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Author series: Nancy Campbell

A trip to Iceland to study Europe’s largest glacier serves as a reminder of the awesome beauty, power and vulnerability of ice

By National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Published 8 Apr 2019, 23:58 BST
Nancy Campbell.
Nancy Campbell.
Photograph by Jacqui Oakley

I was in the tense final months of completing a book about the world’s ice and the stories hidden deep within it.

During this process, I’d embedded myself on one of Greenland’s islands in the depths of winter to discover how the inhabitants relied on ice; I’d watched snow melt as spring came to towns on the north coast; and waited for the ice to grow thick enough for curling matches on Scottish lochs. But there was one icy location that eluded me: Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier, which covers a full 8% of Iceland. So when I was invited to spend a month on the edge of Vatnajökull National Park, I accepted immediately.

I was to be based at the former home of novelist Gunnar Gunnarsson — now a museum. I wondered what I might learn of this icy landscape by approaching it from Gunnar’s viewpoint: using his library, looking out at the views that he would’ve seen from his desk, and perhaps occasionally bumping into his ghost in the corridors.

I chose to travel here slowly, on local buses, to get a closer view of the enormous outlet glaciers that crawl down from the icecap between mountain ridges. For some, Iceland has become synonymous with unpredictable, travel-disrupting climatic events, and my journey was no exception. On the first day, rain lashed the bus windows. On the second, rivers burst their banks, and a major bridge was washed away; with no roads passable, the bus deposited its passengers in the picturesque but rapidly flooding village of Vík, trapped between the ice cap and the sea. The rain looked set to continue, so I decided to hitchhike the rest of my journey.

In contrast to the haunting coastline, the valley in which Gunnar built his mansion — Fljótsdalur — is fertile pastureland. When I arrived, I found the whole community had abandoned work to herd sheep down from the high mountains to the relative safety of the valley. Yet even here, the weather was cause for concern. Over coffee, the farmers pointed out distant, dark peaks, telling me that snow was arriving there later and later every year. Many fields were flooded, and the rain was dampening everyone’s spirits.

Once the storms eventually departed in a riot of rainbows, I didn’t waste a moment. Each day, I rose at 4am, and wrote at Gunnar’s desk as the sky brightened, then set off at 11 to explore Vatnajökull National Park. I cycled the quiet roads, hiked to waterfalls and found small plantations of larch and birch, their branches torqued by the wind, and glades speckled with blue harebells or mushrooms. I even saw herds of reindeer, which are unknown elsewhere in Iceland.

I’d come to Vatnajökull hoping to find ice, but everywhere I looked there was water. Even after the rain clouds departed, it took time for the floodwaters to leave the valley. I feared the weather would keep me from my goal, but finally, two intrepid guides from Halí agreed to take me onto Vatnajökull.

We approached the glacier over a bleak, stony moraine that had been covered with ice in preceding years, though this time it was scattered with puddles. I’d expected my guides to be gung-ho types, more driven by adrenalin than emotion, but they spoke sadly of the diminishing ice, as if it were a good friend going through bad times. The glacier was scarred with streams. I trod carefully, knowing there was 300 metres of ancient ice beneath my crampons. The glacier was solid enough, and yet its protean nature was enshrined in its name: ‘vatna’ is the Icelandic for ‘water’.

My experience in the High Arctic had introduced me to the awesome beauty of ice, its variety of forms, and its importance to entire civilisations. But it was here in the temperate zone that the urgency of climate change hit home. Vatnajökull taught me how fragile the boundary between ice and water is, how quickly rising waters can wreak havoc, and how even the greatest ice cap can begin to fade away.

Iceland is a place where nature tells its own stories: it’s said the deep Fljótsdalur lake conceals a water monster, and that the rocky striations on the mountains were once the tracks of trolls. In the end, it wasn’t Gunnar’s books I turned to for inspiration. Gunnar’s house gave me shelter to write but it was the natural world beyond its walls that revealed to me the ending of my book.

Nancy Campbell’s book, The Library of Ice, is published by Scribner UK. RRP: £14.99.

Follow @nancycampbelle

Published in the March 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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