by Leslie Anthony
There’s a natural human temptation to exaggerate over that in which we are in awe, and storms fall easily into that category. On a recent film shoot along the north coast of Iceland for Salomon Freeski TV, where every member of our crew of big-mountain athletes, photographers, and cinematographers had seen and been through the best and worst that winter had to offer many times over—including big, strong coastal tempests—we weren’t expecting any surprises. After all, we were snow people, denizens of the world’s highest and wildest places who’d spent much time waiting out bad weather. Having seen it all (or thinking such), there was then no way to oversell the force of the storm that descended on us; it continues to exist on the edge of exaggeration because it was indeed difficult, despite all of our collective experiences, to imagine such a fierce weather bomb.
We’d spent most of March 19 filming short couloir descents above the crashing surf along the north coast until, around 4 p.m., decreasing visibility and a steadily rising wind that tore objects from people’s grasp demanded we retreat along the road through a system of protected tunnels and back to the town of Dalvík, then inland to the converted sheep farm that acted as base for Icelandic guide J.B. Bergmenn’s Arctic Heliskiing operation. By the time we’d passed Dalvík and turned back onto the Skíðadalur (The Ski Valley) road toward the farm it had been snowing and blowing for hours, and we were breaking through the drifts that now crept across the road. By dinnertime the wind was a steady 60 kph gusting to 80—about the level that would shutter all upper lifts at Whistler—and it was a mild chore to walk the 30 metres from the converted barn in which some of us were bunking to the farmhouse where meals were served. Over the next few hours the wind speed increased steadily, and by the time we went to bed there was a genuine, continuous, preternatural roar coming from outside that you couldn’t help be aware of and which wouldn’t cease for days. The fetch was straight out of the north over open ocean, the cold air over warm water creating an ultra-moist flow accompanied by snow falling at 8-10 cm/hr but accumulating only where wind eddies formed—behind buildings and in hollows.
Overnight the wind began its creeping probe of our dwellings, jacking open windows and even blowing in a door on the second floor of the barn. Inside, small drifts formed in front of even the most microscopic cracks; the front edges of these mini-drifts melted to create puddles that spread across window sills and floors Everywhere you looked was something that engendered a feeling of being under siege.
Next morning was a shock, both in the amount of snow (over a metre) and the ferocity and relentlessness of the wind, now blowing at a steady, unimaginable 90+ kph, gusting well over 100 every few minutes and the intense whiteout making walking so difficult that the trip between the barn and house often inspired crawling on hands and knees. Pathways were moot and no footprint lasted longer than five minutes; if you paused in your stride you could turn and watch your progress being erased in real time. Every trip to the house for a meal was different than the trip back, the landscape changed that quickly. Drifts appeared, disappeared, and appeared again at the whim of minor direction changes in the wind. Eventually the main drift “seedlings” took hold and settled in, growing, like Jack’s magic beans, to astronomical proportions in only hours. Soon we had to clamber up the face of a head-high drift just to get into the wind tunnel between a low shed and the barn that guarded the door to the latter; moving froward through the swirling vortex of this space was an exercise in lesser evils, alternating between walking straight ahead, looking directly into the gale and risking seeing nothing, or defaulting to feeling your way slowly along the wall. Digging doors out every few hours seemed fruitless but had to be done. The single helicopter—parked outside in the space cleared between a copse of buildings and which had long since been quilted and tied down—still seemed ready to take off at the whim of the wind. A carpenter working on the barn who lived down the road arrived mid-day; he had to drive a tractor to make it down the road, using the loader on the front end as a tool to ratchet his way up inclines. He barely made it home and the second day, after the wind and snow actually increased, he didn’t show up.
By then, full outerwear and gloves and goggles were du rigeur outside to ensure you didn’t get lost or have other problems. The combination of terrifically low pressure and high wind was so intense that it actually sucked away your breath; you were huffing after 10 steps, in part due to this peculiarity and in part due to the adrenaline rush provoked by even being outside. Each two-minute walk became more of a battle for direction and route, the amount of precipitation coating you more exaggerated and the exclamations over it more pronounced: “That’s insane!” “Holy shit!” “Jeezuz!” People stumbled into the foyers of house or barn with the comportment of someone who’d just crossed Antarctica.
Consummate mountain men were humbled: at one point two left the house at the same time to go to the studio space in the barn for a down-day stretching session. Only one of them made it, the pair were separated after only a dozen steps and unable to see or hear each other; no one knew where the missing fellow had gone until it was later revealed he’d arrived at the wrong door—similar to the one he sought but snowed in to the top—and turned back. At one point I was on my way to the barn and, while climbing the large snowdrift at the mouth of the wind tunnel inadvertently angled slightly left only to find myself on the corrugated roof of the shed. One person departed the sauna for the house (ten steps away), and found himself atop buried cars in what used to be a parking area. It was comedy, sure, but indicative of the kind of tragedy that easily befalls people in such conditions. Every minute outside suggested polar travel where this can go on for days, but 60 hours of it was lesson enough, and as winds fluttered down in the last 12 hours or so, snow deposition really increased in open areas. In the end, over three metres of snow fell, with some drifts in our compound standing six-plus metres high and rendered rock hard. So compacting was the wind that when we dug our van out—literally chiseling out one side with shovels to get at it—and cleared the engine compartment of drifted snow to push it out, we found it had left an impression on the opposite snow wall like a fossil.
Lodge manager (and J.B.’s mom) Anna, who grew up on this very farm, was amused at our thrall of the storm. She noted that the climate had very much changed around here in the past 15 years, with generally less snow and warmer temps, but that storms like this weren’t uncommon in the past, and often lasted weeks. “When I was 11, I once didn’t go to school for three weeks because of a storm,” she recalls. “And after the first week the electricity went out. So I went outside with my dad to dig a hole in the snow to put in the contents of our freezer, and we had to rope ourselves together so we didn’t blow away or get lost.”
Iceland is no stranger to Arctic storms, but this one was all over the news as the amount of snow in the northern capital of Akureryi would take weeks to clear, and the wind had been so strong along the coast at the height of the storm that it picked up a shipping container in the fishing village of Siglufjörður and flung it into a house. A neighbour from another the farm who arrived on snowmobile after the storm with some local rescue people, said that in all the years she’d lived in Iceland the only similar storm had been the blow of New Year’s 2012—but that even that wasn’t quite this bad.
The aftermath was impressive: buildings and vehicles disappeared. Planted forests along the valley walls shrunk by measurable percentages—the trees subsumed by drifts on the downwind side. Dalvík’s tiny town ski area was literally gone—the lone draglift still standing, but the ground blown clean of snow despite the prodigious amounts that fell. The plows would take two days to make it to the farmhouse and it would be cause for celebration. When the storm cleared off entirely and the sky was very briefly clear, the magnitude and temper of the mountains beneath which we huddled made themselves known. While stars pricked the firmament above, a phosphorescent band of Northern Lights arched over thousand-metre alabaster pyramids cupping small remnant glaciers, the level benches lining the mountainsides like railings attesting to their once much-larger size and leaving us with the feeling that, for all it’s momentary human drama, what we’d really witnessed was a good ol’ fashioned Pleistocene demonstration entitled: How to Build a Glacier.