“I’ve been on ice with ropes, axes, crampons. It always makes me nervous. Driving across a glacier? That’s insane.”—Mark Synnott, rigger

We travel across the Vatnajökull glacier in a pair of ATVs   141>> (all-terrain vehicles) on steroids, two souped-up Toyota Land Cruisers dubbed superjeeps by Addi and Freyr. The drive from our guest house on the fringe of the glacier to our home-away-from-home—cabins on the rim of Grímsvötn caldera, a cresting wave of rock in a sea of ice—is about 70 miles (100 kilometers) and takes at least 4 hours.

What makes the superjeeps so spiff?

  • Gigantic Tires   91>>
    Addi and Freyr deflate these for maximum traction in ice and snow. They look like spinning accordions but do the job, boldly taking us where only snowcats and skiers could have gone before the advent of the superjeep. A hose from beneath the hood permits the driver to jump out and reinflate the tires when road conditions become more, well, roadlike.

  • Ice Ladders
    These allow the jeeps to cross the widest crevasses. We attach them to the roof when we're not using them. (We also have winches for hoisting the vehicles out when the ladders don’t quite do the trick.)

  • Several Hundred Liters of Diesel Fuel   22>>
    Running out of gas on Vatnajökull is not advised.

  • Global Positioning System (GPS)
    Using the same satellite navigation techniques as jet pilots, we drive along routes that skirt the ugliest cliffs, pits, ice caves, and crevasse fields—except when those are our destinations.

  • Altimeter and Roll and Pitch Gauges   266>>
    These tell us whether or not we’ve exceeded the 40-degree climb angle the superjeeps can maintain on a slippery slope.

  • CB Radios and Cellular Phones
    These keep us in touch with the outside world—and with each other in a whiteout.

Climbing and Caving
We’ve got the usual stuff: harnesses, static and elastic ropes, ice screws and ice anchors, ice axes for hands and crampons   11>> for boots, helmets, lights, carabiners galore.

Audiovisual Gear
John and David carry digital camcorders, digital videotapes, expedition batteries, and lights (for night and caving shots).

Iceland’s Glacialogical Society (a group of scientists and outdoor enthusiasts with a patriotic passion for ice) has built cabins on the rim of Grímsvötn volcano. They’re cushier than some of Iceland’s finest hotels. For one thing, it’s hard to beat the view on a sunny day—the vast white glacier stretching to the horizon like a cloud ceiling glimpsed from an airplane window.

The cabins are heated by pipes drilled directly into the geothermal field below, which releases intense heat. Shovel clean snow into a steel pot perched on a steaming pipe outside and five minutes later—voilà—you have fresh water. You must pass through three doors just to get inside the main cabin. The doors form a double protection against the elements.

There are propane lights and a propane stove and padded bunks for sleeping. And in a separate cabin there’s a heated bathroom, shower, and sauna   158>>. Yeah, that’s right, a sauna in the middle of nowhere.


© 1998 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.

Inside the Superjeep

Road Kill

Freyr: “Crazy stuff”
Inside the Cabin

All Photographs by
Ford Cochran