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News / Volcanoes Don’t Give Up Easily...

28 May 2011

When on the 24-th of May I was informed that I urgently had to leave for Iceland and shoot the Grímsvötn volcano which had begun its eruption a couple of days before, it seemed to me that such lucky chance happened  once in the lifetime. Refusing good advice, such as the planes are cancelled all over Europe, I bought the ticket to Reykjavik dated May 25 and left.

The very first person in Iceland, a girl in the car rent service, expressed her congratulations... due to the eruption had finished. She really did not understand why my face changed into miserable grimace because, according to her point of view, the volcanic ashes were extremely bad both for people and machines.

One more hour passed and I was standing in the helicopter operator's office behind pilot Snorri's back and looking through the photos of what an ash cloud of 12 km height left - nothing.

Just a steam stream came up in the air for 100 meters. Moreover, the weather forecast did not show anything good... And even the helicopter had been prepared for the start; we decided to postpone for tomorrow.

In the morning, as it was a lowdown trick, the numerous weather forecast sites showed the contrary forecasts: beginning with absolute cloudiness and snow and ending with rare clouds and sun... And the forecasts were changing once a half hour. It looked like in question of weather forecasts the Europeans were not better than Gidromedcenter of Russia.

A couple hours later the pilot announced: "We have a chance to see the volcano behind the clouds, but the chance is 50/50". It usually means that it doesn't worth to fly. But having used all the methods of a fortune-telling starting with flipping a coin and finishing with a call to guys in Moscow, I finally decided to try.

The weather accepted the challenge but immediately worsened: while we were preparing the helicopter, the rain began in Reykjavik and the cold and wind were penetrating my ski-suit. But the pilot kept optimism.


Вулкан Гримсвотн, Исландия

And we, finally, took off... The first 40 minutes we were moving forward the base where we could fuel the tanks before the final start for the Grímsvötn.  From the base the field of vision did not make us happy: it was cloudy and misty.  

First we though fly straight. By the way, the Grímsvötn is about 2 km above the sea level and almost in the center of the biggest European glacier (and the third in the world after Greenland and Antarctica). The height was gradually increasing but the cloudiness didn't clear away. The pilot kept helicopter very close to the ground not to enter the mist.

And it was the moment when he gave up and turned the helicopter sharply; having said that it was impossible to reach the volcano flying straight and decided to reach it from the North. It was the right decision because about 10 minutes later we came up to the sun going a big arc along the Northern side of the glacier.

The ground below us represented itself the strange view: it was grey-black and there was no place for other colors - the volcanic ashes had covered them. And even the glacier, which usually plays all the tints of blue and white, was barely seen through the ash layers. Having, finally, turned to the volcano's direction, Snorri gave a doom sigh but was going on ascending to be over the clouds, he hoped to find a clear space there.  The clouds were spreading over the glacier everywhere we could see. In the end, the pilot noticed a little unusual cloud and said: "Here it is - Grímsvötn". Therefore, having flown more than half Iceland, I was near the volcano.

Полет к вулкану Гримсвотн

There was absolutely no sense to make a panorama - it just was a slight swelling in the center of the huge white field. I understood that the photo shot with iPhone would be really enough just to fix GPS-coordinates of the place.  Having flown in the Southern direction, we found the clear space and rushed down expecting to reach the volcano under the clouds. Again in vein: a thick mist wall was standing our way...

Полет к вулкану Гримсвотн

I will always remember the way back: we were bustling different sides, trying to find any passage; the pilot had turned the helicopter several times checking different directions... Finally, having almost hugged the ground, we followed the back course.  I tried to stay calm though the air flows from time to time either rose the helicopter up or down. It was the first time in my life when I felt a fit of sickness had been caused by such a bumpy flight...  

On our way back the endless rain was accompanying us, the drops were covering the front window with the thin threads; that was all anyone could see during the trip but Snorri somehow could follow the course.

Полет к вулкану Гримсвотн

In the end, having been already in the office and taken a look at my upset face because of 3 lost flying hours, he encouraged me: "We are still alive! It was one of the most difficult flights in my life.  Thank God, it had a happy end!" Oh, that's great that he didn't say it on the way back! :)

And what about the volcano? I will try to get there by a Super-Jeep - it is a kind of local transport means and the mist doesn't frighten it.

The story and photo by Dmitry Moiseenko

You can read about our trip to volcano on Superjeep here