Climbing Iceland's Greatest Glacier
This is an era in which we’ve seen it all before—a dilemma, certainly, for photographers in 2015. Just about every single landscape in the world has been photographed at this point. Opportunities for new adventure and striking photography, it might seem, teeter on the brink of extinction.
Tim Kemple, a photographer, filmmaker, and co-owner of the Camp 4 Collective production company in Salt Lake City, Utah, says it’s exactly this predicament that is his greatest source of inspiration.
“We’re in this new age of exploration right now,” says Tim. “It’s no longer enough to merely stick a figure in a landscape and call that photography.”
“Now our challenge is to visit these places that others have already been to, but figure out how to interpret that landscape in a way that is unique to you. Figure out how to make it your own.”
Perhaps his background as a lifelong climber—a sport he first picked up as a kid from his father, Tim Sr., while growing up in New Hampshire—has helped him look at the greatest challenges in climbing, photography, and life for what they truly are: opportunities to rise to the occasion.
And perhaps all that time in his youth spent outside, even during the bleak and frigid Northeastern winters, taught Tim the importance of getting outside his comfort zone. When zero degrees was considered warm, Tim Jr. and Tim Sr. would often climb an ice-choked gully on Mt. Washington. It’s the tallest mountain (6,288 feet) in the northeastern United States, infamous for fierce, fast-moving weather that has claimed over 150 lives in as many years.
It’s exactly in these uncomfortable and physically taxing situations when most people would prefer to be indoors, cozy around a warm fire—that Tim urges people to push beyond their comfort zone. “We humans are creatures of comfort,” says the 34-year-old climber, photographer, and filmmaker.
“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried to make a conscious effort to put myself in positions where I don’t know what the outcome is going to be. Maybe the path I’ve chosen is a little more difficult than it needs to be, but it’s because I want to see how I rise to that challenge. To me, that’s what pure adventure is all about.”
For Tim—who climbs at a world-class level, meaning 5.14 sport climbs, V13 boulder problems, and free-solo (no ropes) ascents of hard rock climbs rated 5.13—adventure doesn’t have to be scary. Tim insists it doesn’t have to be as life-threatening as some of his more dangerous ascents have been.
The one ingredient adventure does need, Tim says, is the element of the unknown—the sense that what you might find, and whether you will be successful in your mission, hangs in the fog of uncertainty.
Being uncomfortable, ironically, is what brings out the best in us.
So with all these motivations in mind, Tim conceived of the idea to travel to Iceland to journey down into the icy, cavernous belly of Europe’s largest glacier with a new and diverse group of people, in order to try to re-interpret this stark and ephemeral kingdom through his own unique perspective.
“I knew we were going to find ice caves,” says Tim. “I just wasn’t sure if we were going to be able to climb in them.”
Kevin Harrington and Anton Lorimer, two staff at SmugMug, strapped crampons onto their boots for the first time in their lives and stepped tentatively onto the frozen massif of the Vatnajökull, or Vatna, glacier of Iceland, an ice cap so large it can easily be seen from space.
Crampons, the 12-pronged metal soles affixed to stiff-soled mountain boots via straps that provide climbers with traction on icy terrain, have a notorious enemy: Gore-Tex pants.
“Kevin and Anton hadn’t taken a couple of steps before their crampons snagged on their baggy snowboarding pants,” says Tim, laughing. “They fell right on their faces.”
As just about every ice climber with a new pair of freshly torn Gore-Tex pants will painfully know, this is not an uncommon experience.
While tripping on the crampons was okay here at the base of the glacier, where it was flat and safe, once Kevin and Anton climbed higher onto the complex world of the Vatna, they quickly realized that they could not afford to make another such mistake.
“There are a million ways to die on these glaciers,” says Kevin. “I had to think twice about everything I did.”
The Vatna glacier is a frozen kingdom of slick, blue ice complete with jaw-dropping ravines, tortuous caves, echoing chambers, and scary-looking “holes,” technically called moulins, that drop hundreds of feet down to the next level of ice. Maneuvering around a glacier is no mere romp across an ice-skating rink. It involves teetering above one type of precipice or another. The pull of gravity, the sensation of vertigo, and the seriousness of what a single misstep might mean is felt in all directions.
“I had to make sure each foot was solid,” says Kevin. “Eventually, we got more and more comfortable.”
Anton, SmugMug’s full-time cinematographer, has been busy over the last year and a half shooting a film series that celebrates photographers who are pushing the boundaries of their craft. Because many who work at SmugMug are themselves passionate and talented photographers and videographers, Anton has brought along engineers, customer-support staff, and copywriters to help second-shoot these film projects. This is how Kevin, a full-time iOS developer, as well as an experienced photographer and videographer, found himself teetering on Europe’s largest ice cap with his camera in hand.
Tim recalls the day last January when Anton called out of the blue.
“The conversation was basically, ‘Do you have a project that you’ve always dreamed of doing, but haven’t had the chance to do yet?’
“And I was like, ‘Well, yeah, lots.’ And he said, ‘Well, that’s what we want to film.’”
“It was the kind of call that every photographer dreams of—the kind of call that, in Tim’s words, offered him the opportunity for “unencumbered creative freedom.”
What kind of company would do something like this? Tim wondered. “I was taken aback at first. What are they [SmugMug] looking to get out of this? Everyone has a motive.”
That motive turned out to be simple: capturing a creative and authentic adventure in which everyone was taking a step out of their comfort zones and the outcome of the experience would be uncertain.
“Sometimes planning the trip is the biggest challenge,” says Tim, a veteran of dozens of personal and professional expeditions. “I want to do a trip where everyone is challenged in their own ways. For me as a photographer, that could mean taking photographs of something I’ve never shot before. For the athletes I’m working with, that could mean being put in a situation that they haven’t been in before, too.” And for Anton and Kevin, that meant embracing the physical challenges of climbing icy terrain and the uncertainty of what they’d be able to film.
Tim and Anton traded emails and eventually came up with the idea to explore glaciers. “I’d seen pictures of people climbing in ice caves in glaciers before,” says Tim, “but they were totally posed. But I wondered, could you actually climb in these ice caves? Are they tall enough? Is it safe enough?
Because if you could climb here, it would be a really cool three-dimensional landscape to climb in and explore … something I’ve never really seen photographed before.”
Tim contacted Black Diamond, the Utah-based climbing-equipment manufacturer, and they sent two of their European athletes: Klemen Premrl, a world-champion ice climber from Slovenia, and Rahel Schelb, a full-time teacher from Switzerland who is gaining a reputation in the adventure world for being one of Europe’s top female climbers. “What was really cool about this trip is that it was a creative adventure for everyone,” says Tim.
“It was a creative experience for me because I wasn’t there shooting someone else’s campaign, and it was a creative experience for the climbers because they had never climbed such overhanging ice before.”
Typically, ice climbs are formed when a waterfall, or run-off, freezes in the winter. Ice climbs of this nature, often categorized as “water ice,” are almost never steeper than 90-degrees vertical. These may seem extremely challenging to the layperson, but in fact, even average climbers of scant experience find that they are quickly able to manage most water-ice routes.
Glacier ice, however, is a totally different beast.
“Glacial ice formations aren’t just a result of gravity,” says Kemple. “There are ice caves, ice tubes, and ice rooms that form at the edge of the glacier from rivers of water flowing underneath the surface. And there are moulins, which are like giant sinkholes that go down into the center of the glacier for hundreds of feet and look like the inside walls of a silo.”
The Vatna glacier, in a sense, is like a giant block of Swiss cheese. Only this block is the largest glacier in Europe, covering 8 percent of the island of Iceland. The Vatna glacier is 2,000 feet thick in parts. Under it lies mountains, valleys, and even active volcanoes. This is the largest protected area in Europe, and many believe it is also the most beautiful with its wild landscapes of ice, waterfalls, caves, and unique species of birds and wildlife.
“We had no idea what we were going to find,” says Tim. “It was up to us to explore and figure out where we were going to go and what we were going to shoot each day.”
Tools of Adventure
As a kid, one of Tim’s first ice-climbing trips with his dad involved scaling popular frozen waterfalls outside North Conway, New Hampshire. On this particular day, a teenage Kemple was harnessed and tied into a climbing rope, 50 feet up from the base of the climb. Another ice-climbing party happened to be above the father–son team, and inadvertently knocked off a chunk of ice the size of a large tree stump.
Junior got clocked.
“I got completely pelted by this chunk of ice and could barely move for a couple of days,” says Tim. Although ice climbing was a part of his upbringing, it’s not something he actively pursues today.
“I think ice climbing in New England left me scarred,” he says. “The idea of ice climbing doesn’t necessarily appeal to me, but I’m happy that I have the skills to do it. The ability to move fast through mountainous terrain; the ability to run around and explore the world, and access places that most people don’t normally get to see, is really cool to me.”
“That ability to tolerate discomfort, if not downright suffering, has become one of Tim’s greatest assets as a photographer. “If you’re the only one out there because it’s too cold, too wet, or too scary to get a shot,” he says, “then you’re the only one getting the shot.”
Each day, the team stepped onto the great yawning glacier, which quaked and rumbled as ice calved off into the moraine. Everyone’s crampons scratched like nails on a chalkboard atop the frozen, sapphire surface. All were unsure of what the day would bring, and what challenges the climbers might find.
On this day, Klemen and Rahel came upon a grand moulin that opened like a whale’s mouth to a black abyss, and you could almost see the light and water being sucked down into the belly of the wintry beast.
The climbers made plans to rappel 200 feet down the moulin, only to climb back out the steep silo-esque walls using lightweight ice axes, one for each hand, while the pointed prongs of the crampons, inserted mere millimeters into the ice walls, would support their entire weight underfoot.
Kemple walked around the perimeter of the moulin, perching confidently right at the edge of the icy mouth. Yet the perspective wasn’t right. “From the sidelines, it looked like a normal ice climb,” says Kemple. “I wanted to capture the whole thing in a single picture. It just looked like this giant shark’s mouth.”
Kemple strung what’s known in the climbing world as a Tyrolean traverse, sort of a zip line on a 9mm rope, across the gaping moulin.
“My general philosophy on photography is that we’re in a day and age where anyone can take a picture with an iPhone,” says Tim. “So if you want to take a photo that people will remember, you have to take it from a perspective that is completely fresh and unique.”
Without a second thought other than to check his equipment was properly rigged, Kemple hooked his harness to the Tyrolean traverse using a locking carabiner, and pulled himself out hand-over-hand until he hung in midair directly over the center of the void. He held his camera up to his eye and began making pictures.
Emboldened that the rig could actually support a person’s weight, Anton followed Tim’s lead and lowered himself out onto the rope, which was as thin as his pinkie finger, and began capturing video while his feet dangled in space.
“It was one of the many things that pushed the boundaries of what I thought was possible,” says Kevin, who observed Tim and Anton dangling from the rope. “It was great being in company that knew the ropes.”
“We were all out of our comfort zones,” says Tim. “I think it’s good to be a little nervous in life.”
Into the Caves
At the edge of the Vatna, where the landscape abruptly transitions from ice to rock, are vaulted chambers that mark the exit points of meltwater and debris from the massive glacier. What if you could climb through the dead horizontal ceiling of these ice caves? Would it even be possible?
“Klem and Rahel thought I was crazy for wanting to climb inside glaciers,” says Tim, explaining that ice climbers are more accustomed to climbing vertical alpine cliffs and mountains, not overhanging glacial tubes. “But they quickly fell in love with the idea.”
“Typically, in climbing, the steeper it gets, the tougher it gets, and it’s not hard to see why: when the terrain becomes overhanging, more of your body’s weight must be supported by your arms and grip strength, whereas lower-angle terrain allows the climber to use his or her legs for support.”
Slovenia has a reputation for producing some of the boldest (some would say craziest) alpine climbers in the world—the way Brazil produces soccer players or the Dominican Republic produces Major League Baseball stars. Klemen Premrl, from Trzic, Slovenia, and a climber since age 12, falls distinctly within that category of being both bold and badass.
Klemen is also a veteran of ice-climbing World Cup competitions, which is a bit of a misnomer since oftentimes the competition course is man-made and contains no ice at all. Instead, competitors suit up with ice tools and crampons and swing around between man-made structures of wood—imagine Ninja Warrior, only with ice-climbing gear. But rarely, if ever, do climbers find a situation in the natural world where they might need to rely on these skills.
“That was what was so cool about this idea of climbing in ice caves,” says Kemple. “Klem and Rahel had never climbed totally horizontal ice before.”
Klemen spent an hour drilling all the ice screws into the roof of the chamber to provide the climbers with the protection points they would need in case they fell. Using his ice tools, he chipped and mined out shallow divots for his ice axes and crampons. Lactic acid rushed into his forearms as he gripped the shafts of his two ice tools, requiring him to occasionally let go of one ice tool to shake out his arm so it could recover enough to perform the next move.
Meanwhile, Kemple maneuvered through the translucent ice cave, thinking about perspective, composition, time, and lighting. Kemple had a wild idea here, to highlight the beauty and texture of the ice itself, rather than focusing on the climbers, despite their incredible athletic feats taking place in the background.
“There were these really beautiful textures, ripples on the sides of the walls, and I lit some of those with off-camera lighting just to bring a little bit of attention to the unique texture in the ice rather than the climbers,” says Tim. “For Klem and Rahel to have never climbed totally horizontal ice before, or even explored these glaciers in this way, we all had an experience that was completely new, and there’s something completely refreshing about that. We had no idea what we were going to find, but we all just trusted that it would work out. And in the end, it worked out great, because we didn’t try to control it. We just let things happen.”
Reaching a Summit Not Long for This World
In 1997, Klemen earned recognition when, on a trip to Canada, he climbed what was then considered the hardest water-ice route in the world. Again, because water-ice can only ever reach a steepness of 90-degrees vertical, difficulty tops out there. So, for routes to be considered “harder,” what that really means is that they just become more dangerous.
But the scariest ice climb of Klemen’s life was recently captured in a viral GoPro video in which he and a fellow countryman climb to the summit of an iceberg in Greenland. With each tentative kick of their crampons, and swing of their ice axes, they feel the entire floating mountain of ice creaking and groaning beneath them. Scared witless, they begin a retreat when suddenly half the iceberg calves away.
Fortunately, the part that fell was not the part to which they were attached.
“Climbing icebergs was probably the scariest thing I did,” says Klemen. “But if I wanted to reach out to my dreams, I needed to take that risk and handle the fear.”
Those bad memories certainly came flooding back for Klem, and the rest of the crew, as they found an iceberg to climb. However, because the water was too icy, the group was originally stumped about how they’d access the iceberg. It seemed impossible.
“It was a lightly iced-over lagoon,” Kemple said. “It was too icy for the boat, so we just walked. We put on life jackets and dry suits, and roped up together. We were like ten-year-old kids walking on a frozen pond, trying not to break through.”
The entire crew—Anton, Kevin, Klemen, Rahel, and Tim—all made it to the summit of an iceberg, “which was crazy cool,” says Tim. “This trip had one of those vibes where everything came together. I think it was because we were all overcoming personal barriers. In one sense or another, we were all outside of our comfort zones, but we were working through it, finding solutions, and overcoming. And by the end of the day, everyone was buzzing.”
But it was returning to the iceberg later in the trip for a night time long exposure that ended up being the most satisfying creative moment for Tim.
“Shooting climbers with headlamps on, 50 feet up this iceberg, with the northern lights going off in the sky. Yeah, I’ll never forget that,” says Kemple.