Objective: Illustrate the hazards of driving across the Vatnajökull glacier by filming—from below—an ATV bridging a yawning crevasse.

Piece of cake! We crossed dozens of crevasses  98>> on our drive from the edge of the glacier to Grímsvötn. Some were small enough to feel like a bump in the road. Some had the trucks tilted at ridiculous angles, tires spinning in space. David had footage of all that, but not of the mammoth undercarriage of a truck as it crossed a gap. He had roped up and climbed into a crevasse  31>> to film Haraldur spanning a crevasse on foot. Filming a truck doing the same thing was a logical next step.

We drive down to the Grímsvötn caldera floor, an ocean of fractured ice. We drive and drive and drive across it. We drove one way, crossing tiny crevasses that could gulp your car keys forever but are much too narrow for a person to plumb. We change course and run up against a chasm too wide for the vehicles to cross. Finally, we reach the right crevasse: not too wide, not too narrow. Addi, Freyr, and I pull ice ladders  99>> from the roof of a truck while John and David scout the situation. It looks promising, so John ties into a rope and disappears over the edge. David stretches out on a ladder to rest his injured knee and await the videographer’s report.

After a few minutes John emerges, discouraged. “There’s an ice bridge here, I can’t get a clear shot.” The crew walks along the edge, searching for a better place. Mark leaps across to search from the other side. But everywhere the view is blocked. Daylight’s wasting, so finally we abandon the effort.

Objective: Film Haraldur scaling the snowy wall of the Gjalp canyon to retrieve a sample of ash from the top.

David and John have already filmed Haraldur climbing to the rim of an ice canyon to fetch ash left by Gjalp’s spectacular 1996 eruption, but his entire route was in shadow. We vowed to return for more ash and more sunlight. After searching in vain for a decent crevasse, we head back to Gjalp. We dig climbing gear out of the superjeeps and make our way down to the canyon floor.  118>>

As Haraldur pulls on harness and crampons, Mark tackles the white bluff.  126>> But he gets nowhere. Several warm, sunny days in a row have melted the ice, and his axes and crampons slip free. Mark tries clearing loose snow with the side of his axe and kicking the cliff with extra gusto. It does no good. David must scrap the effort to film the climb in sunlight.

But the return visit isn’t a complete loss: John captures footage of the bizarre ash-covered landscape, which looks like the aftermath of some nightmare industrial accident in Antarctica. “Beauty shots,” says John. “We can use that.”


© 1998 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.

A Crevasse Field
Gjalp Fissure


Photographs by
M. Ford Cochran