This article originally appeared in the September 2018 edition of Be Inspired by Discovery Adventures
My world had turned white ... and I’d lost any sense of which way was up, down left or right. I could vaguely make out some shapes ahead of me but beyond that nothing but an endless white blizzard.
I was caught in a whiteout, on a documentary TV shoot, on top of a vast Icelandic glacier. Visibility had dropped to around 12 feet as a weather front of snow, sleet and fog had swept in cloaking the sun and turning a vast open location into a claustrophobic white world.
Days before I’d been standing in the same spot looking out across a breathtaking landscape of blue skies, snow and mountains that stretched for miles down to the North Atlantic Ocean. The world looked very different today.
I was on Iceland’s Skálafellsjökull glacier, the largest in Europe, making a new Engineering and Survival show. For months we’d been planning to recreate a crash site using a full-size plane fuselage and various other vehicles. The plan was to drop a cast of engineers onto the glacier to survive the extreme elements and salvage parts of the crash to build an escape vehicle. The set looked like something from a Hollywood disaster movie until the weather decided to throw a spanner in the works! In Adventure TV Filming you plan for risk and try to think ahead to all eventualities but as much as you might try, mother nature is one of the elements you have no control over. And in situations like this you just have to roll with the punches and keep going as best you can to try and produce some TV worth watching.
On day one of our filming, we learnt the hard way that glaciers often have their own microclimates. You can go from clear blue skies to a complete white out in minutes. The weather front that hit us was of epic proportions, worthy of any episode of ‘Game of Thrones’ (scenes from which, by the way, were shot nearby).
In these conditions it’s easy to get disorientated and caught out by concealed crevasses beneath our feet. Fortunately, our guides had marked out a safe zone with GPS but the menace of a crevasse opening up was always at the back of my mind. For a while everything ground to a snail’s pace and we were close to pulling the shoot. If conditions got any worse we’d have to abandon the show and evacuate down and off the glacier - months of planning would be lost.
Operating also requires agile, nimble fingers, but with wet, numb hands, turning a focus ring is no easy task. In sleet, moisture eventually seeped into all of our fancy, synthetic gloves. In the end it was a low-fi solution that saved the shoot. Generations of Icelanders have used old-fashioned wool gloves that despite taking in water, have an almost magical ability to keep the heat in and your hands functioning. We combined the wool with a bunch of hand warmers, stuffed into every available part of our clothing and the cameras kept on rolling.
As the shoot played out, as is often the case, the difficult conditions made for a raw and exciting episode and with just days to go the Icelandic gods took favour on us and finally the storm front began to clear. Gradually the curtain of cloud lifted revealing in all its dramatic, glory the majesty of the surrounding landscape.
While the visuals suffered in the first couple of days, we got the dramatic finale to the show we needed and we were pleased to discover that despite ending up with a bunch of destroyed viewfinders, most of the footage was in focus and the cast of engineers managed to escape the glacier!
Nick was filming ‘Escape’ an engineering and survival series for Channel 4