by Leslie Anthony
When our truck was blown off Iceland’s Hwy 1 below a mountain pass somewhere beyond the middle of nowhere, no one was expecting it. Not that the event hadn’t come without warnings, mind you, but only subtle ones of the kind you easily made adjustments for then ignored, lulling one into thinking they were manageable—until they suddenly weren’t. Driving slowly and steering against the wind weren’t enough when a massive gust hit our sailboat of a rental truck, immediately releasing the inadequate tires’ tenuous grip on the wind-polished, glare-ice surface. With the driver gripping an unresponsive steering wheel and screaming a horrified Nooooooo! just like in a movie, we skidded sideways at 45-degrees, took out a roadside marker pole, and launched a high-centered power slide along the shoulder with sparks flying and our rear wheels strafing the ditch. The truck was fully pitched over and about to roll when, in a moment of suspended providence—with everyone unbelted but frozen wide-eyed and resigned (no more so than those who’d been jolted awake)—we miraculously caught on a patch of ground that had risen to meet the wheels, straightened up, gained traction, and shot across the (fortunately) empty roadway in the opposite direction, coming to rest upright on a snowy lava plain. There was silence. And then, “Holyfuckingshit!”
Enough lava poked through the snow in this spot that we figured we were on solid ground and could manoeuvre back onto the highway. We tried driving forward, backward, and then pushing in both directions, but there were always low spots with just enough snow and ice to bog us down. The wind was relentless and we were, to a person, frozen. Faced with several more passes to cross and the realization that we were actually deeper into the realms of nowhere than originally suspected, we broke out the shovels, changed into ski clothes and applied our best Canadian and Swedish winter-driving knowledge. Despite the confluence of experience and brainpower at our disposal, however, it eventually took a friendly road crew and radio call to a nearby grader to tow us back onto the roadway.
“The road and pass ahead are bad for about 15 kilometres,” advised one of the road crew before we drove off. “And then it gets worse.”
He was right; the wind was relentless and gusting unpredicatbly, constantly messing with the van whether from behind or crossways. And though it wasn’t snowing, in some places the whiteouts were so intense we had to drive at 15 kph, navigating only by the yellow roadside marker poles that appeared every 30 metres. It added up to an intense white-knuckle experience that stretched what should have been a fiveish-hour drive into well over 10.
Lest such a wind seem egregious even for the Arctic, there’s a place in Iceland where, last year, the asphalt was actually blown off the road, says Jon Runarsson, an employee of Bergmenn Mountain Guides.
Remembering my first trip to Iceland there were many similarities… the ground blizzards, white-knuckle creeping over passes looking for roadside markers to guide the way; on that trip the photographer and I had put our skis in one bag, which—unbeknownst to any of us—blew off the roof of our guide’s truck somewhere on the wild south coast never to be seen again—despite a nationwide alert.
So pervasive is the wind in Iceland’s outdoor circles that the national Search & Rescue people have their own fine-scale weather modeling that is able to capture more of the localized effects than what more general models can. For instance, here’s a series of weather maps modeling the area where the storm referenced in one of my last MLA posts took place.
“The maps are generated using a tool called SARWeather that we’ve developed in cooperation with the Icelandic Civil Protection Agency and others,” lead developer Logi Ragnarsson told me in an email. “It is primarily intended for SAR operations, but is also used by some local guide companies and others. We run a weather model for each set of charts and, when there’s a problem, we can feed it either into historical data—what were conditions like when the client got lost? how far was he likely to get before the storm hit?—or into global forecast data—will there be a lull in the storm? should we keep most of the search teams back until then and then send everyone out when they can actually see something?”
This is a powerful tool for a country where vast, treeless landscapes and low visibility can make for the easy loss of landmarks in visual route-finding with potentially serious consequences. Knowing what we were driving into that day might not have kept us from being blown off the road (a 4WD might have), but being aware of changing local conditions might have had us on higher alert.
It would be great if Canadian Search & Rescue organizations had something similar at their disposal. You might not always be able to see a dangerous wind, but at least you’ll know which corner it might be lurking around.