For at least two days, the air has been heavy with an acrid smell, at times almost nauseating. We scan the horizon: other than the expanse of white we cannot seem to spot anything, but for a few dark spots here and there, and we cannot be sure that they are any more than simple shadows from the fast-running clouds which, abetted by the sun, dot the blanket of snow. And that same wind, which chases those frayed strips of cloud across the sky, carries the typical smell of … hard boiled eggs.
Lifting our hopes, all of a sudden a huge cloud arrives and surrounds us. My mind is transported back to the salt-scented fog rising from the depths of the lush Chilean fjords, that takes you by surprise when it wraps itself around you on the Patagonian Ice Field in a matter of seconds, leaving you astonished by its unusual fragrance and dripping with water as if after a summer storm.
Then I am seized by the anxious thought of another soaking wet night in a tent, but to my pleasant surprise and relief, this is not the case: almost without realising it, we find ourselves submerged in a giant, light, stinking nebuliser. Amusedly, I wonder whether at least our lungs and the skin on our faces will gain some benefit; the water at Vichy and Montegrotto Terme are nothing compared to this immersion in the sulphur and boiled egg ridden air.
But this is an important sign: we can't see it yet, but the Grímsvötn must be getting close. In its way, it has already introduced itself; our entire surroundings are saturated with its presence.
We spend another day with the sole thought that the smoking mouth of the crater awaits us on the horizon, gaping towards the sky, its dimensions difficult to fathom, but for the ashen column rising from it; the caldera must be enormous, but we will not get to see it until tomorrow.
When it finally appears before us, I try to remember whether Dante in his Inferno described a place such as this: an expanse of soft black earth, from which an obnoxious fog rises up, and in which we sink with some trepidation. This is the setting leading to the narrow peak from which the immense crater will finally reveal its secrets to us. I carefully check each crack, and the intensity of the smoke puffing out of it; wafts of steam, like hands groping at our feet, trying to drag us down into the bowels of this fiery belly, cause me to improvise a kind of dance, zigzagging here and there, seeking out some small island of rock. When we reach the wooden platform at the volcanological centre on top of the Grímsvötn, I feel like a castaway reaching dry land.
The evening with its long shadows is slowly advancing, covering the cold, black, still lava in its warm veil. We will stay here tonight; our little tent pitched on the slopes of this pulsating heart. We are about halfway through our journey. In a few days it will be the sleeping giant Snæfell to point out the way for us.
Antonella Giacomini, 48 years old, and 47-year-old Daniela Facchinetti have made two expeditions together to the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, on both the Argentinian and the Chilean sides, once in winter, as well as crossing the entire Vatnajökull glacier in Iceland. At the end of March 2013, they will set off to cross the frozen Lake Baikal.