My morning began like most had while I was in Iceland: Walking to the BSI Bus Terminal and hopping into a tour van. We had decided not to rent a car while there, as the winter roads can get pretty messy to navigate. Even so, there’s still some weather that even a local can’t drive through and this weather was on the forecast for the day.
An Unwanted News Drop
“So…I just got off a call with my guy up at the station and he is saying that we might be expecting some storms this afternoon. If this happens, we unfortunately will not be able to go out snowmobiling today because it is not safe. I’m not saying that anything is cancelled yet-nothing is cancelled yet…but, I don’t want you guys to be disappointed if it does get cancelled, so I’m warning you right now that it is a possibility,” the guide said over the speaker to our van full of eager tourists.
Silence took over the vehicle as we all stared ahead, imagining our dreams being crushed by driving across the entire country and having to turn back without the fun. I was especially disappointed by this statement because, if I didn’t get on the tour today, I never would. My schedule was booked for the rest of the week.
“Please somebody say something, you’re all scaring me,” the guide said again in a small voice, breaking the silence as a few people piped up with questions.
If anything was to happen, it would happen. We just had to wait see. I remained hopeful as we drove further and further from the city and more into the unknown. After a while, the view from my window was nothing but a blank canvas: No houses, no people, no vegetation, simply a white sky greeted by a white sheet of snow. I felt as if I was driving over the moon as I looked out at the eerie scene. Suddenly, the van stopped and we jerked to a halt.
The Problem Of Driving Through Iceland During Winter
Our guide jumped out, running to the back tires and kicking them while looking at his phone, frustrated. From an app, we was able to control the tire pressure, depending on what kind of road conditions he was driving on. Hopping back in the front of the car he addressed us again.
“Yeah, soooo…for some reason the app is not connecting because I don’t have service right now. I also have no idea if I’m even on the road, but hey! We’re good; don’t worry about it. I’ve done this many, many times and there’s only one time that I got absolutely stranded out here…and it wasn’t with a tour. It was with my coworker Pete. We were, like, snuggling all night to stay warm. It was horrendous. We ended up getting rescued like 18 hours later–Oh! Here’s the road. We’re back on it, now. Seeeeee? What’d I tell you guys,” our guide said nonchalantly.
I have to say that if our driver wasn’t so overly confident in himself, I probably would’ve joined the Brazilian girl next to me who was gripping her friend with terrified eyes on the verge of tears with a what-did-I-get-myself-into expression. However, thirty minutes later, we arrived safe and sound at the station.
Gearing Up For Snowmobiling
As the doors of the van opened, my hat nearly flew off of my head before I could so much as stand up. I had felt strong winds before, but nothing like this. Collecting our belongings, we filed out of the vehicle and into the station as quickly as we could. However, this wasn’t so quick as with every step we’d take forward, the wind would push us two steps back.
Once inside, we spared no time. If we were going to beat the storm, the group would need to be on their Gearing-Up A Game. I slipped a bodysuit much like the one I’d worn horseback-riding the day before over my clothes and instantly felt warmer. After the insulated boots, ski mask, gloves and snowmobiling helmet, I was ready to face whatever came (or so I thought). Our new guide gave us a quick how-to-use-a-snowmobile-when-you’ve-never-done-it-before speech.
He warned us that we needed to always, always have an eye on the person ahead of us. This is because, once we’re on our way, there won’t be any landmarks: Just white. Each winter, their official team uses equipment to route a path that will be safe to ride over i.e. We won’t fall hundreds of feet to our death through a thin spot on the glacier, as long as we stick with the group. If we happen to get lost, we were told to not move a muscle. Each snowmobile has a tracking device in it and a rescue team would come to find us and bring us back.
Let The Ride Begin
Racing out into the wind, we could no longer hear the person next to us. With body language, I followed the others hopping onto their snowmobiles and revved up the engine, driving out of the lot one-by-one. The machine was a lot heavier than I expected it to be. Both of my hands flexed white knuckles as my right thumb pumped the gas. We were told that, though it’d be hard to have our thumbs flexed for the entire ride, never use the palm instead. That is how you lose control of your speed.
Our group was now a speckled line of orange dots cruising over the second largest glacier in Europe. However, to me, it looked more like we were astronauts exploring a foreign planet.
Hiking To The Ice Cave
Though I had no concept of time, I know we’d gone a long distance–maybe 45 minutes or an hour out into the boonies. Being a competitive person, I now found my chance to be at the front of the line. Swiftly making my way over to the guide, we began our walking journey to the ice cave. Chugging through the deep snow that was up to my knees, we approached a sort of obstacle course. I grabbed onto the rope like the guide had done ahead of me and used it to keep my balance as I scaled down the glacier.
I thought this would mean the ice cave was close, but I was wrongly mistaken. In fact, I was terribly mistaken. Not only was the ice cave about half a mile away yet, but it was also covered with 1 meter of snow from the night before and, as the leader, it was now my job to break this snow on the trail for the rest of the group. My heart rate soared as I trudged through the thick layers. I would be lying if I said I didn’t take a tumble…multiple times, tripping over the heavy flakes.
Once we arrived at the real entrance, I plopped back into the snow, breathing heavy. Besides the three of us in front, most of the group was still making their way through the thick of it, so I had a bit of time to rest. Turns out, I wasn’t the only one who was happy about this as my guide looked up and said between breaths, “The snow is so deep today, I can’t even find the generator. I’ve been digging for, like, 5 minutes.”
Entering The Ice Cave
Once the rest of the group caught up, we were finally ready to see what these famous ice caves were all about. I held onto the snow-covered walls and slowly followed my guide deeper into the snow bank. Ducking under a small doorway, the path in front of me opened up. Now, inside of the second largest glacier in Europe, I was ironically warmer than I’d been all day. Hidden away from the wind, I pulled off my helmet and unzipped my bodysuit, damp from the treacherous hike.
It was quiet here, peaceful. The walls were glazed over with air bubbles within them frozen in time. I felt as if I’d been eaten alive by a Blue Raspberry Jolly Rancher, the way some of walls twinkled with a dazzling blue color. These symbolized the spots where the glacier shimmered through to the sky. It was absolutely magical. I would’ve spent the night here if our guide hadn’t informed us that the storm was on its way and we needed to head back while we still could.
Beginning The Journey Back Home
I started the long journey out of the cave and back to the snowmobiles. On one hand, it was easier to walk now that the snow had been padded down by our footsteps. On the other hand, we were now trekking uphill, which was a battle in itself.
By the time we arrived back at the snowmobiles, big chunks of snow were already fluttering with menace from the sky. I hopped onto my new favorite ride and started the engine up, following the leader once again.
The snow wasn’t so bad. In fact, I found thrill in going a bit slower than the pace of the group, then cruising as fast as I could to catch up. If we had to ride in a line, I at least wanted a chance to test out the speedometer.
However, as we descended the second hill, conditions began to worsen. I started to regret unzipping my tightly packed bodysuit when we were at the ice caves, as a snowman was now building itself upon my chest. My face mask was sopping wet, clinging to my mouth as each snowflake that landed numbed me to the core. I was freezing, but I knew we were on our way back and it would be fine…until the wind picked up.
Facing The Snow Storm
As the snow swirled around us like a tornado made by Jack Frost, I could no longer see more than 5 feet ahead of me. The snow was turning to ice on my visor and my visibility was diminishing quickly. I remembered what my guide said about losing the person in front of you; I wasn’t ready to be abandoned in this whiteout. It was near impossible to drive the heavy machinery without two hands, but every once in a while, I’d have to do a quick scrub across the icy visor to clear my vision.
As another monstrous gust of wind came through, my helmet jerked back so hard that the screws holding it together bust off and disappeared into the mist, never to be found again. Oh, now I was really in it. Without the protection from my helmet, the ski mask blew tightly against my face. Breathing was difficult; it felt like someone had put a plastic bag over my head. Every few seconds, I would have to put my head down to my chest, blocking the wind and breathing in as much air as I could.
Something hit me from behind. I turned around and saw a flash of orange. It was another snowmobile, at least I think. I looked back ahead, pressing on the gas. I couldn’t tell anymore if I was moving or frozen in place. What if the people ahead of me weren’t my group at all? Was frostbite already settling in? Am I having a mirage? At this point, I had one goal and one goal only: To get back to the station safely. I was more concerned for my life now than I had been when I jumped into the open ocean with 30 hungry bull sharks.
Finding Our Safe Haven
I can’t tell you how long we were out there, but the way back felt significantly longer than our journey to the ice cave. As the small brown hut finally came into view, our guide used body language to park the snowmobiles one last time.
I ran toward the safe haven, yearning for an escape from the frigid wind. Closing the door with my back against it, I let out a hysterical laugh, leaning forward. It was one thing to have a crazy snowmobile adventure in Iceland, it was another to live to tell the tale.
“That was quite possibly the craziest thing I have ever done,” I announced, opening my bodysuit and letting 10 pounds of snow fall to the floor in front of me.
As everyone came charging through the door and adding to the snow drift inside, there were a lot of mixed reviews echoing through the air.
“I will never do that again.”
“That was so awesome.”
“I mean the way there was fun, but the way back? I thought I was gonna DIE.”
As we shared excitement and relief over coffee and hot chocolate, I realized our journey was far from done. If we had trouble getting to the station before the storm, I could only imagine the trouble we were about to get into within the storm.
Driving Back To Reykjavik
I started to open the door to the outside world once again, but it finished the job for me, flinging back toward the wall and meeting the wood with a large bang.
“Umm, I think, maybe it’s best if you finish your coffee before going out there. For spilling matters,” someone said shyly, looking at my half-empty cup. Touché.
The van was now absolutely freezing as the Arctic winds had been seeping into the walls for the past few hours. We were about to have company on the way back, or a bodyguard, as I now call him. He earned this title after towing us out of the snow not once, but on four separate occasions until we met the road. This was a particularly joyous moment for me, because off-roading on a glacier didn’t exactly sound like a fun way to go out.
Though our snowy day in Iceland was full of unexpected and somewhat traumatic surprises, I can’t deny the fact that it was absolutely, positively the best experience I had in Iceland during my entire week abroad.
What was your most invigorating travel experience?
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