Debrief: Michael Charavin and Cornelius Strohms crossing of Icelands Vatnjรถkull Ice Cap

Posted: May 17, 2010 08:37 pm EDT

Before the disrupting volcanic eruption in Iceland, Michael Charavin and Cornelius Strohm crossed the largest ice cap on Iceland from east to west. They did a kite and sledge-haul crossing of the Vatnjรถkull Icecap from Jรถklasel to Jรถkulheimar.

They continued travelling along the frozen river Tugnaa, from Jรถkulheimar in the north to Landmannalaugar in the south. According to them they travelled more than 235 km in 2 weeks with no resupplies.

Michael Charavin sent word through to ExplorersWebs news desk about their expedition that took place at the end of winter, beginning of spring.

The start

The team hit the ice on Skalafelljoekull at an elevation of 700m in crystal clear light, the two men wrote. In the north-west low clouds extend over the icecap; far in the east, nothing but the sea crowned by foamy wavelets due to the wind. In between, the dark rocky foremountains of the Vatnajoekull, intersected by the white streams of the glaciers flowing down from the icecap. Behind us: a landscape bare of snow, and the sea. Ahead: the glacier that we lead us up on the icecap. The wind is violently blowing in our faces.

We make a few kilometers uphill on foot in this huge glacial amphitheatre delimited by the rocky summits around: In the north-west, the steep slopes of Litlafell and Snjofell emerge from the icefield. To the south, the ridge ranging from Grjotbotstindur to Kaldarnupur detaches itself from the blue sky.

But late in the afternoon, low clouds coming from the icecap start to invade the Skalafelljoekull and high winds of 55 kts force us to make camp at a place that is cruelly lacking snow. We struggle for one hour to erect a ridiculously small wall of snow in our attempt to protect our tent

Match heading and bearing

The sun was out the next morning. A NNW wind was blowing at 25 kts and they were kiting using their Beringer 5 m2 kites. Little did they know that was the last of the sun for the next 7 days.

The wind picked up in the white-out conditions and they were fighting to keep the correct heading without being blown away while the edges of their skis were biting hard, wind packed, icy snow, they said.

In this time of extreme conditions we nearly blindly obey the simple rule: Match heading and bearing. In this moment we have neither the time to think about the itinerary, nor the possibility to enter new points without the shelter of our tent. If we dare to blindly trust the GPS, its because we have meticulously prepared our itinerary and alternative routes beforehand. This includes the detailed study of high-resolution topographic maps, satellite images, and most importantly the discussion of the projected itinerary with local skiers and guides.

Now the challenge is a different one: The one in the front, who is breaking trail has to concentrate on the heading and the position of his skis and kite with respect to the wind in an environment lacking any visual reference where the equilibrium could get hold. At the same time he has to be constantly aware of the second following behind, to avoid getting separated.

The challenge for the second is to keep the pace of the first at reasonable distance, always ready to react and follow any of his manoeuvres. But its much less strenuous behind, nothing but having the outline of the first gives a spatial reference the equilibrium can hold on, takes away the anticipation of the unexpected. And so we are happy to change position frequently to relax in the back.

The hut at the top of a volcano

Grimsvรถtn is the name of both the lake occupying the bottom of the caldera and the volcanos summit on which we are standing. Located above a system of subglacial faults that extends under most of the western Vatnajรถkull icecap, the region is rather active; its last eruption dates only back to 2004.

The Icelandic glaciologists had the crazy and marvellous idea to construct a hut right here. Crazy, because it dominates the icecap by about two hundred meters on the eastern side whereas the caldera forms a huge precipice on its western side. An awesome and probably the windiest place up here. Marvellous, because the geothermal activity, was harnessed to good use : hot steam emerging from the fissures is condensed in an ingenious system to heat the hut, and believe it : to construct a sauna right here! A comfortable and cosy oasis in a rough place.

Down the glacier

When good weather set in they began their ride down to the Tuggnaarjรถkull glacier in an ideal NNE 3/4 backwind to the hut at Jรถkulheimar.

It gave them great pleasure to kite down the slopes to Tugnnarjรถkull at speeds exceeding 50 km/h at times in a perfect NE wind, the guys reported. The wind only dropped when we reached the lower border of Tugnaarjรถkuull, first sign of an upcoming change in the weather pattern. We store our kites away and trade our skis for crampons. In the absence of snow, we first progress on the bare ice of the glacier, then on the frozen river Tungnaa.

Down the river Tugnaa

The days down the river was frustrating because of the total absence of snow on its upper parts, they said. The guys had to walk on crampons on the upper parts. The landscape, light and the ice by itself are incredibly beautiful, but our way between the hills, mountains and islands delimiting.

The winds were never suitable for kiting and Michael and Cornelius had to haul their sleds the 60 km between iver is Jรถkulheimar and Landmannalaugar.

Natural hot water bathes

The men ended their expedition in a relaxing bath in the hot waters (39ยฐC to 43 ยฐC) of the river originating at the foot of the Laugahraun lave field at the site of Landmannalaugar. We enjoy the exceptional solitude in a place so busy during summertime.

Lacking the time to continue or crossing further south, we head in north westerly direction, mainly across vast lave fields whose treacherous monotony is only broken by some moderate hills. The South westerly wind brings along mild temperatures and dreadful sleet and rain. We can literally watch the snow melting away while litres of accumulated water have transformed our sleds in moving bathtubs. A bit south of the barrages of Sigalda the Land Rover of Gabbi is waiting for us.

Equipment in Michael and Cornelius sleds for 16 days:
40 kg of food and 5 L of fuel to run the stove. Ropes, ice axes, crampons, pulleys -blockers, ropmans, satellite phone, EPIRB, radios, tents, GPS, gear repair. And no less than every six sails (Access 4 7 Frenzy, Manta 10, Yakuza 12 and 2 parawings), so has power kiting the widest range of possible situations from almost white-out the storm in almost total "no wind" ...


(click images to enlarge)
courtesy Michael Charavin, SOURCE

courtesy Michael Charavin, SOURCE

courtesy Michael Charavin, SOURCE

courtesy Michael Charavin, SOURCE

courtesy Michael Charavin, SOURCE

courtesy Michael Charavin, SOURCE

courtesy Michael Charavin, SOURCE

courtesy Michael Charavin, SOURCE

courtesy Michael Charavin, SOURCE

courtesy Michael Charavin, SOURCE