a cirque an hour’s hike from the road. A dozen emerald blue smears pasted the black face, overhung by a large ice cornice. It appeared that the snow had been saturated with water and then froze, while nearly retaining its original shape. The entire quarter-mile-long wall was untouched except for one route on the far end. After three punishing days of climbing, we completed seven new routes, most of which were two pitches long, WI 4-5.
“What’s been the high-point of the trip for you?" Dawn asked me on the last day. Again, I thought about the birds bobbing on the water. Every day I had a routine – get up before dawn, eat, drive, hike up a slope, climb, and reverse the process. I shivered constantly, got pumped, excited, and scared. In hindsight, there was no high point. It was all necessary, and all good. Overnight, the wind obliterated our tracks up the slopes. Unless we told someone, there would be no record of our ever being there. It was simply a moment, frozen in time.
Kitty Calhoun is a Patagonia ambassador and Chicks Climbing instructor. Chicks Climbing is the premier provider of women’s ice and rock climbing clinics in the United States. They have two desert trips planned for this spring: Red Rock in March and Indian Creek in April.