Into the storm
The second part of my West Iceland trip was focused on photographing the iconic Kirkjufell mountain and my base for three nights was the town of Grundarfjörður, only a 5 minute drive from Kirkjufell. I had also booked a whale watching boat trip with Laki tours which I hoped would allow me to photograph killer whales.
I allowed myself multiple days to ensure that I had a chance for different weather conditions and hopefully some auroras or starscapes at the iconic location, but I also had thoughts of driving north to see the cool rock formations at Hvítserkur if I had time to spare.
As I write this it still sounds like it was a good plan.
Upon arriving at Kirkjufell for the first time I felt... nothing much. I have visited many places where the experience of being there is amazing, but it is difficult to find a photographic composition that captures the feeling. For me Kirkjufell is the opposite. The Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall and the Kirkjufell mountain provide possibilities for a great looking photograph, but in real life the place just did not speak to me.
The waterfalls, with the mountain peak in the background make for a compact and well balanced frame with around 25mm focal length. With a wider lens and a slight change of angle it is possible to make room for stars or auroras.
When approaching the place from the west you can see that the mountain which looks so symmetrically shaped from a certain angle, is nothing of the sort from most other angles. I had been looking for many kilometres to try and get the first glimpse of the mountain... turns out I had seen it all along and disregarded it as one of the "normal" mountains.
The waterfalls are in two groups, one slightly higher up the hillside and one slightly lower. From the famous pictures you get the impression that they are large and close to the mountain. In reality the scene is not so compact... the waterfalls are small and far away from the foot of the mountain - there is maybe 400-500m in-between. This is quite possible to solve from a photography point of view with the right choice of focal length, angle and perspective... but it left me a bit disappointed visiting in real life.
At Kirkjufell I was ready for photographing the scene in clear conditions, and I was ready for photographing the scene in icy and snowy conditions... but what greeted me was an ugly mixture. The waterfalls were iced over to a grotesque level... the water still flows despite the ice so it was just adding layer after layer of ice on top of each other. It sounds cool... but it looked stupid. The mountain was clear of snow but there were old patches of dirty snow here and there through the scene. The magic of post processing can deal with those to some extent but still the scene was quite messy. The weather was also unpleasant. Hmmm.
I retreated to my accommodation and checked out where I would have to be for my whale watching trip the following day, that now took on the role of the thing I was looking forward to most.
The weather was closing in and a storm was coming... that is sometimes very good news from photography point of view, depending on whether the conditions provide visible drama or just provide darkness and reduced visibility. On this occasion the storm provided nothing positive. The sunset time was obliterated, and so was the sunrise as very heavy winds and constant snow took control of the area. Visibility was about 75 metres and there were thigh-deep snow drifts here and there with other patches totally clear.
My car was blocked in by a snow drift so I left on foot and fought my way to Cafe Emil (great coffee and home made cakes) in the middle of town for my morning coffee. The walk was about 400m, during which time I saw three cars being pulled out of snow drifts by vehicles which I can only describe as monster trucks.
I could see no sense in driving in these conditions and decided to wait out the storm, looking rather enviously at great auroras and clear starry skies in the previous night's pictures from one of my friends who was in the south of Iceland at the same time.
As the morning progressed there were a number of new arrivals in the cafe. They were all wondering what had happened and I was able to understand from their conversations that the storm was very local... a few kilometres in either direction and things looked quite different.
After lunchtime the visibility improved a bit and, having extricated my car, I went back to Kirkjufell where the scene was quite different than the day before, but still not exactly beautiful.
The high winds and minimal visibility had unsurprisingly caused the cancellation of my whale watching trip, I rebooked it for two days later, the last full day of my trip, so I really had to hope for no further weather disruptions.
As evening fell, the weather calmed down a lot, and started to clear. I was finishing a rather good pizza at 59 Bistro Bar in the town when the aurora app on my phone alerted me to the northern lights possibilities for the evening and I was soon on my way back to Kirkjufell.
I arrived at the empty car park and made my way towards the waterfalls. Although the car park was empty I could not be sure that there would not be other photographers in the area so I slowly made my way up the icy trail without using my torch... a torch beam walking through your picture without your control is a total disaster for 90% of night photographs and the last 200m of the trail would be in the frame of anyone shooting the mountain at night. As it happened I was alone when I got to my position, but I set myself up in the dark, having learned to operate my equipment in darkness for just such a situation.
-- complaints section: skip ahead if you rather not read them --
Then it started. Headlights in the car park 400m away... shining into the scene... left on for many minutes. Then, one by one, other photographers made their way up the trail. Torches on full beam, shining here there and everywhere. More headlights, more torches. Perhaps 20 people in total, but one at a time or in small groups. Gradually they arrived beside me. Torches to find the way. Torches to set up their tripod. Torches to change their camera settings. Torches left on the ground shining into the scene while they mess around and talk to each other. Torches to my direction to see who was there (blinded!). The initial fuss took nearly half an hour, which felt like half a day to me... after that it was only occasional as someone needed to change their settings. I was not amused.
If you allow your eyes to get used to the dark and know your equipment you can function perfectly well in real darkness and not interfere with anyone else. If you have to briefly use a light then most lights have lower settings that can be used and also you can direct the beam in a way which doesn't disturb others. If there are some other people out at night causing a lot of light then thats one thing, but you would hope that other photographers might have some understanding of the consequences of their actions and act with a bit more consideration.
-- end of complaints section --
Eventually it was possible to take some pictures, but the northern lights were quite weak by that time and the clouds were coming and going.
On the way back to the hotel I tried to capture the auroras from the other popular Kirkjufell view, it looks almost like a sharks fin when viewed from the other side of the bay.
The following day provided a fresh start. After cloudy beginnings the weather became pleasant and sunny although still violently windy. The storm and the rearrangement of the whale watching had put an end to my ideas of traveling north to Hvítserkur but I felt like I could safely explore a bit closer to my accommodation.
I drove to Stykkishólmur where there is an interesting (but maybe not attractive) modern church in a nice little village.
I then decided to drive towards Ytri Tunga, a beach where there was a good chance to see seals, this having been recommended to me by the staff in Fosshotel Hellnar earlier in the trip. The weather was still bright and sunny but it had started to snow lightly and visibility was a bit difficult when the air was full of snow and the sun was in your eyes. The road conditions were still fine so I continued on my journey. When I arrived at Ytri Tunga, noting a car stuck in the snow near the car park and choosing my parking place carefully, it was indeed possible to see seals playing in the surf. Unfortunately the only angle to photograph them was strongly backlit which was not ideal... but it was fun to watch them for a while.
By now the conditions started to be a bit more extreme, the wind increased again and the snow was beginning to fall more heavily. I thought it wise to head for home.
One of the hazards of traveling in such an extreme but unfamiliar destination is that you can't always tell which routes to avoid. The shortest way back to Grundarfjörður meant taking highway 54 to Olafsvik so I set off on that route, encouraged by the sight of the occasional other vehicles taking the same route. This was not a good idea.
The road conditions became steadily worse as I continued, and I considered turning back, but there was a lot of snow and no places to turn. I could see that there was just a couple more kilometres to go so I decided to continue. As I came round a bend there was a sudden white out, the wind-blown snow and the low sun cutting the visibility to about 15m. I could still see the tall yellow poles at the side of the road so I followed those, I did not brake but I stopped accelerating, controlled a loss of traction pretty well and stayed perfectly in my lane while my car ploughed gently to a stop in the 85cm of snow that had blown in a large drift across about a 10 metre stretch of highway. Stuck. I could not move forward. I could not move back. Hazard lights on. Laugh at myself while feeling mortified that I had become one of those idiot tourists. Become somewhat concerned about my situation and start to put my thoughts in order.
It was about 45 seconds before a snowplough pulled alongside and the driver explained how he was going to pull me out. Clear snow from the front of the car. Find and uncover the recovery point. Find the hook in a tool set near the spare tyre. Attach hook to recovery point. Attach tow rope. Engine in neutral. Back to clear road. Remove rope, remove hook, cover recovery point. Thank my rescuer... many many times.
I would like to thank my rescuer once again here. What he did was hugely helpful, but the way he did it was also very impressive. He was friendly, patient, efficient and did not seem irritated in the slightest. He told me, with a smile, that he had already pulled out many tens of cars during that day, and by the time I was free there were three more cars within 100m waiting their turn for rescue. I imagine he dealt with those just as helpfully and efficiently.
The rest of the return to Grundarfjörður was comparatively uneventful, which was fine by me.
Somewhat reluctant to repeat the circus from the night before, I studied the weather forecasts. I decided to skip the evening session and forget the sunrise, hoping that I could get good conditions and some peace and quiet by going to Kirkjufell at 0400 the next morning. That would allow me about 90 minutes during the full night and the astronomical twilight where it would be optimal conditions for shooting any auroras or starscapes... with any luck no other idiot would be foolish enough to choose to shoot at this ungodly hour instead of in the equivalent light of the evening.
In something of a change of fortunes, this was a good decision :)
The sky was at least partly clear, some wispy clouds came and went. There were noticeable but not dramatic auroras. There were an incredible amount of stars... and it was possible to see the tail of the Milky Way. There were many good elements to play with.
As the astronomical twilight (the period when the sun is between 12 and 18 degrees below the horizon) progressed, the auroras faded away, but the clouds also thinned and it was possible to see the Milky Way more clearly.
When I look through the photos that I took during this period, I can see that it is not a universally good idea to get up in the middle of the night after many consecutive days with insufficient sleep. I don't think I was thinking as clearly as I could have when it comes to composing my shots and if I was to be critical then I feel a little bit like I have baked some premium ingredients (i.e. kirkjufell + auroras + Milky Way) into a very ordinary cake.
After a couple of hours additional sleep I left my accommodation and was returned to something approaching consciousness by the excellent coffee in Cafe Emil. The rest of the day would have two main parts, the first and most exciting would be the whale watching trip while the second was the more tedious prospect of driving for many hours to get somewhere close to Keflavik airport ahead of my return flight in the morning.
I think that the whale watching deserves its own blog post, so I will leave details of that for next time. Stay tuned.
The wind was still quite heavy, the road conditions were questionable, and I would have to do much of the driving in the dark, so I tried to limit my stops on the return journey as much as possible. I tried to time it so that I could take a final look at the black church in Búðir at around sunset time. The snow over the previous days had given a new look to the area and it was nice to be there again... despite the three drones zipping about over my head as I tried to take some final pictures.
As I arrived there the afternoon sun was leaving its final marks on the snow covered mountains and the white covering gave the place a peaceful look.
The combination of the heavy winds and the plentiful snow meant that there were many wind-sculpted snow dunes in the area and for my final picture of the trip I tried to make use of those.
Overall, this trip was absolutely fantastic. Iceland is an amazing place to be and provides wonders around every corner, it was great to be there once again. It is not, however, an easy place to be when the weather is harsh and I felt like every day was a battle against something or other. It was tough. From photography point of view it is a great challenge, and one that I am happy to have taken although I consider the results to be a bit of a mixture - some successes and some disappointments.
Thanks for following my blog.
Until next time.
Enter your email address to receive notifications of new blog posts