Objective: Film Dirty Harry climbing down Grímsvötn’s  237>> icy cliffs to examine and explain the volcano’s geology.

We’re up and out by dawn.  01>> The day before, the crew scouted the rim of the caldera for the best location, one that makes sense for Haraldur’s science and for the camera. One pitch is nearly perfect:  27>> a rock outcrop beneath a frowning harelip of ice and snow, hundreds of feet (about a hundred meters) above the wildly fractured gray ice on the caldera floor below. The light is great, the angles are great, but Haraldur rejects the site—too dangerous. Not for nothing do they call him Doctor Sigurdsson; an ice avalanche here would bring down tons of snow right on his head.

We retreat to a safer spot on the cliff near the cabins. First, both to satisfy his curiosity and to get comfortable with the team’s climbing style, Haraldur investigates a mysterious pit that recently opened in the ice. He rappels about 30 feet (about 10 meters) to the bottom and finds the cause: a natural steam vent, or fumarole. John films it all for the ages.

Then we return to the caldera for the moment of truth. One truck parks near the rim, and Mark sets ropes for Haraldur and John, using the truck’s chassis as an anchor. David, the producer, takes a position  29>> down the cliff with his tripod to grab a distant wide-angle shot. One of the team’s walkie-talkies has disappeared, so I run messages between David and Mark at the top of the pitch. They must film the climb twice: once with John, the videographer, adjacent to Haraldur for an up-close view; and once with John out of the picture, filming Haraldur from above.

John goes over the side. Haraldur goes over the side.  81>> The shot goes like clockwork, except for one snag: Haraldur’s rope is too short for him to clamber out on an exposed promontory for some footage of him literally on the edge. But David decides he’s got what he needs to make the film, and 30 minutes later the shot’s in the can.

Objective: Probe the hidden reaches of an ice cave to sample buried ash from ancient eruptions.

We don helmets and headlamps and set out on foot across the steaming terrain near our cabins. Within 20 minutes we reach a tiny portal in the ice, the entrance to a vast subglacial labyrinth.

We scramble downward beneath a scalloped blue roof of ice. At last we reach what appears to be the end of the chamber. Haraldur scouts a low tunnel near the floor. Carsten—clearly a caving fiend  09>> in his bright red waterproof suit and dual electric bulb/acetylene flame lamp—ducks in after him. After a while we hear Carsten’s muffled voice from the hole: “It keeps going.”

We plunge in after, John chasing after Haraldur to film him as he crawls through the tight passage. Suddenly the ceiling rises and we’re in an enormous, tilted chamber amid car-size blocks of fallen ice. Light filters in from a distant skylight  37>> at the end of the cavern. John shoots more footage of Haraldur—emerging from the tunnel, peering around, explaining to David how the cave formed and how eventually its walls will collapse and melt and drain away. Mark shifts nervously: “This place isn’t stable. We should get out of here.  277>>

But David still wants to capture Haraldur  90>> someplace far from daylight, collecting the samples that are his stock in trade. We explore another entrance and find a dim passage that leads to a midnight-black alcove. Like rings in a tree trunk, dark layer upon layer in the ice bear witness to a succession of forgotten summers. John places one brilliant light (enough to illuminate the wall, if not the entire room) and films the volcanologist as he hammers away earnestly, stopping to explain this eerie place. We pause briefly on the way out to film water dripping from icy stalactites and Haraldur’s triumphant exit. It’s a wrap.


© 1998 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.

Scaling the Cliff
John: “You need to do it twice.”

Gjalp Caldera

Ice Stalactites

Photographs by
M. Ford Cochran