... continued from Hvitur: Iceland Blog Post - Part 2...
... The car leaned further over to the drivers side. As the contents of the car started falling across the car my girlfriend gripped the door with one hand and braced herself with her other on my shoulder. The vehicle shuddered to a standstill. I told my girlfriend to get out of the car before it rolled further, and after struggling to push the door outwards, she jumped out. The door fell back down with a huge bang. Looking out of my window I looked down into nothing but snow. I lifted the handle on the door and attempted to open the door but it barely moved. The snow now was up to the bottom of the window, so I attempted to open it again, this time using my legs to force the door into the snow. Once I'd made a sufficient gap I swung my legs around and went to slide out. As I slipped out of the car, I fell into the snow up to my waist. Using my hands I dug myself a trench around to the front of the car and climbed up onto the road. Again, there we were in the silence. Stuck.
After a few minutes I decided to call the owner of the chalet we stayed at during the previous night. He had come to meet us at the chalet in a tractor that looked like Optimus Prime, so I hoped he would be able to get us free. It turned out that he couldn't help us because he himself had gotten his car stuck in the snow but he promised he'd come as soon as someone had come to free him. Although this wasn't the best news, I took some comfort in the fact that even the locals were struggling in this weather.
A number of people drove past on the road, most stopping to see if we were ok, even though they had no ropes to help us. We aimlessly waited for our host for a couple of hours until a bright yellow SuperJeep rolled past. By this time I had resigned my hopes onto the host saving us as no one driving by seemed able to help. The SuperJeep stopped just past us, then reversed. Out of this mutant-like vehicle stepped a middle aged Icelandic man, well built, with platinum hair and a red, weathered face. He was dressed in all weather gear but obviously wasn't accustomed to hats and gloves. With him was another guy, again Icelandic, but younger, fresh faced and bright eyed, this time with more suitable clothing. Out of the back the the car, they were followed quickly by a beautiful white husky. Without even saying a word to them, the elder gentleman started lining up the SuperJeep up with the front of our 4x4, the younger nodded to say hello and started looking for the tow hoop on the front of the car.
They gestured that my girlfriend should stay out of the car, indicating that it may well roll completely; then advising that I should get in to help steer it out. The older man got into the SuperJeep and the other indicated that I hit the accelerator as soon as I felt the jolt. I heard the SuperJeep's engine scream before the driver lifted the clutch. It jumped forward and wrenched me forward, spraying my windscreen with snow from the road. Our car slid forward but leaned further into the ditch, things were getting pretty hairy and it looked like my position was worsening. As heavy snow started to set in, we repeated the jolt three or four times, making no progress. After a few minutes deliberation, our rescuers decided to try pulling the 4x4 out backwards and manoeuvred their cars towards the rear. We tried freeing the vehicle another few times, the powerful SuperJeep seeming to almost rip the underneath out from our car. On the fourth attempt, they crunched forward, gaining enough traction to drag our car along the verge and then up onto the roadside. With the snow now driving down on us, I jumped out of the car to say thank you. The two men were just untying the car as if this was no big deal, all in a days work. I told them I had no money to offer them, but I could give them some of the beers from our boot that we'd been working through that week. The older man politely declined but I insisted they take something, anything. The younger of the two graciously took a single beer and they went on their way. We had done nothing to deserve their help, and their kindness was unrelenting. They were just doing it out of the goodness of their hearts and weren't prepared to give up at any point until we were out of that ditch. Then, just as they had arrived, they disappeared into the whiteness, heading off to get on with their daily business.
After a stressful start to the day, we made our way along the road at a slow and steady pace and decided to take a look at the nearby Gullfoss.
Our host from the previous night had told us of the famous Lamb and Veg Broth that was served in a restaurant at the top of the falls. After the morning we had had, a hearty meal was just what we needed. We drove slowly to Gullfoss; the weather was foggy and incredibly bright which meant it was hard to distinguish the sky from the land, and everything was just bright white. We wound our way over to the waterfall and weaved up the roads to the carpark near the top. Walking down to the side of the waterfall, we could see why the Icelanders love Gulfs so much. Although it didn't boast the height of the other waterfalls on the island, it made up for it in width and power. As you stand level with the crest of the fall, the water speeds its way directly toward you, widening more and more until it reaches you. Just as it does, it drops away: roaring, then falling into a creviced calm flowing away. After taking a few photographs, we decided to try out the Broth and take it easy for the rest of the day. The Broth was well worth the trip.
The next day was Day 9 of our trip. The Gullfoss area is about as far inland as you could get at this time of year. The roads further inland were closed and remain inaccessible for the majority of the year, only opening in the height of summer. We wanted desperately to explore Landmannalaugar, a beautiful set of multi coloured valleys further inland. When we'd suggested this to our host the previous night, he just said, "No. Not possible!". So on his recommendation we decided to head towards Snaefellsness, a calm and characterful peninsular north of Reykjavik. To get there we either had to drive South to the coast for the clearer roads, braving the storms and taking a longer route, or cut a line inland, heading West on snowier roads but in calmer conditions. The latter route also meant driving through the incredible Thingvellir National Park, which we had already visited at the beginning of the trip. I took faith in the calm weather and the powers of the 4x4 getting us across snowy roads as it had done all week and we set out heading West.
As we headed out on the road the conditions were incredible. We were graced by Iceland's immaculate bright light, with clear blue skies and only a breath of wind. Spirits were high and the driving was easy as we cruised across the land on quiet roads, weaving and winding a smooth route through the wilderness. We stopped on the roadside to make use of the light and I started photographing mountains in the distance. As we did so, a driver of another 4x4 stopped by us and said that the weather ahead of us was a little worse. We headed on further and were passed by a number of smaller cars; I thought that if they'd manage to get through the weather then we would be fine in a 4x4. A few minutes further on the road we came across a couple of guys in a VW Golf coming towards us trying to get through a snow drift that had been blown across the road. It was only 30cm of snow but they couldn't get traction and turned around to head back where they'd come from. We rolled up next to them and said that the where we'd been, the weather was great and that this was the first drift that we'd seen; if they could get through it they were home and dry. They were two guys from Yorkshire and were trying to get South. Even with my advice, they still decided to retrace their tracks west so we followed them West for a short distance.
The weather worsened considerably over the next half an hour and forced us to a crawling pace. The snow was blowing at incredible speeds across the road with the wind howling and the car shaking violently with each gust. We came to a cliffside road high in the mountains and came to a stop. In the distance we could just about see three or four cars that had stopped on a sharp blind bend around a rock face. In between us and them, a small car was on the wrong side of the road, screeching and whirring, sliding laterally left and right; their hazard lights flashing and their fog lights wearily beaming across the landscape. Whoever was in it was clearly struggling to move and after a few minutes, no one was helping them. I looked at my girlfriend and told her that someone had to help them. I kitted up, zipping myself into my arctic coat, waterproof trousers and put on my hat and gloves. I opened the door to a howling gale, which slammed the door closed once I'd squeezed out. The wind was painfully battering the snow into my face. Walking ahead, I stopped to speak to the guys from Yorkshire who didn't seem too willing to help. I continued to the stranded car, my body leaning at an obtuse angle into the wind and my feet slipping across the snowy road as the wind tried to take my footing. I got to the car and knocked on the window, the driver wound down the car and inside I saw him with a frightened wife and a young baby in the back seat. They told me it was a rental car and that it had no spikes, no four wheel drive and they had no means of digging themselves free. I suggested I try to clear some snow with my feet around their tyres to see if they could get traction. I scraped as hard as I could at the snow around them but they had slid around so much that had compacted it and I couldn't move any of it with my feet. Neither party had a shovel so I apologised to the driver and said that maybe a SuperJeep would be along soon so they might have to sit it out. I really wasn't hopeful for their chances. The conditions were the worst I'd ever experienced and the temperature had dropped to at least -10*. Even with all my gear on I was getting incredibly cold and was suffering from the snow smashing my face and eyes, so I turned back to the car. The realisation that things were getting bad came as I turned back and couldn't see my car in the white out. I could see sporadic flashes of the fog lights of the car with the Yorkshire lads in so headed back towards them to find our car behind.
When I got back in the car I didn't know what to do. We couldn't stay up there on that ridge. At this rate any cars that stayed were going to get snowed in pretty soon and who knew when any rescue was going to be able to get up there. I could feel the wind was strengthening and could blow a window through, and if it did, then we were in life threatening danger. I started the 4x4 up and rolled up next to the VW Golf, I spoke to the lads inside through the window; they indicated that they were staying put. Their car wasn't going to get them anywhere as it was as well equipped as the car stuck on the road ahead. I said goodbye and we never saw them again. We crept forward past the stricken car and up past the handful of cars that had stopped on the blind bend. I couldn't believe that no one else had gotten out to help the family in the stricken car. If they'd have known there was a baby in there, they might have been more keen to help.
We pushed forward for a couple of minutes, creeping forward, unable to see the road. My eyes worked hard to pick out any dark patches that might be road surface peeking out through the snow and I slowly drove the car onwards. Everything was white. All you could see was bright light, fading and lighting up as the winds blew the snow thicker through the air. At times it was like we were looking through the windscreen onto a huge piece of blank white paper. My eyes struggled to focus on anything. One second you could see a blast of snow across the face of the car and then nothing, again, pure white. Iceland utilises yellow reflective road marking sticks along the sides of their roads and in rough weather, these are a god send. In this weather, you could only see them within a couple of meters of the car.
As my eyes searched for any clue as to where the road may lay, they crossed two faded pink dots in the distance. They were car break lights! I sped up to try and get close to the car in the mind that if I could see their route, I could follow their line and stay on the road. On the other hand, if I couldn't see the road, how could they see it, and should I really put my faith in them? This was the blind leading the blind. I kept up with them the best I could, wishing them to put their fog lights on so I could see them better. If they didn't have them on, were they able to see much ahead?? I kept as close to the pink dots as I dared, speeding up and slowing down to keep them in sight. If I could keep within 3 or 4 meters of the car in front, I could see the lights. At times the wind blew so hard that the lights disappeared through the snow. After half a second of not seeing them I would hit the breaks hard; I had no way of knowing if the car ahead and sped up or stopped, and as much as I wanted to keep up with them, following them so closely meant I could have smashed into the back of them. If that happened we would all have been in trouble.
Two hours passed, driving up mountain faces, and dropping into valleys, winding through the witness, screwing up my eyes trying to see our guiding pink lights. As we drew closer to Reykjavik, the weather slowly relented, making things more bearable. The country roads turned into highways and my eyes, mind and body could start to relax as the city came into view. I've never experienced conditions like that, let alone driven through them. I also hope I never experience them again.
As we drove along the motorways into Reykjavik, we were alone. These huge roads, six and eight lanes wide were empty except for us staggering back to reach salvation. These roads had been teeming as we drove from the airport ready for our first night in the City centre 9 days before. Reykjavik had been placed on shut down and people were staying in their homes waiting the storms out. It turned out that even they weren't safe, as we passed the roof of a building laying upside down on the other side of the road on our way into the city. As we got to our accommodation for the night we saw the news on a television. Winds had reached in excess of 70mph, the worst the island had seen in over four decades and they had torn parts of the city to pieces. Somehow we had gotten caught up in the storm in the mountains and made it out alive, albeit a little frazzled and shellshocked. I have no idea of the whereabouts of the Yorkshire boys or the rest of the people caught up there in the hills.
Iceland was like nowhere on Earth. I didn't know places like this could exist. Through all the research we had done, we knew the trip would be amazing and that we would see incredible things but I didn't expect just how astonishing our journey would be. You read all about the touristy places, the waterfalls, the glaciers and the lagoons but to a Photographer, Iceland is so much more that. It's beauty lies in the places you wouldn't find a hundred iPhones or excursion busses. It lies in the boulderfields, the roadside pools, abandoned farms, the shorelines, the sky high cliffs towering into the clouds, and most of all, the light. As soon as we landed I could barely take my eyes of the sky; I've never seen yellows, blues, pinks and even greens like the skies of Iceland gave us.
As magnificent as it was, the trip around the island was hard. When we were on the road I never felt completely calm, I was always nervous and on edge.
In the South where the weather conditions were so volatile, I was permanently alert and trying to predict the next change in the weather. You'd have to change your plans minute by minute because you had to second guess how conditions could scupper your schedule.
There were times when even the simplest task would leave you panicking. At one point we pulled over and left our car heading towards an abandoned farm house in a snow covered field. As we loaded our cameras and reached the halfway point there was a loud, resounding, and importantly a hollow, Crack. Hearing that unnerving and very specific sound, we suddenly realised that underneath the snow was a sheet of ice. Within milliseconds you prepare for the worst not knowing whether you're falling into a frozen lake or you've just cracked a puddle. Thankfully it was just a huge puddle but that didn't stop us scrambling away toward the farmhouse.
Having experienced all of this, nearly being blown off the road, the slips down rock faces, beaching the car (twice), and that drive through the mountains at the end of the trip; these are the components that made Iceland so exciting and such an exhilarating place to visit and I can't wait to go back in the future.