John, you have just returned from guiding PolarExplorer's ski expedition across the Vatnajökull Glacier in Iceland. How would you describe this expedition?
It was an amazing trip. Everything about it was awesome, from our first night in Reykjavik, to the eight days on the glacier, which was some of the best ski touring of my life. We experienced all four seasons, sometimes over the course of one day! The scenery was gorgeous with spires and peaks abounding. And skiing over volcanoes, seeing steam rising out of vents, was just so cool. Add to that the perfect group of fun, positive people who were excited to have a good time. All in all I give it an 11 out of 10 on my scale of favorite places.
Describe your favorite day?
On day five we started a gradual ascent towards Öræfajökull, which is a giant dormant volcano along the south coast of Iceland. The ascent was a transition between the relative flat landscape of the glacier to the alpine environment of the mountains. We made camp half way up the ascent. It was a beautiful evening… sunny, calm and clear. We had an incredible view of our last 20 miles on the glacier and the mountains beyond that encircled us. That evening there was a collective feeling of accomplishment for what we had just done and excitement for the days to come.
What was the most challenging part of the expedition?
The unpredictable weather kept us on our toes. The morning could be clear, then by noon we might have low to zero visibility, followed by a bout of sleet and wind, then by evening clear weather again. We were constantly adapting.
You’ve spent time on other glaciers, how does Vatnajökull compare?
Vatnajökull is a huge glacier. It covers over 8% of Iceland and it creates its own weather. Traversing the glacier by ski is a real commitment. The weather can turn quickly and the wind can be ferocious. However, the terrain is not steep and the skiing is very enjoyable, even on the long days. We often skied along side one another passing the miles by swapping stories. Towards the end of the expedition we traveled roped-up and moved as a team through partially crevassed terrain. I like that the beginning of the route is simple and it gradually becomes more technical. It’s a nice progression.
What piece of gear were so glad to have?
My softshell jacket was the perfect layer. I wore it almost all the time. I also had a bomber waterproof shell and pants that kept me dry when we had sleet. And, of course, Annie’s mini-guitar, “Guitarita,” provided some great entertainment.
What did you think of Reykjavik?
It’s a very cool town. I’m definitely excited to go back and explore the night life, museums and surrounding hills. There is a lot going on, a lot of history. It’s very accessible by foot and the bus system is quite good for the surrounding areas.
How was the ride to your starting point on Vatnajökull?
It was exciting and a great transition from city life to the wilderness of the glacier. Once we left the highway we had nearly 5 hours of slow going over very rugged terrain including black desserts of volcanic ash, snowfields and thawing rivers. Those 5 hours flew by because of all the beautiful and interesting things to look at through the windows. We had very experienced drivers and they told us all about the history of our route and points of interest. We had two trucks to transfer our team and at one point one of the trucks got stuck climbing a creek bank and it sank up to its axels. It looked bad, but our drivers were masters of off-road driving and after some digging and winching we were on our way. This was serious off road travel!
What’s one thing that makes this trip so unique?
It’s hard to pinpoint just one thing. There are so many! OK, here’s one… The Grimsvotn volcano is Iceland’s most active volcano. We spent two nights on its caldera rim in an incredible hut (the Grimsfjall Hut). This hut was different than any other backcountry hut I’ve stayed in. It had a fully functioning kitchen and a geothermal sauna (yes, a SAUNA!). We made baked brie, ate it with red wine, then relaxed in the sauna to sweat out the day's many miles of skiing. It was incredible. I will dream about this hut the next time I’m camping.
What advice would you give to someone considering doing this expedition?
Go! Don’t hesitate! Take extra time to prepare for the weather. It can be cold, wet, windy, or warm (even hot!) and very sunny. Waterproof your kit and don’t forget your sunscreen! A hat with a brim is nice for the sunny days, and bring extra batteries for your camera. The scenery is incredible!
Any final comments?
Yes, two. With a little practice you’ll be able to master a few Icelandic words but they are tounge-twisters for sure. Good luck! And second, don’t be afraid to sample the local fare. Eating whale and puffin wasn’t that bad… it certainly beat the fermented shark!
John Barkhausen hails from the Midwest. He grew up whitewater boating and skiing throughout North America. He followed his passions though college earning a Wilderness Leadership Degree from Prescott College. He guides expeditions around the world. Some of his favorite corners of the globe include Alaska, British Columbia, New Zealand, Greece and Iceland. He holds certifications with the AMGA (American Mountain Guide Association), WMI (Wilderness Medical Institute), PSIA (Professional Ski Instructors Assoc.) and American Avalanche Association. In his down time he brews beers, plays guitar and writes both creatively and for industry periodicals.