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Lights of Heaven

Ice Climbing in Iceland
Nadir Khan

The familiar rhythm of ice climbing; hit the ice axe once, twice, three times until it sticks solid and then repeat with the other axe. Now bring the feet up in two-three steps. The burn starts in your forearms as you place an ice screw, and then in your calf muscles and – just before the pain causes you to want to shake out the muscles – you move off again. The wind is so strong that ice is being blown up into our face rather than falling straight down. Our limbs are tired but our minds are buzzing. This is ice climbing in Iceland.
He tossed his case into the overhead locker like it was a matchbox and sat down. The Viking design carved into his scalp on the back of his bald head ought to have warned me off, but ice-climbers are not known for their discerning nature.
As a photographer, Iceland has long been on my radar. But our usual annual climbing trips – when we seek out perfect ice – take us to reliable places like the Ecrins, Cogne, or Rjukan. That Colin, a friend not known for extravagance with money, would suggest Iceland came as something of a shock. He has been known – after a challenging route – to sit idly by with complimentary bread and a dejected energy bar whilst the rest of us eat somewhat more heartily. I booked the flights before he could pull out.

Despite the hopeful expectation young men on flights all secretly harbour – being seated next to an attractive, vivacious blonde, with whom a deep and empathic bond is forged – instead we found ourselves next to a guy wearing the sort of tight tee-shirt worn by guys with muscles. He tossed his case into the overhead locker like it was a matchbox and sat down. The Viking design carved into his scalp on the back of his bald head ought to have warned me off, but ice-climbers are not known for their discerning nature. After a while, I figured it was safe enough to strike up a conversation. It turned out he sold body-building supplements and had taken part in the Strongest Man in Iceland competition before he blew out a shoulder. Curious thing was that he’d done a fair bit of ice climbing and gave us some beta on where to go to get some conditions. Small world.

Iceland, as an ice climbing destination is a bit off-the-grid – there’s no helpful Rockfax guide, yet. In fact, no guide in English at all and the only intelligence we could gather before we left the UK was on a handful of blogs. Worryingly, the parsimonious Colin had been left to organise the accommodation and he seemed to be suggesting the cost of bed and breakfast, per night for each of us was just a tenner. Needless to say, we were sceptical. Even Iceland’s strongest man in the seat next to me seemed to think we should be worried – so, frankly, we were. But we needn’t have worried; our hostel was pleasant, cheap and laid out a decent breakfast for us. Ignore, for a moment, the drains reeking of sulphur and accept that hydrogen sulphide is a stench you get used to in Iceland; it’s part of the country’s geothermal nature that the smell of rotten eggs becomes an ever-present companion.

Driving in Iceland - Photo © Nadir KhanNorthern Lights - Photo © Nadir KhanIceland Waterfalls - Photo © Nadir Khan
Our four-wheel drive hire car was competent enough for the roads we might encounter in Iceland, but it looked like a toy compared to some of the monster trucks we saw there. Huge tyres, raised wheel arches – there are some bad-ass machines out there if you have a truck fetish.

Our first two days weren’t particularly productive for ice climbing. The first area we trekked into was experiencing a massive thaw with very little ice in any sort of condition to climb. The second day saw us down on the glacier in the south, finding some bullet-hard ice to climb but not exactly the adventure we were looking for. I’ll admit to some head scratching and admitting we needed local help. The iceland.is website got us onto the right track. Iceland is a little like Scotland – a sort of cross between the far north-west and the surface of the moon, with steam shooting out of the ground. Visually, it’s stunning – a photographer’s dream – and we were lucky to get our first glimpse of the Aurora on our second night. Solitude is something special too – in the week we were there, we didn’t see a single climber. Unusual for popular destinations – routes will often be climbed several times a day and the ice then forms holds that you could almost climb with your hands, but it makes the climbing easier, both physically and psychologically, when there are other climbers around.

So, with no guidebook or hooks to follow, every route we climbed felt like a first ascent – climbing, figuring it out, looking for lines of weakness and sussing-out the descent routes or abseils. And the wind, the relentless biting wind that you couldn’t escape from no matter where you hid, felt very Scottish at times – not Cogne, thats for sure. It was a breathtaking place to photograph and to climb in and I will be back.



Iceland is a little like Scotland – a sort of cross between the far north-west and the surface of the moon, with steam shooting out of the ground. Visually, it’s stunning
Ice Climbing - Iceland - Photo © Nadir KhanIceland - Photo © Nadir KhanIce Climbing - Iceland - Photo © Nadir KhanIce Climbing - Iceland - Photo © Nadir Khan

Nadir Khan

“Passion for wild places and photography go hand in hand. Whether its capturing the sense of a climber as he works out the crux sequence to unlock a route, or catching the breath of the wind as it ripples through the wild cotton in the evening light, I hope that in my photography the viewer has a feel for the drama of those moments.”

Much of Nadir’s portfolio is around adventure sports such as rock and ice climbing, kitesurfing, mountain biking and kayaking but he also works from commission for clients who wish him to document a specific event, clothing or equipment range or expedition. In addition to this, Nadir runs workshops in adventure photography as well as lifestyle and landscape photography or can offer multi media presentations in adventure photography.

For more information on Nadir’s work, the courses he offers, or to purchase his photography, visit his website: nadirkhanphotography.co.uk or on facebook.com/nadirkhanphotography

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