Weekend Warm-Up: Dani Arnold Climbs Iceland’s Frozen Giants

Amazon Studios reportedly spent a billion dollars making last year’s Lord of the Rings spin-off The Rings of Power — and the money shows in every scene. The show is filled with spectacular sets and meticulously designed 3D landscapes, depicting opulent cities and the stunning New Zealand mountains that sparked an entire tourism industry.

Yet after just the first couple minutes of Jötnar, a new documentary from Swiss ice climber Dani Arnold, I realized I was watching something more awe-inspiring than anything in the eight-plus hours of Amazon’s blockbuster series.

Perhaps that’s because “Jötnar” uses ice climbing to tell a story about Iceland, the Nordic land of myths that inspired J.R.R. Tolkien to invent a new genre of literature.

dani arnold staring at an ice crystal

Behold! Arnold gazes into an ice crystal backlit by the rare Icelandic sun. Photo: Screenshot


More about the landscape

Unlike so many climbing films (and it’s part of my job to watch a lot of them), there’s no central conflict here. There’s no big objective, no named first ascents, or difficulty ratings with complex number systems.

Arnold, known for his solo ascents on the Great North Faces of the Alps, takes a detour from that well-worn path. He opts instead for open-minded exploration. It’s just him, Martin Echser, Davide Guzzardi, and a two-man film team. Together, they travel through a part of East Iceland known as Jötnar, named for Norse mythology’s land of the giants. The five men brave intense and dangerous conditions to capture images of forbidding places that most of us will never — perhaps could never — reach on our own.

They focus not on their accomplishment of ascending an icy canyon next to Iceland’s tallest waterfall, but rather on their insignificance within this vast, brutal, and beautiful wonderland.

A devil’s postpile

The bulk of this transfixing 23-minute documentary follows Arnold’s team as they overcome blizzards and frozen rivers to reach a handful of beautiful locales. They climb beside a giant waterfall, then crank up ice-covered cliffs hanging over the rocky waves of the coastline. Then there’s the strange symmetry of a canyon filled with perfect basalt pillars, which Arnold promptly climbs with ice axes.

dani arnold dry tooling on rock pillars

Surreal pillars of fortress-like rock: an ideal dry tooling venue. Photo: Screenshot


“The landscape here is so special with these pillars,” Arnold says. “It was not easy reaching this place. The whole team had to rappel into the canyon.”

What follows is a sequence of mind-bending vistas: Upside-down ice climbing within the fractal-like patterns of ice caves. A chilly bath in a pool protected by sheer boulders. Time-lapse photography of the swirling neon-greens of the northern lights. Another waterfall climb lodged deep in the mountains.

ice climbing in ice cave

Arnold shows off his roof climbing skills in an ice cave. Photo: screenshot


And yet for all the joy of seeing these small human figures moving like ants against a gorgeous monochromatic backdrop of ice and mountains, it’s the fast-moving collages of Iceland’s landscapes that will make the breath catch in your throat.

In this land’s geography lies the source of Tolkien’s inspiration, a place where natives would understandably envision a world of elves and dwarves and magic. An icy realm at the edge of fantasy.

Andrew McLemore

An award-winning journalist and photographer, Andrew McLemore brings more than 14 years of experience to his position as Associate News Editor for Lola Digital Media. Andrew is also a musician, climber and traveler who currently lives in Medellin, Colombia. When he’s not writing, playing gigs or exploring the outdoors, he’s hanging out with his dog Campana.