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 film shoot last March along the north coast of Iceland for Salomon Freeski TV, where each 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, we weren't expecting any surprises. So there was no way to exaggerate or oversell the fierce weather bomb that descended on us.
We'd spent most of the day filming couloir descents above the crashing surf along the north coast until, around 4 p.m., decreasing visibility and a rising wind that tore objects from people's grasp demanded retreat through a system of protected tunnels to the town of Dalvík, then inland to the converted sheep farm that served as base for guide J.B. Bergmann's Arctic Heliskiing operation. By the time we'd turned onto the Skíðadalur (The Ski Valley) road toward the farm it had been blowing for hours, and we broke through the drifts that now crept across the road. By dinnertime the wind was a steady 60 kph gusting to 80 — a level that would shutter the upper lifts at Whistler — and it was a chore to walk 30 metres from the converted barn in which we bunked to the farmhouse where meals were served. Over the next few hours wind speed steadily increased, and by the time we went to bed a steady, ominous roar came from outside. The fetch was straight out of the north over open ocean, cold air over warm water creating an ultra-moist flow that saw snow falling at eight to 10 cm/hr, but accumulating only where eddies formed — behind buildings and in hollows.
Overnight the wind probed the barn, jacking open windows and blowing in a second-floor door. Inside, small drifts formed in front of even the most microscopic cracks, their front edges melting to spread across window sills and floors, engendering a feeling of being under siege. Next morning was a shock, with a ferocious 90+ kph wind gusting to well over 100; the intense whiteout made walking so difficult that the trip between barn and house often inspired crawling on hands and knees. No footprint lasted longer than two minutes; if you paused in your stride you could watch them erased in real time. Each trip to the house was different than the trip back, the landscape changed that quickly. Drifts appeared, disappeared, and appeared again at the whim of the wind. Eventually the main drift "seedlings" took hold and grew, like Jack's magic beans, to astronomical proportions in only hours. Now we had to clamber up the face of a head-high drift that guarded the door to the barn. Digging out doors every few hours seemed fruitless but had to be done.
Full outerwear, gloves and goggles were du rigeur to ensure you didn't get lost: you'd also be huffing after only ten steps, in part due to wind sucking away your breath, but also the adrenaline rush provoked by even being outside. Each walk became more of a battle for direction and route, the precipitation coating you more intense and exclamations over it more pronounced: "That's insane!" "Holy shit!"
Consummate mountain men were humbled: at one point two left the house together bound for the barn. Only one made it: the pair separated after only a few steps, with one encountering the wrong door and turning back. Climbing the large snowdrift toward the barn you could inadvertently angle left to find yourself on the corrugated roof of a shed. People heading to the house might find themselves on the roof of a buried car. It was comedy, yes, but indicative of the kind of tragedy that can befall people in such conditions. Every minute outside suggested polar travel where such conditions can last days, but 60 hours of it was lesson enough, and as winds fluttered down in the last 12 hours, snow deposition increased. In the end, over two metres fell, some drifts in the compound standing six-plus metres and rock hard. So compacting was the wind that when we chiselled out our van from one side and cleared the engine compartment of drifted snow to push it out, it left an impression on the opposite snow wall like a fossil.
Lodge manager Anna, who grew up on the farm, was amused at our thrall of the storm. She noted that although the climate had very much changed here, storms like this weren't uncommon in the past. "When I was 11, I once didn't go to school for three weeks," she recalls. "After the first week of storm the electricity went out. So my dad and I went outside to bury the contents of our freezer and we had to rope ourselves together so we didn't blow away."
Iceland is no stranger to Arctic storms, but this one was all over the news. The wind had been so strong along the coast that it picked up a shipping container in the fishing village of Siglufjörður and flung it into a house.
The aftermath was impressive: buildings and vehicles disappeared. Forests along the valley walls shrunk by measurable percentage, the trees on the downwind side subsumed by drifts. The lone draglift still stood at Dalvík's tiny town ski area, but the ground had been blown clean of snow. Plows would take two days to make it to the farmhouse and it would be cause for celebration. When the storm cleared off entirely, the magnitude and temper of the mountains beneath which we huddled was revealed. While stars pricked the firmament above, a phosphorescent aurora borealis arched above thousand-metre alabaster pyramids, the benches lining the mountainsides like railings attesting to their once much-larger size. It left the feeling that for all the storm's immediate drama, what we'd really witnessed was a good ol' Pleistocene demonstration entitled "How to Build a Glacier."
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.