William Lord Watts

Across the Vatna Jökull

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The Vatna

All things were now ready, and the day had at length arrived when we were to assail the Vatna again. We rose betimes, but it was 12 A.M. before we were fairly on our way. I took leave of the bóndi Ayólver, who would not charge me anything for my own board and for the keep of my own horses. He was too unwell to accompany us to the Vatna, and seemed quite upset at saying good-bye, as he said he felt sure it would be for the last time, whether we got across the Jökull or not. I cheered him up, and said, I hoped some day or another to come to Núpstađ again; and so we started on horseback, and, after crossing the river Djupá [1] , we commenced the ascent of Kálfafellsfjall [2] , which hill lay between us and the Vatna.

The journey was a very trying one to the horses; it is so at the best of times, but now the melting snow still laid thickly, and in places had converted the unstable soil into quicksands. In some parts it was necessary to cross ravines full of snow, which had melted underneath, leaving the bottom of the ravine roofed. The horses fought very shy of these snow-roofed valleys, and when we came to any hole which had been formed by the subsidence of a portion of the snow into the valley beneath, it was with difficulty we could get them along, as the noise of the stream, which invariably ran below, made them rather fractious. But the snow having regelated into an indurated compact mass, was often some yards in thickness, so I do not think there was any real danger of sinking through it. These preliminary difficulties were soon disposed of, and 6 P.M. found us at that point where the rocks terminate and the eternal snows of the Vatna [3] commence.

Vatna Jökull

A squall of sleet and wind now rolled down upon us. I immediately directed two men to prepare some coffee, for we had brought wood for that purpose, while some gave the horses a feed of hay, and others unpacked the burdens they had carried so luckily from Núpstađ. The coffee was soon ready, the storm cleared, and the scene must have bordered on the picturesque, or perhaps the "unique," as we all clustered round the remnant of the fire, amid the different packages that were to cross the Vatna, our horses pawing the ground, impatient to return to their pastures. The grand white Jökull lay before us, the black crags of the fjalls behind us, and the roar of the Djúpá in our ears, while a beautiful rainbow spanned the eastern sky — a harbinger, we trusted, of good success.

Here we took leave of Paul's father and his cousin Arni, directing them where to wait for us with the horses, in the north of the island. The evening promised to be showery ; but having a lively reminiscence of the black sand of this locality, which at our last year's encampment upon this spot got into our ears, our eyes, and our food, I determined to advance and camp, as soon as we needed to do so, upon the deep snow, although my men had already begun to put up a temporary abode with loose stones from the terminal moraine of the Jökull.

On the Vatna

At this point last year the Jökull was a crevassed glacier, whose surface was covered with aiguilles and hummocks of black sand and ice. But all traces of the glacier were buried beneath a vast accumulation of snow! From the first we were able to use our sleighs, and, turning due northward, we left the habitable world behind us, being face to face with the hardest piece of our summer work. As far as the eye could see was one lifeless, pathless wilderness of snow, destitute alike of animal, insect, or floral life. Our footsteps gave no sound, and our very voices seemed strange in this drear solitude, the death-like stillness of whose snowy wastes is broken only by the howling of the storm, or the outburst of a volcano! It was evident that a much greater snowfall had taken place during the past winter than in the preceding one, and the newly-fallen snow took us up to our knees, making our progress very difficult and slow. After about three hours' dragging, it began to snow, and a thick fog enveloped us, so I decided to encamp. The plan I usually adopt for sleeping in the snow—and I believe one of the warmest and best methods—is to dig a square hole, three, or four feet deep; over this I pitch my tent, banking it well round the sides with snow. I then spread the sleeping bag at the bottom of the hole, with the hoods doubled down over the ends to prevent any snow getting into it. If a storm is blowing, I cast up a bank of snow to windward, and take everything that will be required for immediate use into the tent. The next thing is to draw the sleighs up to the door of the tent; so that if anything extra is required it can be procured without much difficulty, and having stuck up all sticks and shovels firmly in the snow, to prevent their getting covered up and lost, we turn in, changing our wet or snowy clothes sitting upon the waterproof exterior of the bag, and, putting on a dry change, we all get into the bag, having previously fixed up waterproof coats upon the snowy wall at each end, to lean against. If it is not freezing very hard, we hang our snowy clothes upon a line at the top of our tent, with our satchels, &c.; but if it is freezing hard we put them underneath the bed. Snow is then melted, soup or chocolate is made, and rations served, which, with a small allowance of grog, pipes, and a song all round, finish our labours for the day or night, as the case may be, and we go to sleep.

This was the manner in which we now camped, six of us occupying the sleeping-bag, much after the manner of sardines in a sardine box, the remaining four, who were only to accompany us as far as Mount Paul, made themselves as comfortable as they could with rugs and mackintosh coats in the front part of the tent. I ordered every man to fill his flask with snow and put it in his pocket, that each might have a drink of water when he awoke, and in the course of an hour nothing could be heard but the heavy, stentorian breathing of nine out of ten of our party. Having posted up my diary, I slept well for an hour, when I was awakened by a sudden commotion at the other end of the tent. I called out to Paul for an explanation, saying, "Holloa! what's the matter at your end?" He replied in a deep, solemn voice, " Now is the dumb beating his feet." Although our dumb friend's feet were doubtless cold, I could not allow that method of warming them in a tent only 10 by 6 1/2 feet, and I therefore directed that another man should chafe the dumb man's feet and cuddle them up in his arms. The morning brought us only fog and storm, but after a few hours the latter abated. I served out some warm soup, and we got under weigh. After an hour the fog became so dense, the snow so soft and deep, and a determined sleet had set in, that I was obliged reluctantly to call a halt. Between nine and ten in the evening the weather cleared, the wind shifted to'the north-west and the sun came out, and we again advanced; but the snow being up to our knees, I perceived I was tiring my men. So after going on a few miles I again halted, as it had begun to freeze, and the probability was that in about two hours the snow would be firm enough to travel on. Casting up a bank of snow to windward, we six turned into our bag upon the surface of the snow, leaving the tent and all other wraps for our four extra men.

It was bitterly cold, but the atmosphere was very clear. By 3 A.M. I roused my men; the thermometer registered 20° Fahrenheit of frost; a firm crust had formed upon the snow which bore us bravely. It was a glorious morning and a stiff north wind was blowing; the sleigh travelled merrily along, and as the sun illumined the magnificent snow slopes around us, everything seemed to promise fine weather and success. The pure element we were breathing seemed to give us fresh life and strength, and made us feel equal to the work before us. After three hours one of the men (Vikfúss) gave out, said he could go no further, and lay down upon the snow; but as there were not nearly so many degrees of frost now, the man was warmly clad, and I had a great idea he was shirking, I left him behind, much against the will of his companions. Before we were half a mile away I had the satisfaction of seeing him following, apparently not very much the worse for wear. The ascent from the first had been a very gradual slope of snow, which now became undulating and somewhat steeper, especially upon the N.E., where steeps of snow swept up to the mountain. I last year named Vatna Jökull "Housie,"from the great resemblance which its summit [4] , then free from snow, bore, when viewed in one aspect, to the roof of a house. The likeness was now much less striking, from its being all white.

I can scarcely go on without remarking upon the excellence of the postman from Rauđberg. He was always cheerful, willing and obliging, and had twice the hardihood and strength of the other men. I only regretted I could not take him right across the Vatna, but his postal duties would not admit of so prolonged an absence. We sighted Mount Paul at 9 A.M. Here we made a good breakfast, and our disabled man having slunk up, he made better progress with his meal than he did with his sleigh.

Mount Paul
Mount Paul [5] is a cluster of one large and several smaller volcanic eminences, rising to the height of 150 feet above the surrounding snow. A semi-circular pit being thawed out by the radiation of the sun's rays from the south side of the mountain, we found here an abundant supply of water. The mountain is composed of varieties of obsidian, varying from the highly vitreous to the grey stony variety; one portion of it consists of vitreous obsidian cementing together multitudes of the concretionary forms commonly known as spherolites.

We slept for two or three hours ; but the state of the snow was such that it was impossible to get the sleighs through it. I sent back my four extra men, for they had little or nothing to carry, and we had left them a good supply of provisions at the com- mencement of the Jökull. As the accommodation. in the tent was but small for them, and it seemed to promise bad weather, they preferred forcing their way back through the soft snow to running the chance of being weather-bound for three or four days. They had not been gone away many hours when it began to rain, and as night drew on it became more and more evident that there would be no frost. The wind had shifted to the S.S.E., the thermometer stood at 33° Fahr., and as the night advanced the snow became so soft and rotten that in some places it took us up over our knees.

The next day the wind was still S.S.E., and the fog and sleet were as bad as ever; and as progress was impossible, I minutely inspected the rocks of Mount Paul. They rise from a large crater now filled with snow. To the south-east is a pit-crater partially filled with snow. Mount Paul is composed almost entirely of pearlite and obsidian. This is the only place in Iceland in which I have found obsidian "in situ." The west side of the mountain particularly attracted my attention, being composed of multitudes of spherolites cemented together by obsidian. Thou- sands of these small globular formations had been weathered out of the obsidian, and in some places one might have collected a hat-full.

Night brought no improvement in the weather; and a somewhat remarkable scene presented itself of six men lying in a hole in the snow, 4250 feet [6] above the sea-level, in Iceland, all hoping for a frost—but no frost came, and morning found us in the same position. This was very aggravating for one who had spent much money, time and labour, in order to complete a survey across the Vatna Jökull; but the day was fine, and I could post up my diary, plan for the future, learn Icelandic, eat, drink and smoke, upon the volcanic debris on the leeward side of Mount Paul, where the thermometer at midday rose to 75 and 80 degrees [7] in the sun, and it was infinitely preferable to lying in the snow. Towards evening it began to freeze, so we packed up our sleighs and retired to Mount Paul, until the crust was strong enough to bear the weight of the sleigh. By ten p.m. there were twelve degrees of frost, and the wind blew freshly from the N.W. The crust now bore the sleigh, but we sank through it up to our knees at every step. This was such laborious work that after two hours we halted, hoping the crust would soon become firmer; but we were doomed to disappointment, for after a while the wind suddenly shifted to the S.E., and almost simultaneously a fog appeared. However, we were soon upon our legs, and although the surface of the snow became worse and worse, and we sank deeper and deeper into it as we proceeded, we managed to do five hours' work by halting every quarter of an hour.

About 3 P.M. I noticed a curious phenomenon. The sun was above the horizon, and was occasionally discernible through the fog — for at this time of the year at this altitude, about 4500 feet, the sun can scarcely be said to set—appearing to move in a circle from the meridian westward, and still keeping above the horizon to almost due north, where it dips for about half-an-hour, appearing again about N.N.E., and by six p.m. it bears due east, some forty degrees above the horizon. A strong current of air was drifting the clouds and fog at our level across the surface of the Jökull from the S.E., while dark masses of cloud were perfectly discernible passing at a very rapid rate across the face of the sun from a precisely opposite direction.

The storm now increased in violence, and we were soon so surrounded by whirling clouds of snow that it was impossible to distinguish from what quarter the wind was blowing. The compass had for a long time been almost useless, in all probability owing to the magnetic ore contained in the rocks which underlie the snows of the Jökull. This rendered us entirely dependent upon the wind and the sun for our direction. In clear weather, where the compass is useless, I always steer by a circular piece of card marked off into four right angles, so that by carefully taking the angular bearings of all distinguishable objects, one is able to steer a pretty straight course.

Being now unable to avail myself of either compass, sun, wind, or card, nothing remained for us but another halt. For two days the storm continued and it would have been impossible to get many yards away from the tent without being lost. On the third day at noon the storm abated, the wind shifted due east, and the sun broke through the clouds. We all turned out, but it was useless to think of struggling through the loose, deep snow. We took our bed out to dry it, for it was wet with the exhalations from our bodies. This, however, was rather against the wish of some of my men, upon whom the inactivity of the last few days had begun to tell. I observed two black peaks protruding through the snow, one about five miles due north [8] , and the other about eleven miles N.W. [9] I was surprised to find a considerable quantity of volcanic ash upon the snow, of a fine, light, grey description. This appeared the more remarkable, as I knew of no volcano that had been in eruption south of the Vatna Jökull, and the storm had blown almost entirely from the S.E. Moreover, I was aware there was no ash of that kind anywhere upon the south. It appeared to me that this must have been carried either from an erupting volcano, or from some ash-strewn district to the north of the Jökull, by a current of air travelling in a different direction to the S.S.E. wind which we had experienced during the last few days, and bisecting the latter current at a point south of our present position, had been unable to resist its force, and had been carried by it to the place where it was now lying.

We here obtained an excellent view of the Vatna Jökull Housie, which appeared to be higher than any other 'point on the Jökull, our present height being 4500 feet — the summit of the Housie being at least 1500 feet above us [10] . Its form is a lop-sided cone, from which I could trace, through my telescope, the course of huge lava streams, now deeply buried in the snow, but still leaving unequal ridges upon each side of the mountain, and in some instances extending to a considerable distance upon the main body of the Vatna Jökull. An extensive eruption of one of these snow-covered volcanoes must be awful, when any vast volume of lava is suddenly ejected upon such a tremendous accumulation of frozen material; but minor eruptions and smaller streams of lava, I should think, can make but little impression upon such an enormous quantity of snow in the first instance. Probably (unless there has been any great amount of sand or ashes previously ejected) they melt their way through the snow to the rocky bed of the mountain, and forming a sort of tube by the aid of the rapidly consolidated crust upon their surface continue their course, much as a lava stream would upon ordinary ground, or more especially, perhaps, at the bottom of the sea, without occasioning any very remarkable phenomena, and even the effect of the most extensive eruptions must of necessity be but local.

By 4 P.M. the wind shifted back to its old quarter, S.S.E., and, despairing of frost, we again betook our- selves to the tent. Towards midnight, for about the twentieth time, I went out with Paul to look at the weather. We tried the sleighs, and found it was as much as one man could do to pull a sleigh with nothing on it, and a very small weight almost buried the sleigh in the snow, and enabled it to resist our united efforts to get it along. During our experi- ment we sunk very deep into the snow. For the last three days I had put every one on half rations, and as anything is better than inactivity with insufficient food, we determined to abandon our sleighs and attempt to force our way through the snow, carrying everything upon our backs. It was rather foggy and sleeting, but the wind was blowing pretty steadily. We communicated our determination to the rest of our party, and they quietly accepted it without a murmur. We packed up everything, and leaving our sleighs and a gathering storm behind us, we turned our faces northward with a cheer which was more animated than might have been expected under the circumstances. I must say our position bore rather a forlorn aspect. Six men heavily laden, wading through snow up to their knees at every step, no view but an ever-advancing circle of gloom, the only variation being that it was darker towards the south, from which quarter a strong wind was blowing, with squalls of sleet and snow. About every quarter of an hour we had to stop from sheer exhaustion, and after two or three hours' arduous toil two of my men became quite incapacitated and too ill to proceed. This was evidently not a case of sham. I therefore halted, and served out with all speed some warm grog; one man was spitting blood, and another was suffering severe pains in the stomach. I had previously advised every man to wear a cloth bandage round his stomach, but none of them had cared to do so. I suffered rather from pains in the bowels the previous year upon the Vatna Jökull, but I was now wearing an abdominal bandage of tarred cloth, and throughout our prolonged stay upon the snow suffered no inconvenience whatever. The next day was finer, with sunshine and increased cold, with snow at intervals, the thermometer being below freezing point all day; one of the sick men had recovered, but the other was still too ill to travel. Towards evening the wind blew from the west, and it began to freeze hard. I therefore sent back for the sleighs, which we had taken the precaution to stand upright and fix firmly in the snow before we left them.

By 9 P.M. it was freezing very sharply. I served out an allowance of warm grog, and as the invalid was greatly recovered and said he would rather die than go back, we again struck N.N.E., allowing him to go free. We had packed everything on one of the sleighs, four pulling and one pushing behind, and so firm a crust had now formed upon the surface of the snow that this heavily laden sleigh travelled as easily as an empty one would have done the evening before. We now gradually ascended until at 1 A.M. we reached a rolling plain, at the height of 5750 feet. It was perfectly clear in the west, and I obtained a good view of Tungufell's and Arnarfell's Jökulls, which from the angle they made with our line of march, showed me we were two-thirds of the way across the Vatna Jökull. [11] It was still very thick in the south and east, and the wind had shifted to the south-west. An ice-storm was almost the immediate result, a driving mist encrusting everything with ice; the undulations in the plateau became more and more marked, the variation in altitude being sometimes as much as 100 feet or more. A most obdurate mist continued to prevent our obtaining any further view, which was very exasperating, as we might have passed within a short distance of objects of interest without being conscious of the fact.

We made our first halt at 3 A.M.) and took a light meal of Peek and Frean's meat biscuits and snow. When I say snow I do not mean the pure white frosty snow which lies upon the surface, but the coarse, granular, icy particles of which the crust we were walking upon was composed. I have often been dependent upon snow for the water supply, both in North-West America and upon mountains, and I find the coarser the snow is, and the more it approaches the character of ice, the better it quenches the thirst, and the less likely it is to occasion pain in the stomach. When the fine white snow only can be procured, as every tyro knows, it can be made more palatable by compressing it into a snowball. In other words, the less cold air is swallowed, entangled in the snow, the better; for the very act of squeezing the snow causes it to part with some portion of air, as is shown by the change of colour, as it regelates towards the form of ice. Thus we preferred the coarse icy granules, which formed the crust upon the older snow, to the pure white tempting frost- snow which, owing to the extra amount of air it contained, must have been of a considerably lower temperature than the granulated snow beneath. We were now at the height of 5900 feet, and the temperature was 15° of frost. The rim of the sun was occasionally observable through the fog which surrounded us, giving us a good line to steer by, and bright fog-bows escorted us to windward, but these were simply bows, and had none of the cruciform corona in the interior, which were so observable upon the Myrdal's Jökull last year. At 6 P.M. we reached a steep ascent, where our compass twisted and turned about in the most eccentric fashion; the heavens became black as night to windward, the wind had risen, and was making the peculiar booming noise I have often remarked in these regions before a storm, and driving a blinding, pitiless drifting snow before it, which eddied about the sleigh and wrapped itself around us, as if longing to enshroud and bury us in its frozen toils. But we had an idea of burying ourselves in our own fashion. "Oskóp mikill stormur kémur bráđum" (A bad storm is coming on presently), said Eyólfur, sitting down for a moment on the sleigh, and clapping his feet together to knock off the snow which was clinging to his legs, and we were all of the same opinion. We were at the height of 6150 feet, so I ordered a hole to be dug, and the tent to be pitched. The snow was very hard and firm, even at the depth of four feet, and we cut out as clean a hole as if it had been in salt, but the wind drifted so much loose snow into it, that the men were obliged to hold up the tent to windward during its completion. We had barely got ourselves snug and commenced breakfast, when the storm burst upon us, seeming to threaten the tearing up of the very snow in which we had taken refuge; and had not former experience taught us to fortify our tent well all round with banks of snow, I have no doubt it would have been the last we should have seen of that article of furniture. Being satisfied that all was snug, and that the worst which could happen to us was that we might be buried a few feet in the snow, we went to sleep. When we awoke at mid-day the storm had subsided and the fog had lifted, showing three dark mountains to the north—doubtless Skjaldbreiđ [12] , Herđubreiđ, and Dyngjufjall.

[1] Djúpá, a river 5 km W of Núpsstađir. back
[2] "Kálfafellsfjall" = Kálfafellsheiđi. back
[3] "Vatna" = here the southernmost point of Síđujökull. back
[4] According to his position the Hábunga (1700 m a.s.l) may have appeared to be the "summit" of the Vatnajökull. back
[5] "Mount Paul" = Pálsfjall, about 23 km NNE of their starting point. back
[6] "4250 feet" = about 1300 m a.s.l, Watts measurements show the correct(!) altidude. At another place in the text Watt's mentions that he measured the height by an aneroid. back
[7] "75 and 80 degrees" °F = 24 and 26 °C ! back
[8] Grímsfjall? back
[9] Kerlingar? back
[10] Watts estimates the altitude of Hábunga about 100 m too high. back
[11] Watts passed E of Grímsvötn without discouvering them. back
[12] "Skjaldbreiđ" = Trölladyngja. At other place Watt's uses the correct name. back

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