Spindrift and Fear

Highly Commended in the Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year Competition 2024.

The following piece was highly commended in our 2024 New Travel Writer of the Year Competition. You can find the full list of long and short listed entries – including the winner – here.

“Is this wild enough for you?” Emma shouts as our tent dips and dives under the full fury of the North Atlantic gale. It is our fourth day alone, and we are pinned to Europe’s largest glacier by spindrift and fear.

Four days earlier, we had left the warmth of the brightly coloured houses of Reykjavik and headed east. We had stopped briefly at the furthest point of civilisation, a hotel that sold only soup and lay claim to the last toilet in Iceland, before cruising off the tarmac. Miles of mysterious moonscape lay between us and the edge of the ice. Dunes of slate-black basalt, softened by straw-coloured grasses, filled the treeless landscape.

Two years of lockdown, six months of chemotherapy and a new depth of courage had brought me to the least populated country in Europe. I was here in search of wildness and adventure.

I had felt Iceland’s mythic pull long before we had planned to travel. I knew that in the land of Norse gods and elves, where the language is rich in nature, and the culture is infused with music, there would be wildness. I knew in this place of risk and loss, where the dead ice of past glaciers are mourned, there would be adventure.

Our truck lurched like a keeling ship as we crossed frozen rivers. Tyres inflated and deflated as we climbed near-vertical snow walls. We looped and turned, edging tentatively around crevasses. The space, the ice, the sky, Vatnajökull the largest glacier in Europe, is unlike anything I had ever seen.

We stopped at the given GPS coordinates, a non-descript point at the edge of the ice. “Not many teams make it to the hut,” the driver weighed us up, “keep the satellite phone close.” The truck’s headlights disappeared.

There were no humans and no wildlife, just an unending sea of wind-puckered snow and glinting sapphire ice. It was an abstract expression of blue and turquoise hues, sky on ice and ice on sky.

Later that day we pitched our tent as we had practised in our suburban gardens when England was in the full bloom of summer.  Sheltering from the mid-winter cold we watched the glacier’s edge, here the land of myth and fire meets the southern seashore. The wind echoed with the unsettling roar of ice calving, gurgling, and exploding. We were stilled, mesmerised by the icebergs floating like ghost ships, reflecting shards of tangerine light.

As the sun and the temperature fell, the wind rose until the ferocity of the gale silenced us. I could no longer hear Emma breathe. The storm penetrated the fabric walls, and the cold stole energy and will.

In the daylight hours, whilst the fierce sky hung low, we fought to cross the glacier. Veins of lava and subglacial volcanoes lay below the ice like blood plasma. Vatnajökull is uneroded and enigmatic, volatile yet still. It is a place of creation and loss. Glaciers weave through Icelandic life silently like the supernatural force of the Huldufölk. These elves are eternal, immortal; the ice is not. Here, glaciers are monuments, not immortalised in stone but fragments, fragile and temporal. In this landscape every view hovers on the edge of sublime —but beyond the beauty, danger hangs in the air, in the ice and through the earth.

For four days, we battled against the pummelling wind and plummeting temperatures. We measure the force of the wind, 70 mph and rising. We are restless, edgy, and exhausted. The tent is frozen, and dampness permeates my sleeping bag. Fear coaxes my inner thoughts like an uninvited guest; tears fall freely. We are still twenty miles from the hut when I begin to unpack the satellite phone. I think of home and safety and all the things that brought me to this moment: the chemo ward and the confinement, the pull of nature, the desperate desire for new perspectives. I replace the phone and find the courage to say, “Let’s wait one more day.”

The next morning, we wake, and the silence strikes me. Soft snow lies in gentle ripples, exposing pristine ice. Under glitter clouds, I look skywards and see the mirage: fata morgana inverts the distant peaks and, with it, my thoughts. In this refraction, this reflection, this adventure, I know I am changed.

As the acid streaks of the aurora dance across the sky, we see the hut; relief comes in waves of tears and smiles of joy. We had risked everything for Vatnajökull, for the dream of wildness and adventure. We leave with a new landscape within and our ambition etched in ice.

More information

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