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Evidence of Things Not Seen

Wednesday, September 7, 2016
On a traverse of the Icelandic ice cap, Sune and Lindsay Tamm were faced with a choice: find a proper map or have an adventure. They chose the latter.

Adventures happen when something doesn't quite go according to plan. They occur in scenarios when decisions are made with imperfect information and knowledge, when skills and endurance are pitted against uncontrollable circumstances. My most recent adventure started in earnest after three public bus connections, two well-intentioned warnings about various parties who died doing what we were about to do, one hitched ride and a two-day slog with 100-pound packs to the toe of the largest icecap in Europe.

The Icelandic man who'd given us a ride to the start of our slog gave us our only glimmer of encouragement. "You will have back-to-back low pressure systems. But don't worry; it isn't always like this in Iceland." Lindsay and I looked at each other and smiled as raindrops dripped from our hoods.

Two days later we looked at each other again. This time, no smiles. We had walked miles along the toe of the glacier beside terrain that varied from Class III rapids to terrifying boulders that sank into the morainal equivalent of bottomless wet cement when we stepped on them. Whether due to the advance in the season or the fact that we were in the middle of the wettest Icelandic summer in over 50 years, accessing the icecap from this side seemed unjustifiable.

Retreat and another public bus brought us to a campground where numerous phone calls tracked down an old Icelandic guide named Einar who everyone spoke of with reverence. "Yes,” he told us. “I have crossed the icecap." Great! "The most favorable route in these conditions is further east,” he went on, “but I have only done it in January and March. Never in July. Hopefully the rain has not compromised too many crevasses." Fine.

We knew we were pushing the season but with hopes of packrafting along the way, this was a necessity. "You need to have visibility for the last 500 meters. On one side is an ice cliff; on the other is a drop-off to hot-pools. Stay on the narrow ridge. Let me know if it works..." Facing a choice between obtaining a map with topo lines for our new route or grabbing a weather window and using a combination of crevasse maps and a 1:500,000 map, neither of which had topo lines for the glacier, we chose the latter. Because it sounded adventurous.

We flirted with the break in the weather for our first afternoon on the icecap. Eight miles of jagged peaks to the south and icy undulations ahead gradually closed down to a flat lit 20-meter visibility. Six out of the following seven days bore out a treadmill of white with no visual distinction between terrestrial and celestial. Nothing other than gravity indicated that we were in fact on a planet. With no distinction between snow, sky and crevasse, our blunted alertness was occasionally sharpened by the immediacy of a crack beneath our ski tips.

With 25 miles to go, we enjoyed our only morning of clear skies. Morale soared and miles slipped by. Ten miles later, the clouds descended as we climbed the base of the ridge that Einar had described. Persistent rain percolated through our layers. Suddenly, we started descending too. With poor visibility it was unclear if we were on an undulation in the ridge, and mental pictures of the crevasse field somewhere below led us to cash in our only remaining buffer day.

At the first signs of snow surface definition we ascended the ridge to the cloudy summit plateau of Kverkfjöll, the third highest peak in Iceland, where we strained our eyes for signs of hot pools or an icefall. Confirmation came first in a sulfuric smell seeping from the mists. Something dark materialized in front of us and a sudden lifting of the clouds revealed seracs teetering over the pools a few yards ahead. We whooped our way along the ridge below before the rain returned. Six hours later pruned high-fives were exchanged in celebration of what the hut wardens told us was the only successful crossing of the icecap that summer.

—Sune Tamm