Climbing Iceland's Greatest Glacier
‘Our challenge is to visit places that others have already been to, then figure out how to interpret the landscape in a unique way, make it our own. The one ingredient adventure does need 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.’ – Tim Kemple
This is an era in which we’ve seen it all before – a dilemma, certainly, for photographers in 2015. It might seem that opportunities for new adventure and striking photography 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 this predicament is his greatest source of inspiration. ‘We’re in this new age of exploration right now,’ Tim says.
So with this in mind, Tim planned a journey into the heart of Europe’s largest glacier with a diverse group of people, in order to try to re-interpret this stark and ephemeral kingdom through his own unique perspective.
The Vatna Glacier covers 8% of Iceland and is 2,000ft thick in parts. Under it lie mountains, valleys, and even active volcanoes. This is the largest protected area in Europe, and one of the most beautiful with its wild landscapes of ice, waterfalls, caves, and unique species of birds and wildlife.
Tim teamed up with Klemen Premrl, a world-champion ice climber from Slovenia, and Rahel Schelb, a full-time teacher from Switzerland who is gaining a reputation as one of Europe’s top female climbers. ‘What was really cool about this trip is that it was a creative adventure for everyone,’ Tim says. ‘For me because I wasn’t there shooting someone else’s campaign, and for the climbers because they had never climbed such overhanging ice before.’
Typical water-ice climbs are rarely steeper than 90 degrees. These may seem extremely challenging to the layperson, but even average climbers 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 formed by gravity,’ Kemple says. ‘There are ice caves and tubes that form at the edge of the glacier from rivers flowing underneath the surface. And there are moulins, like giant sinkholes that go down into the centre of the glacier for hundreds of feet and look like the inside walls of a silo.’
The ability to tolerate discomfort and 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.’
While exploring the intricate world of the glacier, crampons scratching like nails on a chalkboard atop the frozen surface, Klemen and Rahel came upon a grand moulin that opened like a whale’s mouth to a black abyss. The climbers made plans to rappel 200ft down before climbing back out, up the steep walls using an ice axe in each hand. The front points of their crampons, kicked mere millimetres into the ice, would support their entire weight underfoot.
Kemple walked around the perimeter of the moulin before perching right at the edge of the icy mouth. Yet the perspective wasn’t right. ‘From the sidelines, it looked like a normal ice climb,’ Kemple says. ‘I wanted to capture the whole thing in a single picture. It just looked like this giant shark’s mouth.’
Kemple strung a Tyrolean traverse – like a zip-line on a 9mm rope – across the gaping moulin.
‘Anyone can take a picture with an iPhone,’ Tim says. ‘So if you want to take a photo that people will remember, you have to take it from a completely fresh and unique perspective.’
Kemple hooked his harness to the Tyrolean traverse using a locking carabiner, and pulled himself out hand-over-hand until he hung directly over the centre of the void. Then he began making pictures.
‘If you’re the only one out there because it’s too cold, too wet, or too scary to get a shot, then you’re the only one getting the shot.’
Slovenia has a reputation for producing some of the boldest alpine climbers in the world. 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 – a bit of a misnomer since the competition courses are often man-made and contain no ice at all. Instead, competitors suit up with ice tools and crampons and swing around between man-made wooden structures. But rarely do climbers find a situation in the natural world where they might need these skills.
‘That was what was so cool about this idea of climbing in ice caves,’ Kemple says. ‘Klem and Rahel had never climbed totally horizontal ice before.’
Klemen spent an hour drilling ice screws into the roof of the chamber to provide the climbers with the protection they would need in case they fell. He chipped out shallow divots for his ice axes and crampons. Lactic acid rushed into his forearms as he gripped the shafts of his ice tools, and occasionally he’d have to let go of one tool to shake out an arm so it could recover.
Meanwhile, Kemple manoeuvred through the translucent ice cave, thinking about perspective, composition, time, and lighting. Kemple wanted 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 to draw attention to the unique texture in the ice rather than the climbers,’ Tim says. ‘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. 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.’
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