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Conquering Fears in the Icelandic Wild

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For sheer adventure, it doesn’t get any better than heading out to explore the rugged terrain of remote Iceland. In the breathtaking film from SmugMug Films, Climbing Ice – The Icelandic Trifecta, we follow two free-spirited ice climbers as they set out to tackle some of the most amazing climbs ever documented. There was no predetermined plan, no checklist of to-do items, just flat out exploration into the unknown, ready to take on whatever challenges were waiting to be discovered. And they were not disappointed.

Moulins are ice formations caused by naturally flowing water over the top of a glacier. A giant sinkhole is eventually formed, perhaps dozens of feet across and hundreds of feet deep. With the sheer slippery sides, formed entirely of ice, plunging down into unknown depths, it’s the sort of natural danger best left alone – unless you are a world-class ice climber looking for a new challenge.

Ice Climber in Skaftafell National Park, Iceland.

Adventure … the experience of something both new and thrilling. It is a universal craving of the human spirit. You know it when you see it, but what exactly is “adventure”? How do you go about finding it? You probably won’t encounter it at home on your couch, so you’ll have to explore to find it. You have to actually get out there farther than ever before, pushing your boundaries and breaking your limits. The natural world is the perfect arena for fresh encounters and having to face your fears. And where would be more likely than in some of the harshest, most extreme, and unforgiving locations imaginable?

Iceland’s Vatnajökull (translated as Vatna in English) Glacier is the largest glacier in the world. It covers nearly one-tenth of Iceland and can easily be seen from space. A brave camera crew followed two intrepid ice climbers into the frozen fields of Iceland to see where adventure might take them. They had nothing other than a fierce desire to experience the rugged expanse as intimately as possible, hands-on, with nothing left unexplored. This film, set against a backdrop of stunning beauty, is the record of what they discovered as well as the things they achieved.

Walking on the Vatnajökull (Vatna) Glacier in iceland.

In terms of looking for challenges, they hit the jackpot … an incredible trifecta of ice-climbing locales. As an ice climber, no two climbs are ever the same because your surface is ever-changing – the ice is always growing, changing, melting, and reforming. Vatna Glacier, for example, even has several volcanoes restlessly napping beneath it. Experienced ice climbers know that with any large ice formation, one can never know beforehand if it is even climbable. There is literally no way of telling … the only thing you can do is to set out and simply try it. With a beginning like that, you can be sure adventures will follow pretty quickly.

The climbers and the attendant film crew discovered the most amazing obstacles, tasks none of them had ever before faced. Climbing horizontally across the high roof of a cave made entirely from clear blue ice? None of them had ever before considered such a thing. As one of the film crew reported, their biggest challenge with making this documentary was simply to do these feats justice. Pictures and video snippets alone would never do … they needed to put themselves out there in the same dangers as the climbers. Only then could they truly capture the views, perspectives, and natural beauty, while still highlighting the sheer audacity of what was unfolding before their eyes.

Glacial Ice Cave in the Svinafellsjokull glacier, Skaftafell National Park, Iceland.

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To best capture the experience of climbing the large moulin, the vast vertical shaft in the ice leading 200 feet straight down into darkness, none of the camera perches at the top were able to properly capture the magnitude of the moment. Wildly improvising, the team set up a tether stretching from an anchor on one side of the moulin, straight across the gaping maw, to a second anchor site on the opposite side. Then, with the aid of a bodysuit, carabiners, and a pulley, a person could slowly move hand-over-hand out over the emptiness right to the best spot for filming, even though this meant dangling helplessly, directly over the very center of the pit. The two climbers had rappelled down and were working their way slowly up the sheer ice walls, using simply a pair of thin ice axes, one in each hand, and the spiky crampons attached to their boots. The amazing camera angles and shooting captured the moment perfectly.

Vatnajökull (Vatna) Glacier is the largest and most voluminous ice cap in Iceland.

Climbing Ice, set against these wild landscapes, lends itself to philosophical introspections. Given the difficulties and necessary exertions, what is the actual point of all this, of exploration and dangerous adventure? Why take these risks and chances, let alone in such a remote, barren world? Viewers watching some of these harrowing scenes will experience their palms sweating as they mutely urge the climbers onward and not make a misstep. But once past the excitement, viewers then may begin to ask themselves what would life mean without challenges or obstacles, with no fears to face or overcome? But then one wonders how can a person grow without these things? Is it even possible? Sometimes, simply overcoming one’s fears is an end in itself … an end that makes the journey completely worthwhile.

The film is definitely not about someone lacking fear or anything of the sort. These climbers know fear, and they know it intimately. They do not climb these vistas because they find it safe and easy, but they climb them because of the challenges they represent. The point of the dangerous task is to recognize one’s inevitable fears, face them, and then discover a way to succeed despite that fear. And this mindset – this lifestyle – was adopted by the entire film crew as they followed in the climbers’ footsteps, with each person having to overcome their own previous boundaries and limitations. The week-long trek over the majestic Icelandic glacier left no one unchanged. In fact, a second video was released, covering the making of Climbing Ice, just to capture the challenges that the film team had to overcome!

Ice Climbing in a glacial Ice Cave in the Svinafellsjokull glacier, Skaftafell National Park, Iceland.

From rappelling down hundreds of feet into dark ice sinkholes … to gingerly laboring over frozen harbors to reach a mysterious towering iceberg … to finding and then climbing inside the vast glittering ice cave. Climbing Ice – The Icelandic Trifecta shows the natural progression from tentative beginnings, then figuring out potential paths, to finally solving the puzzles of the ever-changing world of ice. Even driving a vehicle in these harsh wastes has its particular adventures, as a humorous break in the action details.

The feelings of teamwork and mutual accomplishment at the end, for every person involved, is palpable. It was a week of difficult nonstop exploration that the two climbers will never forget, and the exhausted but lucky film crew will remember their adventures for the rest of their lives. As they share their experiences near the end of the film, we learn they realized there were difficulties in making this documentary that simply had to be overcome, no matter the dangers, anxieties, or personal fears. By the end, the viewer realizes that it is not simply accomplishing dangerous feats that is the most important, but the act of rising up to meet these challenges that gives the true meaning.

Go behind the scenes to discover the incredible challenges and technology that came together to create ‘Climbing Ice – The Iceland Trifecta.’ Watch The Making of “Climbing Ice” here:

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