Posted on April 26, 2020
When I was a kid, my family took a camping vacation to the Pacific Northwest. We packed our Ford Country Squire station wagon so full that it almost felt as if my brothers and I were an afterthought, hooked up the tent trailer, and pointed north. As with all of these Hart-family summer vacations, we covered ridiculous miles and saw a mind numbing selection of diverse natural wonders, but my strongest memory from that trip is a warm afternoon hike on Mt. Rainier that ended at an ice cave. Gazing upward inside the cave, I rotated slowly, mesmerized by the diaphanous blue ceiling and its intricate curves. Not quite believing my eyes, I did my best to lock the scene in my brain. Over the years that memory remained as vivid as ever, but the more time passed, the less I trusted it—could something really have been that beautiful? On a snowy January morning in Iceland, I found out.
One of the highlights of the winter workshop Don Smith and I do in Iceland is a trip to an ice cave. But like most things in nature, ice caves are ephemeral, never a sure thing. On last year’s scouting trip, Crystal Ice Cave on Vatnajokull Glacier was closed, so we got to tour what I’d call more of an “ice crevasse” instead—pretty cool, but nothing like my childhood ice cave memory. But this year the glacier gods smiled on us, and on a snowy morning about half-way through the trip Don and I piled our group into a large van (small bus?) with the biggest tires I’d ever seen, and headed onto Vatnajokull Glacier. There were a dozen photographers in our workshop group, plus Don, me, Óli (our Icelandic guide), and the local glacier guide/driver we’d hired for that morning. To beat the crowds, Óli had gotten us out well before sunrise (not as taxing as it sounds when you factor in the 10 a.m. Iceland January sunrise). Our adventure started on a regular highway, but soon detoured off-road across undulating snow and ice that bore very little resemblance to an actual road. After 20 or 30 minutes of jostling, our vehicle had gone as far as the terrain allowed, so we parked and tumbled into the frigid air. Our glacier guide issued helmets and crampons, delivered a brief orientation, then led us into the darkness across more snow and ice.
Following an uneventful, nearly 2-mile hike, we rounded a corner and got our first glance at a gaping opening at the base of the glacier just as the day started to brighten. From the outside, Crystal Ice Cave was an unimpressive black void beneath a massive chunk of ice, but the instant I stepped inside, my childhood ice cave memory came surging back. Only this time, I had a camera.
Not only were we the only ones in the cave (two hikers who had arrived before us had quickly moved on to less accessible parts of the glacier), an overnight snowfall had completely erased all signs of any previous visitors’ tramplings in the patchwork snow that accumulates on the floor beneath small, natural skylights in the cave’s ceiling. Though we had the cave to ourselves, sharing such a wide composition with a dozen other photographers makes taking a picture without someone in it pretty difficult, but the whole group worked well together, sticking to the perimeter, taking turns, and avoiding leaving footprints in the pristine snow.
Awaiting my turn to photograph, I craned my neck and gaped at nature’s masterwork. An ice cave forms when glacial runoff finds, or makes its own, path through the glacial ice. Flowing water is always warmer than the surrounding ice, so with time the channels the water creates expand as more ice melts. When the runoff finds a different path, or diminishes in the winter months, the channels in the ice remain and an ice cave is born (or reborn). Ice caves are blue because centuries of pressure from above compresses opaque, accumulating snow, forcing out air and leaving translucent ice crystals that light can pass through. As sunlight from the surface travels through the ice, all but the shortest visible wavelengths are absorbed, leaving only the blue wavelengths to reach fortunate eyes.
When my turn came to photograph this marvel, I was ready with my Sony a7RIII (my a7RIV and had a small mishap with the Iceland surf and was drying back in my room) and 12-24 G lens. I lowered my tripod to about 18 inches above the ground and composed this 12mm frame to emphasize the faceted ceiling. At 12mm, I was wide enough to also include some of the polished black rocks framing the nearby snow.
I know what you’re thinking: This picture needs a person “for scale.” First, let me say that, because I always try to capture the world devoid of human influence (that is, as if humans don’t exist) I don’t put people in my images. But I acknowledge that adding a person often gives a scene a focal point that a creates a more personal connection with the viewer. So even though the shot of a single person standing in an ice cave has become something of a cliché, compositions become cliché for a reason, and I won’t deny that many (most?) people would like this image better if there were a person somewhere in it. But because leading workshops means my income doesn’t depend a lot on image sales, I’m blessed to be able to photograph the world in the ways that make me happiest, without having to worry about pleasing others.
But let me get back to the scale thing for a second. Despite what others may tell you, adding a person to a scene like this rarely conveys true scale when you try to take in as much of the scene as possible with a wide angle lens. Rather than conveying scale, adding a relatively distant subject (rock, tree, person) to a wide angle scene will exaggerate the expanse of the scene, and shrink the subject. There’s nothing wrong with this—I do it all the time in my landscape images—just don’t say you’re doing it for scale. (Real estate photographers know that a wide angle lens will make even the smallest room look spacious.)
But anyway… I spent a long time in the ice cave making all kind of wide compositions, but as often happens, I switched to a longer lens and started trying to isolate elements of the scene, getting progressively closer as time passed. Shortly before we left, I must have spent at least 20 minutes working on a single water drop dripping from the ceiling every 10 seconds or so. I have no idea if I got anything worth sharing, but I was sure happing a blast.
We packed up when the cave started to fill with selfie-stick toting gawkers. It wasn’t until the hike back that I fully appreciated how fortunate we were to have the ice cave virtually to ourselves for so long. Based on the virtually uninterrupted string of people heading toward the glacier as we headed out, I’d wager that the ice cave experience for anyone arriving after we left wouldn’t be too different from Upper Antelope Canyon at midday (or the New York City subway at rush hour).
One more thing
Ice caves are one of the canaries in Earth’s climate coal mine. As our planet warms, glaciers recede and their ice caves disappear. I know now that the Rainier ice cave of my youth was part of Paradise Ice Caves. Sadly, Paradise Ice Caves disappeared in the late 20th century, so you, your kids, their kids, and so on will never be able to pile into the family car like we did, and create a memory that lasts a lifetime. Sadly, Crystal Ice Cave probably won’t survive this century, and the clock is ticking on all the world’s ice caves.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.