Valhalla, I Am Coming
Glaciers, Volcanos and Wind in Iceland
Having arrived in Iceland two days early, I played the role of advance scout, tasked with a weather report and some suitable clothing recommendations. After a morning hike behind the hotel during which I wore a base layer and light sweater, I sent an e-mail to my colleague, Jack, back in balmy New York: “The parka may be overkill. You can bring it but I think a sweater and good rain gear should suffice.”
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Two days later, we were standing in a howling gale peering into the maw of a 300-foot crevasse. I squinted across at Jack, who was barely visible in the whiteout, snow and blowing ice pelting our reddening faces. He pulled back the fur-lined hood of his parka and shouted above the wind, “Remind me to never take clothing advice from the guy from Minnesota!”
Iceland exists as if out of the mind of a science fiction writer — not in the futuristic sense, but as some timeless place, where the elements that created the earth meet the people who harness its power. A deck of stock images spring to mind: volcanos, glaciers, hot springs and catchy pop bands, perhaps. And indeed, we experienced all of those during a week there. This is a raw place inhabited by inventive and strong people, descendants of Vikings, who drive monster trucks, eat rotten fish and heat their homes with volcano-heated water. It is perhaps the most exotic place on Earth. And it’s only a five-hour flight from Manhattan.
I also came to know it as a place of volatile weather. After breakfasts of strong coffee, smoked salmon and fresh Icelandic yogurt called skyr, our small group set forth in jacked-up Ford Excursions with 47-inch tires to explore the backroads (or in some cases, no-roads) of southern Iceland. Over the course of the day, we had all four seasons — rain, sleet, snow, sunshine and winds that threatened to pull these two-ton trucks right off of the road. Our driver laughed it off, navigating the narrow roads while shuffling Of Monsters and Men on his iPhone. It was no use complaining. To experience Iceland, one must also experience its weather. There is not one without the other and I quickly grew accustomed to keeping a jacket handy, hood ready to deploy.
I traveled to Iceland as a guest of A. Lange & Söhne, the German builder of some of the world’s most exquisite and expensive timepieces, to celebrate the launch of their latest masterpiece, the Richard Lange Perpetual Calendar Terraluna. It may seem an odd place for a luxury watch brand to go, a place perhaps more fitting for a G-Shock than something hand assembled by a workshop of German elves. Yet the elemental starkness of the Icelandic landscape does conjure up a certain Teutonic aesthetic, and the long starry nights are a good match for a watch that features a full star chart disc as part of its movement. I got to wear a Lange for the week of glacier hikes and lava field explorations, something I had in common with early adventurers who took Lange pocketwatches on Antarctic expeditions. In a harsh and unforgiving environment, sometimes one longs for a little luxury, something I learned in my week in Iceland.
While the Bárðarbunga volcano erupting in the north is in world news, locals shrugged it off. Volcano eruptions are almost a weekly occurrence in Iceland and unless ash is raining down on one’s farm, little notice is paid. Instead we drove up the slopes of dormant ones, on impossibly steep, snow-covered paths, the truck’s diesel straining against the grade and tires clawing for purchase on the sharp rocks under the snow. One afternoon, we bashed our way through rivers and across a valley of black rubble to reach the tongue of the Gígjökull, the glacier that descends from Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that erupted in 2010, shutting down European air travel for weeks. Here, the ice flow comes down to the valley floor and we stood in a depression that was a 100-foot deep lagoon before the eruption but now was carved out from the mudslide caused by it. As if on cue, a driving rain started, pelting my face and coating my camera lens.
On our last day, the sun finally emerged with bluebird skies. A fleet of Land Rovers stood idling outside our remote hotel, waiting to take us to the airport for flights home. Returning to civilization after five days among geysers, glaciers and craters would be akin to splashing down from a lunar mission and I braced for the sharp angles of buildings and the harsh sound of airport flight announcements. But on the drive back to the city, our driver jerked the wheel and pulled the Land Rover off of the paved road onto a crushed lava path and aimed for a fast flowing river. Ahead on a hillside, steam billowed from an underground vent. Into the river we went, axle-deep, our bow wave engulfing the vehicle with a muddy cascade. Our driver laughed along with us. The return to civilization could wait.