April Photo of the Month : Goðafoss in Winter

I had planned to post daily updates to my blog during my back-to-back Iceland winter workshops. However, that plan quickly went the way of the Dodo once I realized I was just not going to have any spare time. Any down time I did have between shooting, eating and driving was quickly eaten up with catching a few hours sleep or planning the next day’s shooting schedule with my friend and guide Daniel Bergmann (winter workshop locations are flexible based on prevailing weather). I am only just now starting to eat into my back log of thousands of emails (I will get even with the spammers one day) and catching up on missed items and upcoming events – more to come on some upcoming events in a future post. In the meantime, I have had little time to do more than import the 3000 images I shot during the month in Iceland into Lightroom and give them a cursory glance. One image that immediately jumped out at me was a photograph I made between the two workshops in the north of Iceland at Goðafoss. Those of you who are regular readers of my blog or who are familiar with Iceland will already be aware of Goðafoss waterfall. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with this waterfall: Goðafoss is located in the Mývatn district of North-Central Iceland at the beginning of the Sprengisandur highland road. It is not the largest or most dramatic waterfall in Iceland, but its in my opinion the most beautiful and probably the most spectacular. The water of the river Skjálfandafljót falls from a height of 12 meters over a width of 30 meters in a horseshoe shape that forms the falls; which are easily approached along a short walking track from the car park. The falls can be approached from two different sides although I personally prefer the hotel side away from the tourist car park.

Like many good photographs there is a back story to this image and although the story does not make the photograph it is worth recounting for the sake of posterity. Daniel Bergmann, Andy Biggs and I had just completed our first ten day winter workshop and were scheduled to have three days off recovering and catching up on much needed sleep before we commenced our second workshop. One of my friends (Mark Farnan) who had participated in our first workshop convinced me however that sleep was not a requirement for the human body and that significant periods of rest were overrated anyway. He suggested that we were far better off piling into the 4-wheel drive and driving six hours from Reykjavík to the north of Iceland to photograph Goðafoss in winter. Since both of us wanted to capture images of this beautiful waterfall partially frozen it was not that difficult for Mark to twist my arm. There was only one problem with this plan and that was the blizzard that was hurtling down from the Arctic on a collision course with our target location. After much back-and-forth discussion, some time spent looking over weather maps and forecasts and a little gnashing of teeth we pulled the trigger and decided to go for it – snow storm be dammed.

We were hedging our bets that Iceland’s fickle and constantly changing weather would cut us a break and at least give us an opportunity to photograph the waterfall in winter even if conditions were not ideal. Five hours later we had made good time and were only an hour or so away from the town of Akureyri and our accommodation for the evening when we quite literally ran into a wall of blinding snow. The snow had started to not just fall but slam into us in a blinding torrential snow storm that reduced our speed to little more than walking pace – ‘Welcome to Iceland in winter’ I said to Mark with a grin.

The temperature outside had plummeted to a frigid -9 degrees Celsius and the wind was whipping up the golf ball sized snow flakes in great flurries that made seeing (let alone driving) nearly impossible. On top of that the air was so dry that the snow already on the ground was being picked up by the wind and hurled around us; which all contributed to visibility of barely ten feet. The road had long since disappeared under the snow and I was navigating solely by the roadside markers placed every ten feet or so along the sides of the road. With our speed reduced to a crawl and straining to see I was pretty exhausted from concentration by the time we finally arrived in Akureyri. We checked into our hotel, had a late dinner and agreed to rise at 5am and drive the remaining hour and a half to Goðafoss for sunrise. Outside our hotel the snowstorm continued.

By 5am the snow had finally stopped falling as the storm continued its journey south and we set off up the mountain pass headed for Goðafoss with big smiles on our faces. That was until we realized just how much snow had fallen during the storm. The mountain pass that lay between Goðafoss and us was completely impassable. The road was buried under not less than three feet of snow and not even our 4-wheel drive with studded tires was equipped for that sort of challenge. As we sat near the beginning of the mountain pass with sad and bewildered looks on our faces I was quietly cursing myself for not taking Daniel’s modified Super Jeep with 40 inch tires that would have allowed us to simply drive up onto and float over the snow.

Faced with a wall of impassable snow we were just about to cut our losses, admit defeat and head back to Akureyri in search of another shooting location (and breakfast) when I had the idea to wait by the side of the road for one of the snow ploughs we had passed on the way out of town. The snow ploughs work relentlessly through the winter in the north of Iceland to keep the main Highway One ring road open as much as possible and I was hoping the one we had passed was going to make its way up to us and subsequently clear the mountain pass between us and Goðafoss. Having driven so far it seemed worth the wait and we sat patiently by the side of the road for half an hour or so. The decision turned out to be the right call and shortly thereafter one of the snow clearing machines made its way up and past us and proceeded to clear away the worst of the snow. We simply tucked in behind it as it churned through the snow; spitting it off to one side in billowing clouds. Whilst our pace was reduced to the speed of the plough we were at least making forward progress and a couple of hours later we were finally at Goðafoss.

I pulled the 4-wheel drive over into the parking lot and promptly bogged it in the deep snow. It did not matter however; we had arrived and from our vantage point we could see the waterfall was partially frozen and in perfect, pristine condition. There were spectacular icicles hanging from the rocks and the ground was covered with soft fresh snow. Translucent aqua water tumbled over the falls and raced down the canyon and the whole scene was lit with soft diffuse morning light of the sort only Iceland can deliver. These are the moments I live for as a nature photographer. We quickly donned our micro spikes, grabbed our camera bags and stomped through the snow to the waterfall.

This was not the first time I have visited Goðafoss and as such I new exactly where I wanted to position myself to photograph it (there are three favorite locations I like to photograph this waterfall from). This first image was shot looking back up at the falls on an outcropping of rock that looks over the canyon’s edge. I had previously photographed the waterfall from a similar location in 2009 and I have included the photograph I made at that time as the juxtaposition may be of interest. Both were shot with 24mm lenses although I shot this new winter image with the 24mm F4L Tilt Shift lens in lieu of the 24mm F1.4L MKII.

We spent a couple of hours photographing Goðafoss in the soft diffuse light before we freed the 4-wheel drive from its temporary imprisonment and headed for Mývatn and a relaxing soak in the steaming geothermal baths.

Higher resolution versions of both these photographs can be seen on my website at www.jholko.com

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s