The Crushed Lake wHen Ice Goes Vertical


In the past I often thought about a scene that Stanislaw Lem describes quite incidentally in the first paragraph of his science fiction novel “Fiasko“. A worker on one of Saturn‘s moons is compelled to observe a limitless, bizarre scenery of ice before subjecting himself to an emergency cryogenic process. Many thoughts run through his mind at that point, but one central idea revolves around the fact that nature produces its most magnificent works of art far away from inhabited regions.

There, it produces a richness of forms and impressions that fills every human artist with awe - but, despite this, is free of any vain desire to show off these constructs. These thoughts have accompanied me on many journeys ever since and - whether in the Postojna Caves, between the dunes in the Sahara, or in the presence of the Ilulissat icebergs - it is always the human being who has to go out of his way to see the wonders of nature. Nature never seems to want to bring its works to us. It creates, without asking - and destroys, without any effort for permanence.

But now to photography. As a landscape photographer you often have to ask yourself how far you are willing to go to find your subjects. Fortunately, it is not necessary, as in Lem‘s novel, to visit one of Saturn‘s moons - because even on our own planet there are places full of exuberant visual richness and beauty. When I was 18, a friend and I ascended the Skierfe mountain on the edge of the Sarek National Park in Lappland. As I enjoyed the incredible view of the snake-like branching arms of the river Rapaälv, I knew, that walking out into the wild will reward me - always.


From the moment I first saw pictures of the Russell Glacier near Kangerlussuaq (Greenland), they put a truly magical spell on me. Mystical ice cathedrals, concealed in the solitude of Greenland‘s outback - that promised an intense inspiration and an intriguing subject. In the winter of 2012/13 I made the decision not to wait any longer and to bring my imaginations and dreams to life. When, in February 2013 at temperatures between -30°C and -40°C, I had my first encounter with the glacier, my expectations were not disappointed, but surpassed.

Given Greenland‘s conditions, the Russell Glacier is easy to get to. Greenland‘s longest road passes right by it. The description “longest road“ might sound impressive. In fact, it is a gravel road about 35 km long and runs from Kangerlussuaq to Point 660 on the inland ice sheet. It was built in 2000 by Volkswagen because the automobile company operated a test facility for its vehicles for a few years at a site more than 100 km within the icecap - far away from industrial espionage and the prying eyes of unauthorized photographers.

The car manufacturer abandoned the test facility in the mid-2000s - but the road remains and for the time being it is the only drivable route to Greenland‘s inland ice sheet. In Kangerlussuaq it is relatively easy to organize a four-wheel-drive vehicle trip to the most interesting places quite separately from the regularly organized trips using Unimog vehicles. To do this it is essential to book the trip with a firm that has an official permit for the region, otherwise the tour would end at the massive barrier that seals off that portion of the hinterland that is declared as a nature reserve.


Even the Russell Glacier, like almost every other glacier on earth, has had to pay the price for global warming over the past few years. Consequently it is no longer a large as it was - locals claim that the face of glacier has lost about a third of its height in recent years. Also its width no longer extends to its earlier maximum - between the glacier and its northern side and the terminal moraine there is a gap of several hundred meters. In the summertime, melt water flows into this free area and forms a small lake, which of course freezes up in winter.

But the glacier keeps on moving, even in winter - one report I received put its speed at up to 30 cm a day. The pressure and the enormous friction at the base of the glacier create heat, which melts the ice at that level and acts as a lubricant, facilitating the movement of the glacier.

This movement of the glacial ice creates an enormous horizontal pressure on the ice cover of the frozen lake in winter. This pressure pushes the ice of the lake against the moraine, where the movement is stopped. As the lake ice cannot move anymore, it is bent upwards at the edges, folded out and pushed into itself. This creates ice sculptures up to 15 m high, which I was able marvel at in detail during my first visit in February 2013.


When I returned to the Russell Glacier in February 2014, I secretly hoped that the phenomenon of the vertical lake would be repeated this year and that I could expect this wealth of fascinating shapes again. But just like i the year before, what I found surprised me. To my great surprise, the lake‘s convolutions were even more pronounced and more varied than last year. I would not like to draw any conclusions on a single year‘s changes, as even during the short time of my stay, the whole ensemble was in a complete “state of flux“, in which on one day a huge sculpture could collapse and shatter into a thousand sparkling pieces, while it was possible that the ice at another point could be raised into a new artwork overnight.

This dynamic made itself noticeable for other reasons, too. Although I was completely alone on the glacier, I was surrounded by continuous sound. The constant tension in the ice erupted, often every a few minutes, with a loud bang - sometimes followed by the rumble of slipping chunks of ice or of collapsing ice towers. Of course, this permanent demonstration of creation and destruction had the consequence that one had to be always on the alert not to be killed by a falling ice block or even to be swallowed by an ice crevice.

But, first of all, there were some quite trivial obstacles to overcome. As there was almost no frozen snow on the ice cover this year, I had to get some spikes for my boots before starting out for the “zone“ to ensure I wouldn’t repeatedly end up in a horizontal position.

Drunken from walking among these impressive ice walls, towers and peaks shimmering in the sunshine, it takes some time before one is able to focus on the details. But, just as with my encounters with the children of icebergs at Ilulissat, descending into the world of the small ice jewels revealed unimagined treasures. There seems to be no limit to the interpretation of these forms.

In the late afternoon, the sun had temporarily retreated behind a bank of clouds. My path was blocked by large hunks of ice and I had to make my way up to the top of a scree. That gave me the opportunity for a panoramic shot of a large part of the surrounding scenery.

All the hills that can be seen in the picture are part of the wide moraine of the northern flank of the Russell Glacier. The photo reveals how the lake‘s ice cover, in parts clearly more than half a metre thick, is bent upward against the slope of the moraine, breaks and pushes in on itself.

The twilight of the falling dusk transformed the scene of the glistening crystal garden into a zone between the worlds, beyond all sense of time and space. In the ice labyrinth new forms constantly revealed in unexpected shades and tones of blue. Accompanied by the sound of the moving ice and the scratching of my spikes on the often mirror-smooth ice surface, I searched out my path, over and through, between frozen ice eruptions, chaotic towering mountains and ice whose surface turned translucent in the twilight, whose overall appearance was like a primeval painting of an alien planet. At times I was startled when, every now and then, stones would roll down the scree for no clear reason. However, I remained in the zone alone.

Hours later, the headlights of the 4x4 appeared out of the distance to cut through the darkness of the endless night and the driver picked me up from our agreed rendezvous and brought me back to the 500 souls of Kangerlussuaq. The touch of that alien world stayed with me.

Created By
Stephan Fürnrohr

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