After the brilliance of Jökulsárlón, the morning seemed extra dark as clouds settled and the sky threatened rain. Our group gathered at the van; we had decided to get breakfast at the restaurant and begin the drive back to Vestrahorn. It isn’t a long drive from Hali to Vestrahorn, a couple hours at the most, but we would leave before sunrise in the hopes of catching some breaks in the clouds. I looked forward to seeing Vestrahorn in the daylight – it was certainly wonderful last night, and I could not wait to get back out there.

We drove to the end of the long road leading away from the Viking Cafe to position ourselves at the black sand dunes at the edge of the curving beach, the mountains rising on the northern skyline. There are so many options here. Vestrahorn rises above a curving coastline that connects the apron of the mountain-front to rocky outcrops that protrude into the ocean. On the leeward side of the outcrops, small dunes form grassy hummocks trailing from the rocks. Stalks of tall grass, dormant gold in winter, added to dune texture, but waved blurrily in the stiff, steady wind. A beach ridge of black sand protects a broad, shallow lagoon from the coastal breakers. The setting creates layered textures with interesting dune foreground, all ripples and golden grass, giving way to a middle-ground depth of the lagoon flats, before the mountain rises to the sky. Last night we stood on the frozen lagoon shooting at the mountainous aurora, this morning we built compositions varying from the crossbeds at the dunes to the shrouded mountain skyline, often with a leading and curving coastline in between. Vestrahorn offered plenty.

 

Gray of Vestrahorn as clouds settle in.

It was by far the most difficult day of photography I had while in Iceland. Clouds masked the sky, creating a seamless, unchanging backdrop to the abrupt mountains. Our group wandered in the coppice-piled and snow-covered dunes, trying our best to avoid getting too many footsteps in the virgin whiteness that contrasted with the black sand. A misplaced step created a definitive imprint glaring through the snow, a stark blemish that would dominate a composition more than any other well-composed leading line or foreground interest. We were mostly successful.

I could see Quinn and Randy coaxing details from the dunes, looking for rippled swales breaking toward the mountain backdrop. Ken headed to the rocky beachfront, undoubtedly breaking out his ND filters and creating moody long-exposures. Jeremy chased a red-coated “instagram-girl” onto the beach, as she ran along the beach in the arm-raised trope that the black beach requires. I don’t know what her personal photographer captured, but Jeremy’s images worked. He took advantage, also capturing some equestrians cantering in the black sand.

The Eastern Crag. This is one of my favorite photos from the trip, and I remember posting it to Instagram that day. It was difficult not to highlight this peak in every composition, and you’ll see it again and again below.

This small pair of outcrops peeks from behind Vestrahorn. I see a pair of cowled monks, treking one behind the other, into the clouds beyond the crags.

A cool light, long exposure of the eastern summit crag at Vestrahorn. This is the wide-view of the two images above.

We spent a few hours in the wind, hoping the clouds might break. In the approaching storm the break never came, but grey skies offered mountain scenes that called for black-and-white compositions highlighting crag and peak details. I kept a few aspects of color in a few images, and these become highlights rather than key elements of the composition. This is very different from the colorful landscapes I had been focused on until today.

Curving to the Crags. The black-and-white contrast works on a dark day. Although I tried to avoid the tracks in foreground dunes, these appealed to me for some reason. 

After fixating on the summits, I sought equal time for the saddles.

One more for the motion, letting color play the highlights.

At the Viking Café afterward, we huddled around coffee and some giant pieces of cake. We tried to plan our afternoon, knowing the coming storm might limit our options for the next few days. We shared tables with a few locals who seemed to be also planning around the forecast—Thor knew everyone, or so it seemed. Cindy found the local canine, snooping around the windows outside, a willing model for her images of the weather-beaten café.

A cloud-break hinting on the horizon encouraged a late afternoon excursion on the drive back toward the guesthouse at Hali. It wasn’t much, but maybe there would be some evening light at Fjallsárlón, a glacial lagoon we had scouted out previously. We gathered after lunch and traversed a bumpy two-track, the route of the old ring-road highway. Hiking along a steep-sided moraine overlooking the glacial lagoon, we could glimpse Fjallsjökul and search out some more intimate scenes along some clear drainages cutting through bouldery outwash and snow. The sky burned beyond scudding clouds and newly falling snow, the storm was here but several promising compositions presented themselves. Sadly, I didn’t pay attention to the moisture on my lens and my few attempts are hopelessly blurred. It was still a welcome excursion in the steadily increasing snow, another new experience in our last days of the Iceland journey.

Details in the older rocks in the coastal outcrops at Vestrahorn. 

The blue radiance of Fjallsjökul.

Heading back to Hali, we pulled into the Jökulsárlón parking area. Here, we finally met Eric and Mara, the awesome team who had noticed, in the dark, my misplaced battery/card bag. Rescuing the bag after we’d left the plane wreck, they kindly tracked down Thor—they’d chatted with him during our aurora experience—realizing their trip itinerary basically coincided with ours. Today, we met in the blue light of a parking lot where they passed along my bag and I could express my appreciation. Eric has a nice Iceland gallery, check it out; our trips did indeed overlap considerably—to my very good fortune. Thank you Eric! And thanks to Thor and our team for patiently waiting with me as Eric and Mara tracked us down.

Back to Day 8. Click here for Iceland Gallery. Up next: Stormed out…

2 Comments

  1. Eric Eslinger

    Finally got back to reading this, great breakdown of your trip, and these Vestrahorn photos are great!! Glad we could help you out and return your gear!

    Reply
    • D. Craig Young

      Hey Eric, thanks for checking back in! Glad I finally got to your and Mara’s cameo in our adventure. I still have a couple days to wrap this up, taking longer than I’d hoped but, well, you know how it is… Vestrahorn was one of my favorites locations and I have way too many of images of this iconic little mountain range. Thanks again for making sure you two caught up with us, still a special moment for me!

      Reply

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