A Winter’s Drive in Iceland: Between the Yellow Poles

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When you drive in Iceland, it doesn’t take too long before you stop noticing the yellow poles marking the sides of rural roads. Spaced 25 to 50 metres apart and arranged in pairs, one on each side of the road, a driver could be excused for thinking their purpose is mainly decorative. Surely one glance towards the precipitous drop into the fjord below or the prospect of careening down a steep bank supporting a ribbon of road perched high above a sandur should be more than enough to discourage even the briefest flirtation with the road’s edge.

Sometimes, those yellow poles save your life.

It began with a portent.

Our early afternoon arrival in Vík (Iceland’s southernmost point) was greeted by a clear blue November sky. No more than a couple of minutes later, heavy snow was falling from leaden gray clouds. It was as if, in an instant, all of the world’s color had been blown away.

Vík – just before the lights went out

We were a few hours into our third, self-directed visit to Iceland in as many years. This time we planned an anti-clockwise trip around the entire 832 mile (1,332 kilometre) length of Route 1 – Iceland’s Ring Road, with the primary goals of exploring the eastern fjords and feeding our latent geology geekiness in the country’s wild north.

During our previous visits, I had developed an obsession with the website of the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration (IRCA – http://road.is). Providing a regularly-refreshed view of road conditions throughout the country, it is as addictive as it is ubiquitous.

Wherever you stop in Iceland – from hotels to petrol stations to boutique shops – there is always at least one screen displaying the site. It is the nation’s screen saver.

Iceland MapIceland Map Legend

As winter’s grip tightens, the reassuring green lines marking the “easily passable” routes that dominate the map during the summer months are gradually chased away by seven other colors, each advising of a hazard slightly more disturbing than the last. With a sense of inevitability, the series culminates with an “impassable” red line.

Supplementing the colors, twelve other warning symbols – including its terminal red and yellow circle of “driving prohibited” – advise would-be drivers what they should worry about.

Of course, as a male of the species, I am genetically predisposed to believe that not only am I the only person in the car who knows where we’re going, but also that there are no road conditions anywhere in the world that could ever seriously challenge my unparalleled driving skills.

So, as we headed east out of Vík, I didn’t give a thought to the perennial plight of the passenger; that voluntary trust placed in the person – known or not – who happens to be holding the wheel.

For the next few days, three other lives would be in my hands, each of them entirely dependent on skills about to be tested like never before.

I knew from previous experience that the winds in Iceland can be ferocious enough to rip the doors off of your car, but I had also driven this section of road on four previous occasions, so I wasn’t overly concerned about the forecast of strong winds to our east.

My confidence was not diminished as we made good progress along icy roads. Within a couple of hours, as we approached Skaftafell, it appeared as if a low bank of fog was stretching across the road, slowly making its way out toward the Atlantic Ocean. It was a strange and ominous sight on an otherwise clear afternoon.

It was not fog.

And it was not slow.

The wind speed increased to a vicious intensity as we approached the fog. In a few seconds, visibility reduced from many miles to less than ten feet. The fog was a blizzard.

But it wasn’t snowing.

Snow on the ground and the black sand on which it had fallen were being whipped up by the wind, to be sent lashing against the car and threatening to send us tumbling into the Skeiðarársandur.

Approaching Skaftafell

Approaching Skaftafell. Yes, that is also blue sky.

On the steering wheel, white knuckles began to glow in the fading light.

Shortly, we joined the end of a row of three other cars, tentatively navigating along the road ahead. Although rarely more than 20 yards ahead, the red tail lights directly in front of us would occasionally disappear from view. When they did, only the next set of yellow roadside poles remained to guide us.

Rather fortuitously, our arrival at the Jökulsárlón lagoon coincided with a brief improvement in the weather conditions, allowing us to reacquaint ourselves with that glorious location – and to exhale for the first time in a couple of hours.

Jökulsárlón

Jökulsárlón

Thankful for that brief respite, and in the manner of a weary boxer returning to the fight, we continued eastward. Having stopped, however, we no longer had the lights of a car in front to guide us. Now it was just us and the yellow poles.

Night descended as if someone had flicked a switch. The darkness intensified the ferocity of the winds and, even though it really couldn’t get much lower, reduced our visibility of the road ahead. The tension in the car was palpable, its grip being only briefly relaxed when one of us made another desperate attempt at a light-hearted remark.

We stared, unblinking, into the darkness. We counted down the yellow poles on the left and the right – the sight of each pair announced with a reassuring, but increasingly frantic “got one!” We shouted “CAR!” in unison when, no more than a few feet ahead, infrequent headlights appeared out of the storm.

Approximately 60 miles east of Jökulsárlón, we reached Höfn (pronounced “HUP-n”. Not dissimilar to the sound of a badly disguised hiccup) and, with exhaustion rarely found outside of Antarctic exploration, gave up for the day.

We found a room for the night. We found a restaurant. We found beer.

Well-earned refreshment

Well-earned refreshment

And we found that the IRCA website was reporting the road we had just navigated in an “impassable” red color.

On a more positive note, the roads of tomorrow’s planned route through the eastern fjords remained open. Although strong winds were again in the forecast, we quietly convinced ourselves that the conditions could not possibly be worse than they were today.

We were spectacularly wrong.

Nick Orchard
12th January 2018

 

A little advice for driving in Iceland in winter
The person who first said, “Hope for the best. Plan for the worst” was probably contemplating driving in Iceland in the winter. If you plan to do so, here are a few tips:

  1. Ask the locals.
  2. Check the http://road.is website before you go anywhere. I’m really serious about this.
  3. Ask the locals.
  4. Check the http://safetravel.is website before you go anywhere. I’m really serious about this, too. Follow them on Twitter @SafeinIceland
  5. Ask the locals.
  6. Expect road conditions that vary from poor to impassable. Even on major roads that are regularly cleared (such as route 1), there will be icy patches (at best). Winter storms can happen quickly and will make the road conditions treacherous. I know.
  7. Ask the locals.
  8. Expect strong and gusting wind. It is ferocious in Iceland. Aside from the extreme wind chill it adds to already frigid temperatures, the gusts also add an extra hazard to driving on slippery roads.
  9. Ask the locals.
  10. Rent a car with studded tires. This is standard, but absolutely essential – so ask to be sure. The tires will give you better traction on ice and/or snow covered roads.
  11. Ask the locals.
  12. There will only be four to five hours of daylight. If you’re on the road before 10:00 or after 15:00 you’ll be driving in the dark. Take that into account when planning your journey for the day.
  13. Ask the locals.
  14. The distance between the yellow poles is important. The closer they are – and the taller they are – the more you should be worried about the road you’re traveling.
  15. Oh … and ask the locals.

 

 

One thought on “A Winter’s Drive in Iceland: Between the Yellow Poles

  1. Pingback: It’s all about the journey | Nick Orchard

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