A Day in the Land of Ice and Fire

Originally posted on www.xcmag.com Saturday 14 February 2004
All the photos are by Tomasz Chrapek and were not originally posted with the article

It’s volcanic, glacial, windy and in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Bruce Goldsmith heads to Iceland with his paraglider. Published in Cross Country magazine in 2004.

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Iceland has a fiercely enthusiastic free-flying community. The Reykjavik flying club has its own clubhouse right next Reykjavik’s own flying site – Ulfarsfell, a 300-metre mountain 15km outside the centre of town. All the pilots in the club share a common passion for flight and the hang gliders encourage the new wave of younger paraglider pilots every way they can.

At the side of their clubhouse is a hangar built by the pilots themselves. It’s packed full of microlights of all sizes and shapes used to get airborne when conditions aren’t ideal for free flying.

It is not only the scenery that’s wild in Iceland but also the weather. Icelandic scenery is truly unique as a result of the country sitting on the fault line between the American and the European continental plates, which are actively moving apart. The earth’s crust is so thin here that there are more volcanoes than trees. Hot water steams out of the ground in nearly every valley.

Iceland used to have trees, but the ancestors of the present population long ago burned the last one for warmth due to the cold. Although sad, this is a great advantage for pilots. Nearly every hill is perfect for flying with a rounded top and smooth and open bottom landing fields.

Moss grows prolifically, and in many of the photos of Iceland, the green colour covering the ground is not grass but moss. It is often very thick and feels like a soft bed. Moss like this takes hundreds of years to grow, and a car driving across it leaves tyre marks that will show for centuries, so you should stick to the tracks and roads.

Iceland sits bang in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, halfway between Europe and America. The Gulf Stream feeds warm water from the Gulf of Mexico right up to the Icelandic shoreline making the weather warmer than you’d expect considering how far north it lies.

The weather remains very Atlantic by nature, with one low pressure system after another sweeping across the country and frontal systems that can blast through at the rate of up to three a day. Fortunately, there are some spells of good weather, and they really are worth waiting for. Summer starts in May and ends in August, so going to Iceland in August is pushing your luck with the weather. You might be lucky but it’s more likely to be windy with showers.

I was visiting my wife’s family in Iceland for a week. On August 13 the forecast was good with a light SW wind and sun all day. Arni, the Airwave dealer in Iceland, phoned me in the morning to ask if I would join the local pilots for a day out. He organised a group of three microlights to fly to Snaefellsjokull.

Jokull is the Icelandic word for glacier, and Snaefellsjokull is a glacier perched on top of a volcano situated on a peninsular 100km northwest of Reykjavik. Ami and his friends were flying to Snaefellsjokull. I would be driving there with Kjartan, his wife, and Solvi, both keen paraglider pilots.

On the way to Snaefellsjokull we stopped off at Hussafell, where there is a very unusual waterfall. Water seeps down into a porous lavafield and springs out of the riverbank for around 150 metres. The gleaming white water then drops into a beautiful jade blue-coloured salmon river. I found a launch on the opposite river bank, and made a few flights across the river whilst Kjartan, a local landscape photographer, took some pictures of me flying low over the river with the waterfall on the opposite bank as the backgound.

An hour later we met the three microlight pilots at Arnarstapi, a pretty coastal town just south of Snaefellsjokull. I climbed into Arni’s Cosmos trike and we roared skyward. Arni is an excellent microlight pilot as well as Iceland’s best hang glider pilot. He was determined to give me an exciting time, and soon had me clenching the seat as we skimmed the waves at the foot of the cliffs and flew though flocks of Arctic terns taking off all around us.

The views were incredible, and we finished by roaring up above the clouds and landing on the volcanic sand high on the mountain’s glacier. Equipped with huge oversized tyres, Kjartan’s 4WD was able to climb over the rough volcanic rock without a problem to meet us up there. Driving over glaciers and snowscapes in winter is a national hobby in Iceland made possible using Jeeps with massive tyres with virtually no air in them.

The highlight of the day came on the way home. As the sun was going down we drove past an orange volcanic cinder cone, which was surrounded with soft light green moss at the base. A cinder cone looks like a volcano but this one was much smaller and made from soft light rock, rather like rough black sand.

Flying conditions here were smooth and gentle and you could launch from the moss right at the foot of the hill and fly up the front of the cone. Solvi joined me and Kjartan took even more amazing pictures as we skimmed over the moss-covered ground in the setting sun. The photos tell the story best.

Paraglider Pilots hit by Iceland Earthquake

Published on www.xcmag.com on Thursday 11 December 2008

Two Icelandic pilots report vibrations, wind and hot air as the quake strikes

An Icelandic pilot has revealed he was flying directly above the centre of an earthquake that struck the island back in May. Hans Kristján Gudmundsson, a paraglider and paramotor pilot with ten years’ experience, told Cross Country he felt the quake, which measured 6.1 on the Richter scale, when he was half a kilometre above the ground.

“It was the most amazing experience of my life,” he said. “I felt the earthquake clearly at 500 m agl.” The quake struck near Selfoss, a popular tourist spot 50 km from the capital Reykjavik, on May 29 this year. Buildings were damaged and as many as 20 people were injured, according to press reports at the time.
Hans said: “My friend Sigvaldi and I were thermalling in a mountain called Ingolfsfjall in south Iceland when the earthquake hit.


“At first I felt the wing start vibrating, this was something new to me, something I have never felt while flying. I thought maybe I had entered some strange air with fluctuating waves or something.

“Then I heard the noise. It sounded like thunder coming from the ground. I looked down and I saw the whole mountain moving and sliding forward. I saw boulders the size of houses falling down.”

It was then, he said, “I realised that this was an earthquake.”

He added: “It was amazing being right over the source of the quake in a paraglider. What is the chance of that happening?”

Realising what was happening, Hans grabbed his camera and took pictures, “to show the power of this natural disaster”.

The earthquake and vibration lasted 20 seconds. “It turns out it was actually two earthquakes in one, and the source was right under my wing,” said Hans.

“The wing felt like an instrument that the Earth was playing, such was the vibration.”

The pair had been flying in thermic air close to the sea. “We were expecting the seabreeze to kick in any minute,” he said.

“The air changed almost instantly. This huge mass of hot air was released at the same time as when the ground shook. We felt it a few minutes after the earthquake, then the seabreeze came in much more strongly than normally and I had a hard time penetrating. I ended up landing going slightly backwards.”

Iceland, which has a population of about 300,000, sits on top of the mid-Atlantic ridge, a geologically unstable tectonic plate boundary. A spokesman for Iceland’s Institute of Earth Sciences said the country had been expecting further quakes after a series of tremors in the same area in 2000.

Roger Musson of the British Geological Survey told Cross Country he had never heard of such an event before.

He said: “I wouldn’t like to try and make a definitive statement about the mechanics, but the fastest form of earthquake waves are compressional waves akin to sound waves, known as P waves. Some P wave energy crosses over into the atmosphere to be perceived as sound.

“This is likely to be the explanation of the vibration and sound, though I’m surprised they were so perceptible at such an altitude. What Hans was seeing, of course, was a secondary effect of the earthquake (triggered landslides).

“There is a certain amount of evidence that some of the overcoming of friction in earthquake faulting results in a release of heat, which is a possible explanation of the thermals immediately encountered.”

It is thought that Hans’s and Sigvaldi’s experience is unique. A tracklog of their flight is online here.

Highs and Lows: Thermals on

Frábær grein eftir Hugh Miller um skítkalt 75km cross country flug í Englandi, hlaðin góðum ráðum og útskýringu á því hversvegna það sé betra að fljúga A-væng.

What happened to spring? In the UK we’ve had snow, floods and freezing fog in what has turned out to be one of the coldest March’s on record. But, with a single day forecast to be classic, Hugh Miller grabbed the day and stared a -15C windchill in the face. Come on!

Highs and Lows: Thermals on – the first day of the UK XC season