ExWeb interview with Jaakko Heikka, “Vatnajökull is a great destination for a little expedition”

Posted: Apr 27, 2012 05:16 pm EDT

(Correne Coetzer) Four Finns recently crossed Vatnajökull Glacier in Iceland. Their leader, Jaakko Heikka, talked to ExWeb about their experience, which he describes as a great destination for a little expedition.

The reason, “It is relatively cheap to reach from Europe, no need for license fees or special insurances, nice glacier with varying weather and great scenery. But it can also be very challenging and one should do his homework and have reasonable experience before heading there. After all, we don’t want an increasing number of SAR missions that would lead to restrictions and need for license and the SAR people risking their lives!”

ExplorersWeb: What were the challenges during your expedition?

Jaakko: Despite being the biggest glacier in Europe, the Vatnajökull is not that big so distances are not especially challenging and neither are crevasses or other obstacles if you plan the route well. In my opinion – and according to the local SAR service – the major challenge at Vatnajökull is the weather; specially the combination of (freezing) rain, high winds and cold temperatures.

We had great sunny days with no wind but we also had several days of freezing rain, winds gusting over 30m/s, several days of white out conditions and temperatures below -23 degrees Celsius. Basically, you have to prepare for all kind of weather and it’s smart to have few days to spare to wait out the worst of it.

I guess we were well prepared as we didn’t have any major problems during the expedition. And of course the weather is generally better towards the summer season.

ExplorersWeb: How much previous experience is needed to cross this glacier?

Jaakko: The local guides and SAR service always mention that even experienced people have got into trouble at Vatnajökull and needed to be rescued. I think that the major point here is to understand that the Vatnajökull is different compared to many popular ski expedition destinations (Greenland, Antarctica, etc.) So doing your homework is a good starting point.

If you are going on your own (i.e. without a guide) I’d recommend having the basic knowledge and skills to safely travel on crevassed glaciers and the experience from all the different weather conditions. And it probably wouldn’t hurt to have experience from at least one ski expedition of comparable length and duration.

ExplorersWeb: What equipment did you take?

Jaakko: We based our equipment choices on our own experience and the experience of other Finnish ski expeditions on (Ant)Arctic regions and in addition tried to shed weight were could.

We had the typical: Goretex shell clothing, Madshus skis with Rottefella NNN BC bindings, MSR white gas stoves, etc. But we took Paris Expedition sleds instead of heavy duty sleds, slept in one Hilleberg Keron 4 GT tent instead of taking two Keron 3 GT tents, etc. We used combination of thin down sleeping bag and synthetic top bag, though a decent synthetic winter sleeping bag would have worked just as well.

For communications we had Iridium satellite phone and Yellowbrick tracker which both worked very well. And of course we had the basic glacier travel and safety equipment like crampons, ice axes, rope, etc.

Most of the gear has been extensively used and tested and all of it worked well, just as expected. We ended up having a bit too much food and way too much fuel and the starting weight of the sleds was probably around 60kg. Now with some experience of the local conditions it would be easy to drop the weight to 50kg or below.

ExplorersWeb: How many days did it take you to cross it? Temperatures?

Jaakko: We spent 14 full days on the glacier but we didn’t do a straight forward crossing but did quite a loop to South to climb the Hvanndalshnjúkur (2109,6m, Iceland’s highest peak). The climb took two attempts on two separate days and in addition we spent one day waiting out a storm at the Grimmsfjall hut in the middle of the glacier.

We skied about 250km in total where as a simple latitudinal crossing would be around 150km and about 10 days would be plenty for it. Longitudinal crossing would be even shorter.

The coldest temperature we measured was -23 degrees Celsius in the evening before going to sleep. The warmest daytime temperature was +8 Celsius. Even in April the temperatures can still drop down to -30 degrees Celsius but the typical temperature is and was around the zero Celsius which means quite a lot of rain in many different forms and often poor visibility.

The Vatnajökull 2012 team (all Finnish):
Jaakko Heikka (leader)
Jouni Tanninen (assistant leader)
Nina Teirasvuo
Heini Koivuniemi

The team did a West to East crossing of the Vatnajökull along the following route: Jökulheimar – Grimmsvötn – Hvannadalshnjúkur – Lambatungajökul. They covered a distance of 250km from March 24 to April 7, 2012.


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Jaakko: "Vatnajökull at its best, and at its coldest."
Image by Jaakko Heikka courtesy Jaakko Heikka, SOURCE
On the first attempt to Hvannadalshnjúkur (in the background). From the left: Heini, Nina, Jouni and Jaakko.
Image by Jaakko Heikka courtesy Jaakko Heikka, SOURCE
Preparing for the second and successful attempt in freezing rain and white-out conditions.
Image by Jaakko Heikka courtesy Jaakko Heikka, SOURCE
Skiing towards East at the middle of the glacier.
Image by Jaakko Heikka courtesy Jaakko Heikka, SOURCE
Carrying equipment up to our pick-up point from the Lambatungajökull.
Image by Jaakko Heikka courtesy Jaakko Heikka, SOURCE
The Route.
SOURCE