The Day We Got Caught in a Snownado in the Land of Fire and Ice

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The wind was fierce. I couldn't see more than 5 feet ahead of me . A snow squall came up out of nowhere, and the rest of my companions had disappeared as the swirling fog closed in around us. My client Delia and I held on to each other tightly as we braced against the blast of frigid air. We took slow steady steps, inch by inch as the tumultuous gale blew against us.

The storm came upon us like a freight train. All I could do was burst out laughing.

What happened to the others? Snorri, our Icelandic guide, dressed in his iconic Icelandic lopapeysa sweater and puffy down jacket ran past us and in to the fog to find them.   

We were on a week long photography exploration of Iceland, the land of fire and ice, with our 6 photography workshop clients. Today, we were touring the Solheimajokull glacier. Also known as the Sun Glacier, we could see its varying brilliant hues of blues and greens that made it look like sculpted glass from another planet. The ice is compressed like diamonds by the movement of the glacier, causing the intense colors. The ice flow is the artist creating mystical shapes and forms.

I felt invigorated in this winter environment. I had been to Iceland many times before, and a freakish blizzard was all part of the experience. Living in Southern CA, I don't get to experience weather like this very often, and when I do, I embrace it and all that nature throws at me. I spent my college years in New England and learned that winter sports were a fun and essential way for me to survive the long periods of cold weather. Those days learning cross country skiing on a nearby golf course was part of my college curriculum, and it paid off for me in later years.

When I go to Iceland, all of my senses come alive. There are awe inspiring mountains and waterfalls, breath taking weather that changes at a moment's notice and warm wonderful people who love the land and relish in the opportunities the tourists offer. And the glaciers have a different meaning to the Icelandic people than to those of us who live outside the country.

Some Icelanders believe that the glaciers are sentient, as if they are living and breathing beings. They look at the glaciers as protectors and exude an old wise energy over the land. The glaciers are omnipresent, everywhere you go outside of the city you see either the ice flows themselves or evidence of their presence. There are 269 glaciers that cover about 11% of the island's land mass and the largest glacier in Europe is located in Iceland.

It's more that the glaciers characterize the landscape. With the glaciers and the geothermal areas in Iceland, it is all being formed before your eyes. You can see the earth's processes of on a daily basis.

Icelandic farmers over the centuries have used the fingers of the glaciers as natural barriers to keep their sheep contained on their land. As the glaciers receded, they were forced to rethink their property lines and find other ways to keep their livestock contained.

The blizzard cleared with the puffy white clouds and blue sky returning in moments as if nothing had happened. 

We continued on down the trail only to see our companions appearing out of the fog, dusting the the snow off their jackets. What happened to them? They had taken cover behind a boulder that was big enough to shield them from the sudden wind and pelting snow.

Everyone in the group was covered in a layer of ice. My sunglasses were on a croaky strap around my neck and my brilliant blue scarf was an ice field of hard frozen crystals. A scarf might seem like a good idea in these weather conditions, but all it did was blow madly around my face and neck and prove to be like a rebellious child when I tried to reel it in. By the end of the adventure, the glasses were nearly frozen to the scarf and together they looked like a blue Cousin It from the 1960s Munsters TV show.

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After collecting ourselves, we continued to slip on down the trail that followed the path of the glacial river. As we came around a bend, the sight of the glacier was heart stopping.

Canyons of ice undulated and flowed down the hill stained by the dirt collected on its journey. The lake at the bottom of the glacier was a cloudy blue. The melted floe was starting its decent to the North Atlantic Ocean.

After living in Southern California for 30 years, my selection of winter clothes was awkward at best. Layer upon layer of clothing made me feel and look like a stuffed sausage, not very comfortable when you are trying to be creative and move easily in the outdoors.

Sólheimajökull Glacier

A procession of adventurers all connected by a climbing rope snaked up to the edge of a frozen cliff aided by the crampons attached to their boots. This group of ice climbers were attempting to scale the side of an ocean blue crevasse. The crampons and ice axes helped them pull them selves up the side of the frigid cerulean walls.

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After exploring the areas around the glacier and watching the ice climbers, we headed back up towards the parking lot.

The snowy trail was quite icy in patches and we had a client decide to impress a young girl he never met. As we came upon a slippery area of the trail, he went out of his way to help her across the frozen path. As he held out his hand to help, she slipped on the ice and pulled him down with her. All of our clients use ice cleats attached to the bottom of their boots to prevent slipping on the ice. The sharp cleats grab the slick surface and make walking on ice a breeze. However, when he fell, his cleat got caught on a rock and wrenched his ankle and when he stood up, he was unable to put weight on it. We spent the rest of the day looking for a doctor in the remote South Coast of Iceland to help him. When we found the doctor, no X-rays were available, so they gave him a couple of Tylenol and sent him on his way. Later after he returned home, he found a bone in his ankle was fractured. His wife was not pleased with his antics.

But even after this accident, our pursuit of the photograph continued…

The strong wind continued unabated as we drove away from the glacier and toward the coast. Our attention was now focused on the famous Vik Black sand Beach. As the door of the van slid open, we were plummeted with gale force winds as we climbed out to explore the beach. The blast was so fierce that that the coarse black sand pelted our faces and our camera lenses. My camera's sensor to this day still shows marks from that day on the beach.  This was our 4th visit to the black sand beach at Vik and we were hoping to capture the sunset. We started our quest farther down the beach and was frustrated with the lack of interesting light, so trudged up the beach against the fierce wind looking for compositions and light.

At first there was little hope for an interesting sunset, only dark grey sky and heavy clouds. But we knew better than to pack up and leave, Mother Nature had fooled us before. We set up our tripods and sat on an uncomfortable volcanic outcrop on the edge of a small stream that emptied into the wild ocean. We sat in the cold and wind and waited.

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Then, a little band of orange light started to show under the clouds. Little by little, it slowly spread into an incredible band of orange and yellow color, as if the sky was on fire! It lasted for several minutes before fading away in to the night.

Iceland is truly the land of fire and ice in many ways.

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