William Lord Watts

Across the Vatna Jökull

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Snowed up

We were speculating as to whether we should go on in spite of the still threatening aspect of the weather, when the fog returned, and the booming wind announced another storm to be close at hand. Presently it broke upon us; never before had I heard the wind make such an unearthly wail. It seemed as if every imaginable demon and all the storm spirits of that wild region had assembled to howl and make a united attack upon us. The light was fast becoming obscure, and we were getting fairly snowed up, but that made us all the warmer, all the more secure, and the shrieking of the storm was deadened by the friendly covering. We partook of some chocolate, smoked and sung, and finally slept again. At 8 P.M. the storm had somewhat subsided, and I sent out a man to clear away some of the snow from the roof of the tent to let a little light in. The snow had drifted nearly over the tent, and it took some hard work before we were dug sufficiently out to let in enough light to write by; outside there were 10° of frost, but we were comfortably warm in the tent. The air outside was so full of snow that we could not see a couple of yards in advance. Another day showed us only a continuation of storm and snow which utterly prevented progress. We had now only about a week's provision left, so I again put every one on half rations. The men were obliged to take turns in clearing away the snow, at intervals of every three Hours, from the top of the tent, and before very long the tent had the appearance of lying at the bottom of a deep hole in the snow. We passed the time as best we could, by sleeping, eating, smoking, writing, singing, spinning yarns, and I occasionally amused the assembly by learning strings of Icelandic words by Mr. Stokes's method of mnemonics, and repeating them in order, either backwards or forwards, which puzzled the Icelanders not a little.

Before I started for the Vatna in 1871, I remember saying I should like to see one of its worst storms: I now had that gratification. Storms are interesting natural phenomena, but when prolonged indefinitely are, to say the least, tedious hindrances to progress; and now, lying upon the top of the Vatna Jökull, with the possibility of their lasting for a month, and provisions materially diminishing, their dreary monotony became intolerably oppressive, and after mature consultation we all came to the conclusion that if the weather did not clear in two days' time, we would leave all impedimenta behind, except provisions, instruments and my diary, and strike northward, storm or no storm — "sauve qui peut"

When we lay down and were fairly snowed over, the booming of the storm sounded as if it came from the interior of the mountain, and almost any familiar sound could be singled out from the hurly-burly in an exaggerated degree, without any great stretch of imagination. It stormed all night; the wind "Trolls" shrieked around us, the thunder of the storm roared through the, to us, dark midnight hours, surging upon the icy bosom of the Jokull, sweeping up its snowy slopes, bearing with it avalanches of snow-drift which had buried us several feet deep by morning. By 5 A.M. it lessened somewhat, the furies of the Vatna appeared to have given up the idea of overwhelming us, and the disheartened tempest sunk away in melancholy sobs, but a determined drift and south-west wind persevered in harassing us.

North-East by North

It was clear that we must now start forward, for not only was there a considerable amount of snow vet to be traversed, but a howling wilderness of volcanic sand, lava, and mountain torrents had to be crossed which lay between the north base of the Jokull and the nearest habitation. We could not remain in our present position, so deeply were we buried, and so difficult was it to get in and out of the tent; moreover the fury of the storm had beaten the snow hard, so there was no time to be lost. I served out a hearty meal, and as packing up under such circumstances seemed to demand some stimulant, I made some grog out of methylated spirit, for all our whisky was gone. This served to quicken our circulation, although it was far from being palatable, having, as my Icelanders said, "slćmr dropi," or a bad after-taste, and no wonder, as the first taste was not suggestive of an agreeable sequel. We packed, but with great difficulty, owing to everything being frozen quite hard. Upon leaving, I drew over my mocassins a pair of fishing stockings; they were as hard as sheet iron, and were a very great inconvenience to me; but it was too cold to stop and take them off, for it seemed as if we should freeze as we stood. These stockings had been of great service in keeping me dry hitherto, and I hoped they would protect me now. I felt a hard lump in the bottom of my left stocking; if it was snow it meant a frozen foot. But there was no help for it—we could not think of stopping to change foot-gear in such a tempest. The wind had shifted to the west, almost freezing the side exposed to it. We steered N.N.E.: it was fortunate the wind was almost at our back, for we could hardly have faced it.

The Descent

After three hours' hard tugging we reached the the height of 6,150 feet, and straight away began to descend, and presently at so rapid a rate that I had to send three men behind, in order to prevent the sleigh from starting on its own account for the bottom of the mountain. Suddenly the clouds cleared away before us, disclosing a deep, snowy valley at our feet, and a tall black mountain, streaked with snow, upon our left and west. Lower and lower we descended, more and more precipitous, till it was evident that we could go no farther upon our present course with the sleigh ; so Paul and I went forward to explore. The side of the valley terminated in almost perpendicular walls of snow, which were now frozen perfectly hard, and glazed over by the severity of the frost; the opposite side was more broken, with dark crags here and there protruding, while a copious lava stream appeared to flow northwards from the termination of the snow, though I afterwards found that a fringe of glaciers intervened. We next decided on striking due north, along the sloping sides of the valley, to what we supposed to be Querkfjall [1] , but afterwards found to be Kistufell. Upon returning to the sleigh, while putting back my fieldr glass, which I was obliged to do barehanded, for my gloves were a mass of ice upon the outside, my fingers began to freeze; but a little hard clapping, and by getting two of my men to beat them with their hands, the circulation was restored. I now ordered three of my men to put spiked iron clamps upon their feet, for without this precaution I doubt not but we should have ended our career, sleigh and all, by an abrupt descent into the valley beneath, unless we had been stopped by some of the ugly crevasses which yawned half-way down the snowy steep, upon the slippery and precipitous sides of which we were descending.

We proceeded, but with great difficulty; our trouble now being, not that the sleigh was hard to get along, but that it would go too fast; in fact, it seemed likely to run away with us altogether. Behind us was a fierce wind, beneath us a precipice of some 800 or 1,000 feet; and the sloping snow-banks we were treading shelved off at such an alarming angle that it rendered the work more dangerous than pleasant. In this critical position I became painfully aware that I had frozen my left big toe; for the increased exertions and the lessening altitude were causing it to thaw. The pain was horrible; but presently the slope became less abrupt, and we stepped along at such a rate that 1,500 feet were negociated with considerable speed. Hurrah! we were again in bright sunshine ; but the moment we stood still, the wind cut us to the bone. Before us lay the long looked-for Norđurland. We arrived at the bottom of the valley, and found it full of loose snow, which was knee-deep, for the crust was here much too light to bear our weight, and at every few feet we sunk into a miniature crevasse. After struggling on for some few hours, however, we pitched our tent.

Eight thankful was I to get some warm soup and creep into the bag. One of my men — and a real good fellow he was — named Sigurđ, cuddled my left foot in his arms, although my writhings kept him as well as myself awake while the others slept. I have had many parts of my body frozen, but I never suffered so much as from that toe.

After a few hours we again started; and although the sleigh travelled easily over the crust, we still broke through it, which occasioned me so much pain at every step that I sat upon the sleigh and was drawn along until we had descended so much that the crust ceased altogether. The snow terminated in a half-melted slush, lying upon a bottom of ice. Wading through the slush, which at times took us up to the waist, we next reached Kistufell, where the ice and snow terminated. Here we landed on a bed of volcanic debris, which covered the ice to such a depth that one could in no way, except by digging, distinguish it from the adjacent fjall. The Vatna Jökull now lay behind us with its mysterious recesses and volcanoes carefully guarded from intrusion by gloom and storm.

[1] "Querkfjall" = Kverkfjöll back

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