Icelandic Search & Rescue

 
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D E P A R T U R E

Another early morning was due, and I was hopeful to catch a sunrise on the black sand beaches of Vík before another storm rolled in. Despite the early mornings, I was yet to see the sun cast its golden light across the landscape as it rose up from its slumber. I’d visited Dyrhólaey and Reynisfjara before, but each time had been the same, hailstorms and black skies blocking my view of the ocean as well as the famous sea stacks that sat not too far out from the shoreline. Legend has said that these stacks were formed by two trolls as they tried to drag a three-mast ship in during the night. The ship was heavy, and the trolls could only work slowly as the powerful waves crashed around them. But, the night did not stay for long, and soon the sun started to peep over the horizon. Sunlight was not a friend to the trolls, and they were turned to stone instantly, frozen forever in time to haul in their ship.


My headlights were like an old oil lamp, dim, as they tried to cut through the darkness. I kept hoping for the clouds to blow over and reveal a hint of dawn to me, but I almost lost that hope as I passed through Vík. The air was dense as it hugged the ground and the wind gusts were quickly climbing up to 100mph. I decided to park up for a while anyway and listen to some music, maybe the weather would clear up in another half hour. I was tired too, the past several days of constant driving, early mornings and long nights had started to take its toll on me. I closed my eyes and listened as the wind blew debris into my car. I could hear the music from the vehicle beside me, and wondered if they were hoping for the storm to pass too. Another car rolled up and parked next to me, a head popped out for a split-second before quickly ducking back down into safety. The wind kept growing stronger and I tried to peer out at the beach in my rearview mirror, unsure of whether I should just give up and head back to Reykjavík. I checked the weather forecast and saw it was due to get progressively worse throughout the day, even the capital was going to be hit later tonight. 


Last February, I’d came unprepared for the violence of the weather and learnt my lesson the hard way with numb legs, purple hands and ice frozen to my cheeks. Before I left this time, I’d invested in some skiing clothes, but most importantly were the goggles. They saved my eyes from the solid ice and grit that blew upwards to batter my face. I rummaged around in my bag and quickly donned my warm clothes, preparing for the cold that seemed to slash through the air. Bracing myself for the wind, I took one last deep inhale and stepped out into the storm. The sheer power of it took me by surprise, and I had to hold the door handle to stay upright. The air was ripped from my nostrils, my lungs empty from the assault as I opened my mouth to gasp. Throughout my travels, I’d never found another place that made me feel the way this country always makes me feel. Everything here is alive, humming with a deep and ancient energy that I find spiritually overwhelming. It’s such a raw and humbling experience; to witness the unrelenting nature of nature. 


Slowly, I made my way towards the beach, and found my mind thanking me (for the umpteenth time) for investing in a pair of goggles. My cheeks, however, were quick to redden as they always did in the cold, my scarf constantly slipping down from my cheekbones and leaving my skin bare. Above even the sound of the wind, I heard the waves. Huge, colossal white waves that crashed angrily into the sand and the cliffs to my left. I knew not to get too close, these waters were unpredictable and powerful at the best of times, and it was known that tourists had almost drowned here because they’d underestimated the sea. They’d gotten far too close whilst taking pictures and had been dragged in. I didn’t doubt that people would die if the same thing were to happen today. Crouching down, I took it all in, completely mesmerised. Watching the brute force of the elements sent a twang of apprehension, even fear, down my spine. I was awe-struck once again by the untameable power of this place, and I knew that was why I kept coming back.


Fighting against the wind as it took my feet out from under me, I eventually made it back to the car. I was hungry now, and my food supplies had run out the night before. I knew Vík was just a few miles down the road, the shops would open soon too, as well as the toilets. Turning on my lights and switching to 4-wheel drive, I set off again to find some food and plan the journey back. A big truck was driving towards me, its wheels somewhat over the centre line as it flew past. I turned my steering wheel slightly to avoid the truck and hit a patch of ice, the car slid and I knew it was hopeless to try and stop it. I kept my wheel straight as the car juddered to a stop and sank into the verge. I cursed to myself, exasperated immediately at this turn of events. I looked in my side mirror to see if the truck had stopped, but they’d just continued on as if nothing had happened. 


Grabbing my gloves, I yanked on the door handle to assess the damage. Good news: the car was not damaged at all. Bad news: the right hand side wheels were completely submerged in snow. I looked around but there was nobody there. I didn’t have a shovel with me so I knew it would take a while to dig myself out. I trampled the snow in front of my tyres, trying to compact it down to help get some grip. I dug out the snow in front of my bumper and tried to scoop the snow from underneath. A car passed me but didn’t stop. I kept digging, another 5-10 minutes went by and I was still no further, the right side had sunken too far. I saw another car approaching, this one was driving a bit slower so I managed to flag them down. Luckily, they were both locals and they gave me the number for a recovery guy who lived in Vík. I thanked them with the little Icelandic I knew and rang the number. The line rang out. I waited a couple minutes and tried again, this time someone picked up. I took a breather and looked out at the mountains as I tried to comprehend the irony of this situation. I was here to work with the search and rescue team, and here I was, stuck by myself in need of rescuing.


When the recovery guy arrived in his huge Icelandic truck, I was sure he must have been thinking ‘another stupid Chinese tourist getting stuck in the snow.’ Talk about living up to the stereotypes. It took him all of a few minutes to yank my car from the verge, and I was charged 10,000ISK for the inconvenience. Taking a moment to gather myself, I reasoned that it could have been much worse before heading down to the small village and picking up some supplies.


I was halfway back to Reykjavík when my phone rang, my contact from the Icelandic Search & Rescue (otherwise known as ICESAR) was ringing to let me know where I’d be spending the weekend. They gave me two options, one being first aid on the far east of the island, past Höfn, which is where I’d just driven from these past few days. Alternatively, I could join one of the teams from Reykjavík since I was headed there anyway. Numbers exchanged, I accelerated toward the capital and made it within the hour. I fumbled with the chargers for all of my equipment and rushed to shower and pack for the weekend ahead, texting Björn to ask what I should bring. My stomach was full of butterflies as I set off for their base, unsure of what to expect but more than excited to head into the Highlands for a weekend.

In February 2018, my friends and I had gotten stuck in a bad snowstorm on our way back from Geysir. We were stranded with around a hundred other vehicles and couldn’t see past our own bonnet. At first, it was exhilarating, there was still a lot of light left in the day and we joked around taking photos and videos of the storm. As dusk fell, a snowplough came, followed by an ambulance and two huge trucks. Daylight deserted us quickly. It had been several hours by now and we hadn’t seen the rescue trucks for a while. My friends were starting to get stressed, their laughter subsiding to make way for tiredness. Around 6 hours had passed and ice had frozen to our windscreen despite the fans being on full power, we were all hungry and cramped from sitting in the car. Flashing lights danced in our mirrors so we knew the rescue team had almost reached us. It took a total of ten hours to get back to Selfoss, which was only about 40km away. Once the storm had halted, we had set off in a convoy of rescue trucks, locals and tourists, none of us getting stuck this time. Over the next few days, we all spoke about the dedication of the rescue team with fondness. As the year came to a close, I found myself still recalling the experience and grew increasingly more curious about the organisation, which led me to start this project with ICESAR.


There are many websites that can help you prevent and plan for these situations, road.is will show you road conditions and closures as well as live camera footage. Another site is safetravel.is which will give you access to alerts and intel, including information about the 112 App, which is an emergency app that you can download and activate if you’re in need of rescue, alternatively you can just dial 112. A signal with your request and location will be received by a response centre, a situation report will then be sent out to the nearest rescue teams, one of which will accept and then despatch to the location as soon as possible. Across Iceland, there are currently a total of 93 teams which are made up of approximately 4,000 volunteers. These volunteers are on call 24/7, 365 days a year. Each centre is responsible for their own funding which covers things like electricity, maintenance, specialist equipment, accommodation, vehicles and fuel. Volunteers can be anybody and everybody, as long as they are over the age of 18 and pass the months of training and tests that are required, in areas such as: first aid, navigation, radios and comms, expedition, adventurous training, winter training, and most importantly, survival. Practical training weekends happen frequently and there’s also 2 hours training at the centres twice a week. The teams have one chairman and around four others who will collectively act as the chairman if they’re absent. The “leaders” are voted in house, and things like age, gender, job etc don’t impact the decision, which is a very refreshing ideology. 


As I pulled up to the rescue centre, my 4-wheel drive was dwarfed by the gigantic, and heavily modified, trucks that were being prepped for the weekends journey. A massive, white Ford F-350 sat stubbornly on the tarmac next to a Ford Econoline and an old Toyota Land Cruiser. The tyres were massive, the biggest being 54” high, coming up to my ribcage. The running boards were thigh high at the lowest so you needed to do a running jump or get a hand up to get inside. I waved to a short haired blond guy who was attaching a trailer to the back of one of the trucks, he jumped over the jack to shake my hand and introduced himself as Hrannar before he shouted and went off to find Björn, the chairman of this centre. The whole team was much younger than I’d expected, the youngest member being a part of the youth programme at around 15 or 16. Some of the youth group were heading out for their first training weekend, and I looked forward to documenting it all with them. Truthfully, it was somewhat surreal to be surrounded by a close-knit group speaking a language I didn’t understand, and I initially found it hard to not be self-conscious. After everyone had finished loading up, I jumped in the van with Hrannar, Inga, Gréta, Steinar, Vilhjalmur and Ásta. I tried (and failed) to pronounce everyone’s name correctly, but promised I’d learn before the weekend ended. They laughed and chatted, turning up the music as we departed for the weekend. I was warned that a storm was headed our way and I should prepare for a long night.

A R R I V A L

We’d been stuck in a half frozen river for hours on end, stranded for the night with little sleep and even less comfort. We watched the GPS, following Gummi and Björn as they headed out to try and reach the hut. I’m sure at some point we all drifted off for a short while, hiding under thick, woollen blankets and layers of ski gear. It had been a long night, hours slipped by as we constantly ground to a halt from rough weather. Drifting snow made it near impossible for my lens to focus, the headlights blurring the shot in a flurry of movement as we dug out and winched up. Light diffused against the snow, and a scattering of noise spread out across my viewfinder as the wind whipped fiercely around us. We found ourselves stuck in a colossal snow drift, powder giving way under tonnes of heavy machinery and sinking the back wheels into the ground. Shovels came out quickly, digging tracks for us to try and reverse, then fail. Silent communication of next steps were witnessed as ropes began to emerge from tailgates, wrapping around tow-bars to haul out. We stood in hopeful anticipation that this would work but we soon found ourselves digging again. 


During the journey, the snow had made it near impossible to follow one track and we continuously got separated as each vehicle got stuck. The drivers kept going, unrelenting against the weather that they were so used to. Before we’d headed onto the F-road, the trailer was detached, and Ásta and Steinar mounted their quads to follow behind. Gréta pointed out an Arctic Fox and I managed to catch a glimpse of it before it quickly jumped into the cover of some nearby foliage. We managed to drive without problem for the first half hour, taking it slow and steady with lights beaming in every direction. The first river we came to wasn’t too high and we all made it safely across. Gradually though, the snow started to deepen, and finding the track became increasingly more difficult. Eventually, after the Ford had become stuck about three times within a couple hundred metres, we gave up on the track and drove upwards into the mountains. The plan was to drive up and over and join the track again on the other side. Reversing and accelerating slowly, we managed to gain some distance a few metres at a time. I watched out of the window as the bikes retreated back down the hill and sped up, quickly passing us before swerving to a stop from the snow. 


Just as things were looking up and we’d managed to retrieve the Ford yet again, Hrannar took off and we suddenly dropped into a semi-frozen river. The team quickly guessed where the strong parts of ground were and winched us up. The ice gave way under the weight of our truck, giving us no leverage to get out and sinking our right side deeper. After a while, all of the trucks came to a standstill as everyone grabbed some shut-eye. It was uncomfortable to sit at such an angle, but the night had been long and cold, draining everyone of their energy. At some point, Björn and Gummi had set off for the hut, leaving us stranded whilst they dropped off the rest of the team. 5am was creeping in now and the sun had started to peak over the horizon, I climbed awkwardly onto the back seat, trying to snap a couple pictures of my first sunrise without waking anyone up. Soon though, everyone was ready to leave the van and get into the other trucks as they drew up alongside us again. The clouds quickly rolled in as we started towards the cabin for refuge and rest, passing mountain peaks that seemed to outline themselves against a bleak white of snow and sky. We crossed over some more rivers, and I glimpsed a gorge carved out deep into the land.

Colourfully painted, green, wooden panels and a red roof came into view as we arrived at our home for the weekend. The air in the drying room was already visibly damp from the winter gear hung up by the gas heater. A slight musky smell lingered as we all found a bed to claim. Sleep seemed to take everyone at that point so I wandered outside to finally relieve my bladder. Light seeped in through large frosted windows and I found myself standing in the kitchen for a while. I looked around at pots and pans and wooden countertops, opening drawers and seeing whatever leftover food had been stored on the shelves. Starting to feel the cold, I went back into our room and stood by the heater, trying to warm my frozen fingers. Giving up, I quietly got between my blanket and sleeping bag, attempting to close my eyes and wait for sleep.

T H E H I G H L A N D S

I awoke around midday to soft snores and the click of the heater. Wandering outside again, I brushed my teeth, wetting the bristles with snow. Sunlight glared up from the ground, forcing my eyes to squint in discomfort as I tried to take in the view. Just after I’d sat back down in bed, an alarm sounded and the smell of bacon and noise of conversation soon filled the hut. One of the guys had filled up a big pan with snow which was now slowly melting down into hot water for us all. I noticed that there was almost a 50:50 ratio of males to females in this team, from ages 15 to 40. Without realising, I observed the workings of them as they all took on small errands and prepared for the days task. It was unusual to see such a diverse group of people together, and I admired it whole-heartedly, wishing this existed back in the UK.


Resilience was one of the main qualities that the Icelanders did not lack. On our way over to retrieve the van, one of the quad bikes had broken down. We left Steinar and Bergur to try fix it whilst the rest of us went to haul out Hrannar’s truck. The chainsaw hadn’t started up properly all morning, after a few seconds it would sputter to a stop and now refused to even start. Defeat stared back and patience started to wear thin. Birgir sat for a second, then pulled hard one final time, it coughed and choked to life again, this time staying on long enough to cut through the ice. Long slashes were carved out, and metal shovels hacked away at it until they finally freed the area around the tyres. Hrafnhildur, Eyrún and Vilhjalmur started to chip away at the ice that had formed underneath the car as Hrannar taped up a leak to the transmission fluid line. After a while, most of the ice had been shifted, everyone taking turns to try and dig out. I listened to what they were saying to each other and managed to vaguely understand, somehow. With the winch cable attached and fitted, Gummi started up his Ford whilst Hrannar jumped into the van. One, two, three attempts and we had four wheels back on solid ice. Task completed, we headed back to see how the quad bikes were, stopping to take photos of the mountains and the trucks as they drove through the rivers. Music was blasted out of the speakers and Irma told me about some of the festivals in Iceland, the most famous being held in the Vestmannaeyjar Islands during the midnight sun.  

Sunset started to creep in, the light pastel and perfect. Karel decided to accompany me on a quick hike, so we both mounted our crampons and set off across the ice. Despite having walked on Falljökull with confidence, it felt strange to walk across what I knew was a frozen river. Ice crunched beneath our feet like autumn leaves, and we climbed up to explore the view from the skyline. The snow mixed with soil and grit, my feet sliding down as the incline increased. Once we reached the ridge at the top, we looked back down at the hut, even the trucks looked small from up here. I stood, watching the golden sunlight turn the mountaintops orange and yellow before it blinked and vanished behind the horizon. Clear, cold air filled my lungs, and I savoured the moment, taking the chance to be present as I watched the clouds move leisurely across the sky. I was looking forward to the barbecue tonight, a meal of Icelandic lamb and lots of sides. Before we’d left for our hike, the guys had started to dig out the pit to prepare the fire. Now, I could see a glowing ember coming from the outside. 


As the night darkened to a deep sapphire blue, we sat by the fire and tried to avoid the smoke, unsuccessfully, as we talked. The air was becoming cooler, traces of clouds deserting the sky and tiny stars winking at us. Perhaps luck would be on my side and I’d witness the beauty of the Northern Lights for myself. The lamb was almost ready now, after several hours of turning it to cook evenly. I didn’t mind all that much, though I was hungry, but the mountains looked ghostly pale in the moonlight and I loved watching the flames dance and climb up into the air. As the meat was carved, a queue formed and plates were piled up. I grabbed some bread and sauce and made a huge sandwich, biting down hungrily and sighing with satisfaction. The rescuers looked at me, offended and shocked that I’d put the tender lamb in-between some bread. I laughed at the horror on their faces and explained that British people loved sandwiches and this one was delicious. Second helpings were had and little went to waste between us all. The clouds had come back to shield the aurora from my eyes, and I found comfort in the warmth of the hut instead. It would be my last night in the highlands, and I felt sadness creep in at the thought. Shaking it off, I reminded myself to stay present and enjoy documenting the experience for what it was. We all spoke for a while more, the team joking that the training is usually just the journey in and out of the highlands since the weather can be so bad. They recounted stories of rescue missions and training weekends to me, and I yearned to join them again.

Another night passed without witnessing the aurora, so I settled for imagining how it would look instead. I’d woken earlier than everyone else again, finding that it was becoming a habit to rise before the stars had a chance to hide. The outdoor toilet had been dug out the day before, I wandered over, and gazed out of the stable door and into the cyan blue that lingered at dawn. A reluctance to leave this place hit me, and I sat down on the ice as the day began to emerge. The sunrise decided to show off in shades of soft pink and lilac. The mountains intrigued me with their jagged peaks, formed by years of erosion in this ever-changing landscape. I took some more photos of the morning routine, and we were packed up to leave for Reykjavík with plenty of time left in the day. We joked that the journey would be easier out than it was in, but it didn’t seem to go that way for us. Before long, we came to a stop because the van had another problem. The driveshaft had snapped off at the joint and was now trailing on the ground. Hrannar was quick to remove it as we didn’t have the parts for a repair, leaving us with rear wheel drive only. Björn asked if I’d like to drive one of the trucks and I laughed, thinking he was joking. As soon as I realised he was genuinely offering it to me, I jumped in and tentatively set off, trading his truck for my camera.


I listened to his guidance carefully, scared that I would damage his truck and injure us all. We struggled to see the tracks left behind for us, and I relied heavily on the knowledge of the other two to direct me. We caught sight of Hrannar’s van, rear wheels spinning in the snow. For a second, we thought we’d have to tow him but he reversed back and managed to gain some traction. I sped up and overtook him, all of us laughing as we passed his van. Our smugness was short-lived as we came to a section with deeper snow and almost got stuck ourselves. I followed instruction again and eased the Land Cruiser through the snow, clocking that the van was stuck for real this time. Bergur jumped out, grabbing the rope and hitching the trucks up again. Björn revved the engine and accelerated fast, trying to urge the van up the ice. We had to wait for Gummi to arrive in his Ford as it had a lot more power behind it than our smaller Toyota. Feet heavy on the gas, we managed to haul the van up and set off again. 


A strange mountain came into view, half covered in snow with dramatic and peculiar rock formations. It was a sight both Björn and Bergur had seen many times before, but my eyes were glued to it as we pulled up alongside the rest of the team. I found myself drawn to it, staring through the viewfinder to find the shot I wanted. Whilst Hrannar inflated all of the tyres on our vehicles, Bergur sliced into cake and dished it out, cutting into it more and more as we kept going back for another piece. Ready to move, everyone jumped back into their truck, and I followed cautiously behind, still unsure of my off-road abilities. “You can go faster,” Björn encouraged me as I had another mouthful of cake and stepped on the gas.

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