The Time I Almost Died in Iceland

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It's no secret that writers often exaggerate events in order to make them seem more interesting or exciting.

You know, like writing about “a bug as big as my face,” or “a sandwich so amazing I cried” or “the BEST beach in the world EVER.” In this line of work, superlatives and hyperbole are sometimes your best friends.

But I promise you that I am not exaggerating at all with this next statement:

I seriously almost died in Iceland. 

 

Ófært

It was yet another overcast day in the Land of Fire and Ice, and I was trundling along in a Land Rover with 3 other passengers and our Icelandic guide, Christian. We had just made a brief stop at Þingvellir National Park in the rain, and were now heading up into the mountains to drive and hike atop Langjökull, Iceland's second-largest glacier.

On a tour that didn't indicate a whole lot of danger or excitement in its tour description, we were expecting a leisurely drive up to the glacier, followed by lava tube caving and looking at some waterfalls.

Well, we got a bit more than we bargained for.

It began with snow-packed roads as we ascended into the barren mountain pass of Kaldidalur. Christian assured us this was nothing out of the ordinary at this time of year in Iceland, however, so we simply enjoyed the ride and marveled at the alien-looking landscapes.

Kaldidalur, Iceland

But we probably should have started to worry when the “Impassable” road signs started coming into view — signs that we drove right past.

Or maybe worry should have set in when Christian told us he hadn't driven this route in over a month.

Or perhaps the fact that no one at all had driven this road for at least 4 days, during which time a blizzard had moved through the area, should have concerned us.

Oh and did I mention there was NO ROAD, and that Christian was simply following a squiggly green line on the GPS mounted on his dashboard?

Iceland Rovers

It was all going well at first.

But then we got lost.

And then we got lost a second time while trying to get un-lost from the first wrong turn.

And then the snow got deep enough that Christian had to let air out of our tires.

And then we got lost again, and Christian took the first of many “short walks” to try to find the safest way up the mountain.

Kaldidalur, Iceland

After that, we started getting stuck in the snow every few feet. Christian let more air out of the tires (more surface area = more traction) and there was a lot of rocking back and forth. I was glad I'd taken some Dramamine before leaving Reykjavik.

 

And then it actually started to get a bit scary.

We were heading up the side of a mountain, and it was questionable as to whether we were actually on a road or not. Regardless, the snow got too deep for us to continue any further.

“We'll have to try to go around it,” Christian told us, and began to reverse back down the way we'd come.

After we'd driven backwards about 50 feet, Christian turned the wheel, prepared to try and skirt the mountain. Except we weren't at the bottom of the mountain. We were still about halfway up, clearly on a ridge of some sort with our jeep at a very odd angle.

Christian began driving forward. And then the nose of our jeep suddenly went out from under us. Christian slammed on the brakes and began trying to back up. He also began whistling as if nothing at all was out of the ordinary. As if we weren't now hanging off an invisible ridge in the snow, at risk of tumbling over at any moment.

At this point, from my front-seat vantage point, I started to silently freak out. I made sure my seatbelt was fastened. I began examining the roof of the Land Rover for structural integrity. I briefly considered what broken legs would feel like.

Kaldidalur, Iceland

And then it happened. I don't know if we just slipped, or if Christian gunned it forward knowing that backing up was impossible, but the next thing I knew, we were doing a not-so-graceful nosedive into the white nothingness in front of us.

I reached up, grasping helplessly at the ceiling, convinced we were going to flip over. I screamed. Twice. The sort of blood-curdling screams that you never knew your vocal chords could even produce until they do out of sheer terror.

This is it, I thought.

But then, miraculously, we were landing hard in the snow. The British girl in the back who hadn't been wearing a seatbelt was almost in my lap, and my heart was beating so fast I thought I was going to pass out. We had free-fallen off a cliff in a Land Rover in the middle of the Icelandic wilderness.

Next to me, Christian nonchalantly asked, “Is everyone OK?” We told him we were, even though I could see my fright reflected in the faces of everyone in the back seat.

Slowly, we starting moving forward again, Christian much more cautious now that we were clearly far from any road and probably surrounded by deadly cliffs and jeep-eating fissures. (Probably.)

We inched our way back up the ridge, getting stuck constantly and Christian taking more “short walks” to try and find the tracks we'd left on the way up. I think we were all holding our breaths. None of us wanted to ask Christian if this was a common occurrence on this particular tour.

Iceland Rovers

What seemed like hours later, we found our original tracks in the snow. I'm pretty sure there was applause and a collective sigh of relief as we made our way down from the mountain and back onto a road that was more than just a squiggle on a GPS.

But the relief was short-lived, as, once we were back on a gravel road that wasn't covered in snow and Christian had put some air back in the tires, we discovered that our “fall” had severely messed up the steering column and front axle in the Land Rover. Christian could barely even keep the car on the road.

We inched along through the valley while Christian made some phone calls to some local farmers. We had to stop for half an hour for him to fix the steering column by banging on a lot of things under the car with a sledgehammer.

“I don't think we'll make it to the glacier today,” Christian told us with a slight smirk once he finally got back behind the wheel.

I can assure you that none of us really cared. We were just happy to be alive.

Click here for Part 2, in which I tell you about all the awesome, non-terrifying things we did/saw later on this tour!

And, I should mention that Christian was fantastic throughout all of this. He was calm and composed, and it was definitely thanks to his expert driving that we came down from the mountains in one piece.

 

Do YOU have any scary, “I-almost-died” stories from your travels?

 

My “Essential Iceland” tour with Iceland Rovers was provided to me on a complimentary basis, thanks to the help of ICELANDisHOT. As always, all opinions are my own.

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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58 Comments on “The Time I Almost Died in Iceland

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  1. That is a great travel story.
    Glad you made it out okay!

      I’m glad, too! It really was quite scary — my heart was beating fast just writing about it!

    Wow Amanda that is a crazy story. Perhaps the sign was there for a reason 🙂

      “Crazy” is definitely the word for it. I think the signs are mostly meant for your average driver who might be road tripping around Iceland. But, on this particular day, I agree that maybe we should have heeded the warning, too!

    WHOA! That’s an insane story. Glad it has a happy ending! But that’s why you’re A Dangerous Biz, right? 🙂

      Heh, yup, I guess that’s one reason I’m “DangerousBiz”!

    An awesome story to be able to tell. I have a few “I almost died” stories (serious, “I almost died” stories) and they are much more fun to talk about now than they were to live through. Especially when I wasn’t sure that living through them was going to be an option.

    Did you get your money back for not seeing the glacier?

    🙂

      Yeah, at the time this was definitely NOT fun. But it’s a great story to tell now!

      And nope, no money back. Then again, I didn’t pay any to begin with… but even if I had, they do have a disclaimer in the tour that it might have to be “altered” in the winter based on road conditions.

      We actually did continue on with the rest of the tour, which definitely made up for not seeing the glacier.

    Wow, Amanda! That scared me just reading about it. I was following squiggly green lines most of the time when we were in New Zealand. LOL. But nothing like yours. 🙂

      It’s one thing to follow squiggly green lines when you can actually see the ground you’re driving on. But following squiggly green lines through the snow? Not cool!

    Ahhhh that’s SO crazy! I probably would have scream like that, too, haha. Glad you made it out alright 😀

      I don’t remember ever being that scared before in my entire life. I mean, I’ve had some close calls in cars before, but I usually keep calm and keep my mouth shut. But this was so much scarier! I think being in the snow made it worse, since we couldn’t tell how far we were falling.

        Amanda. I met your father again in Giant Eagle with his mother. he told me about you and gave me your web site. Very interesting. You are one gutsy girl. Good luck in your adventures.

    Uhm, why wasn’t the British girl in the back wearing a seatbelt?!? That sounds super scary – is it true that your life flashed before your eyes when you think you’re about to die?

      I have no idea why she wasn’t wearing a seat belt! She put it on immediately afterwards though. Lol.

      And I don’t think my life flashed before my eyes… if anything, I was just picturing the jeep tumbling head over heels, and thinking about how pissed my parents and boyfriend would be that I died in Iceland.

    I have a few ‘seriously thinking I was going to die’ stories that, in the end, probably weren’t so serious. But, when you think the end is coming it’s always serious! I’m glad it all turned out okay!

      I know exactly what you mean! Though, considering our nose-dive actually damaged the car rather severely, I have a feeling it WAS actually pretty serious!

    Quite horrific! And coupled with those pics, I can imagine what you must have gone through! One of the joys of travels though, stories to tell!!!

      As I always say, all’s well that ends well! And yes, now it’s quite the story to tell!

    How scary! I’m glad to hear everyone was okay. Snow + cars is such a scary combination!

      The car (and driver) were well-equipped for snow — just not that much snow! Thankfully it all ended well.

    Oh my gosh that is terrifying! I am terrified of steep hills in any car (in actual fact I got lost on a hill only today and had to stop driving & turn around because I was shaking). I can’t imagine that, not even knowing if you’re on a road or not.

      Up until that point, I wasn’t really super scared about driving around in the snow without really knowing where the road was. But after this incident, I started panicking every time we went up a slight hill (because, after our nose-dive, it took us about another hour to get un-lost and find our way back to a real road that wasn’t snow-covered! It was the longest, most nerve-wracking hour of my life!).

    That would be so scary, especially since you have absolutely no control. My scare was hiking in the wilderness in southern Chile. That was more of drawn out miserable experience with the realization that I could seriously injure myself. Not quite as scary as this!

      Yeah, the lack of control definitely made it a lot worse!

    Wow, now that is one of those stories that will stay with you forever. No doubt very scary at the time but what a story to tell people! I can’t wait for our Icelandic trip in October, super super excited and reading all your Iceland posts excites me even more!!!

      Yeah, I definitely won’t be forgetting about this for a long time! But you’re right, it’s a great story to tell now that it all ended well!

      And you guys will LOVE Iceland!!

    Yikes! That is crazy! You stayed pretty composed during all of this. I would have been scared and a little pissed. Glad that you are OK but I would have had a lot of reservations about this from the very beginning. I wonder if Christian did that type of thing often?

      Christian sure acted like it was no big deal, so I wouldn’t be surprised if this happens often. And, in the beginning, we had no idea it was going to be this intense!! The rest of the tour was great, but this part I definitely could have done without!

    WOW!! I can’t even believe this story. I’m happy you’re alive and lived to tell the tale! PS: awesome snapshots 🙂

    […] The truth is that, no, I don’t really get scared about traveling on my own, whether I’m off to London, San Francisco, or Istanbul. There have been very few times that I’ve felt uneasy while on the road, and not one time when I have actually felt scared for my safety (well, other than that one time I almost died on a mountain). […]

    That’s not cool. Underestimating weather conditions (like we did MANY times) may end up in terrible consequences.. be safe, kids!!!

    That’s an insane travel story, glad it didn’t get ugly from there! I guess we’re all reminded at just how unforgiving the wilderness can be sometimes, and always travel safe no matter where we go.

      Definitely, Andrew. It goes to show that bad things can happen anywhere, even in “safe” countries. Just gotta keep living life to the fullest every day!

    Whoa, that is crazy. I would have screamed as well; very crazy story! Interesting…..and your guide was so calm. Is this a regular adventure for him? Wow!!!

      Haha, yeah we were all wondering how often this happened, considering how calm he was! None of us had the guts to ask, though…

    Wow, this sounds scary! But a cool one to look back on! I nearly died on a volcano in Guatemala which was….interesting too!

      When you survive, it’s always a good story to tell later. 😉

    Wow…and I thought our trip along the Ring Road had some dangerous moments. Though a story like this is always fun to tell afterwards and I don’t know a lot about the background of your trip, a guide should never put his clients into any danger they are not aware of. Sounds to me like underestimating the weather and the driving conditions big time. Anyway, I enjoyed reading your post 🙂

      Yeah, the weather definitely was an issue – though Iceland is known for its unpredictable and sometimes extreme weather, so I’m not sure if it was out of the ordinary or not!

    That was a very scary experience! I haven’t seen snow scenes like this but it must have felt so freaky to be in the blinding white! Glad you made it out ok!

      Yeah it was pretty terrifying! And so weird to be in a landscape like that – it was like being on the moon!

    That was really scary! Just a question, which month did you visit Iceland when this happened?

      This was during a trip in March.

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