A reconstruction of a fatal ordeal on the Laugavegur trail
In the summer of 2004, exactly 10 years ago, a tragic accident happened on Laugavegur, Iceland’s most popular hiking trail. Ido Keinan, a young man from Israel, passed away after getting trapped in a vicious storm. Only one kilometre away from the hut in Hrafntinnusker, he died of exposure to the fierce elements. To this day a memorial on the Laugavegur trail reminds hikers of the highlands’ hidden dangers.
Friday, June 25, 2004, Ben-Gurion airport, Tel-Aviv—Dressed in a black t-shirt and baggy jeans, Ido Keinan, 25 years of age, says goodbye to his family. He is about to take a plane to London from where he will be flying to Iceland the following day.
“Take care of yourself and keep in touch,” his mother urges.
Ido looks at her with kind eyes and smiles: “Mom, what are you worried about? I’m going to one of the most beautiful places in the world. Six weeks from now I’ll be back for Nir and Inbar’s wedding.” Unaware of the fact that they will never see each other again, mother and son hug and kiss and Ido disappears into the crowd.
Ido was born in the summer of ’79. He grew up with his two brothers Nir and Eyal and his sister Ifat in Netanya, a town by the Mediterranean Sea. He was a clever boy who excelled in school without much effort. After graduating, Ido served in the army as a commander in a unit that employs advanced warfare systems. His professional career started in London, where he was offered a job at the security department of El Al Israel Airlines. He was well respected by his colleagues and remembered for his great responsibility and creativity at work, his funny faces, occasional pranks and his contagious smile. Ido was a young sensitive man with a big heart. He was caring and calm. Everybody loved him.
In September he would start undergraduate studies in graphic design in London. With plenty of time during the summer, he had planned a trip to Iceland and kept on talking about the primeval landscapes he was hoping to see.
From Dreamland To Stormland
On Sunday, June 27, only two days after saying goodbye to his family in Israel, Ido arrived in Landmannalaugar. He planned to walk Laugavegur, a four day hike from Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk, sometimes referred to as one of the most beautiful walking trails in the world. Even though the weather didn’t look very promising, the light coloured mountains, the black lava fields and the glacial river surrounding the campsite and hut, seemed wonderful.
For the past few days a vicious storm had lingered over the highlands. The conditions were so bad that Ferðafélag Íslands, the organisation running the huts on the Laugavegur, closed down the trail when the weather was at its worst. Especially in Hrafntinnusker, the first stop south from Landmannalaugar, things can get pretty tough. The hut lies high in the mountains where the weather conditions can change suddenly.
That summer Fanney Gunnarsdóttir was the warden in Höskuldsskáli, the hut at Hrafntinnusker. She remembers the crazy weather those days all too well: “It was late June and there was still a lot of snow from the winter. When it started snowing on Wednesday I was a bit surprised, even though I knew that could always happen in Iceland. The wind started to blow harder and harder, but until then there was no danger. People could still hike the trail. The next morning everything was white, and around noon the weather got that bad that it was no longer safe to walk up to Hrafntinnusker. So I radioed the huts in Landmannalaugar and Álftavatn to prevent all hikers from going up.”
Listening to the ten o’clock weather forecast on Thursday evening, Fanney learned that the storm would last for at least two, maybe three more days. Hikers were getting impatient and started pressuring the wardens to open the trail again. But it wasn’t until Sunday, after being closed for two days, that the Laugavegur trail was officially reopened again. People were allowed to go up, provided that they knew what they were doing and had the right clothes and equipment.
The storm had calmed down a bit. “The weather was better, but not much,” Fanney recalls. “Twenty people hiked from Landmannalaugar to Hrafntinnusker that day. I was informed about every single one of them and they all made it to the hut safe and sound. Some of them were cold and wet to the bone, with their rucksacks and sleeping bags soaking wet. We hung up everything and I gave my sleeping bag and blankets. It was an unusually hectic day at Hrafntinnusker.”
When Ido arrived at the hut in Landmannalaugar that particular Sunday, the wardens warned him it was too dangerous for him to go. The weather remained unstable, and his cotton clothes and light shoes would not protect him enough if the conditions would get worse higher up in the mountains. But in his juvenile enthusiasm, Ido believed he could handle it. He was so eager to explore the wilderness that nothing in the world could stop him. And while the wardens in Landmannalaugar assumed he would pitch his tent on the campground, Ido had shouldered his backpack and set off to Hrafntinnusker, unaware of the dangers that lay ahead of him.
The distance between Landmannalaugar and Hrafntinnusker is only 12 kilometres. It can easily be walked in four to five hours if the conditions are fine. But that Sunday they weren’t. Threatening clouds covered the mountains in the distance and as Ido advanced on the winding path into the mountains, the weather shifted from bad to terrible. The cold wind blew fiercely in his face and the wet snowfall made everything even worse. Higher up a thick fog settled down on the track. The visibility dropped to almost zero and Ido didn’t have a clue of where he was or where he should be heading. Wandering aimlessly in this mean storm, he realised he was totally lost. The adventure he had dreamt about turned into a nightmare. The cold from the prolonged exposure to the wind and sleet on these barren mountains was weakening him. Ido knew he was getting in trouble. He needed help, and soon.
He first dialled the emergency number, identified himself and reported he was lost. Then he called his sister Ifat, who was living in London. He told her he lost his way and he was cold. The line was weak and the call was disconnected a couple of times, until they couldn’t reach each other anymore. From there, a series of events followed rapidly, the way one domino sets many others into motion.
While Ifat was trying to contact the Icelandic police, her brother Nir called for a chat. Of course he had no idea Ido was in trouble in Iceland, so Ifat explained the whole situation. Then Nir alarmed Eyal, Ido’s other brother, who hurried to their parents’ house. It was late at night when he knocked on the door. Tamar and Danny, Ido’s mother and father were watching television.
“Who would it be at this hour?” Tamar thought. The moment she saw Eyal her heart sank.
“Something has happened,” she sensed intuitively. “Something awful.”
Eyal, still at the door, said:
“Mom, dad, it’s Ido. He is lost.”
The little information he had, Eyal shared with his parents.
“They are on their way to find him,” he said reassuringly. “They know where he is and they will reach him soon.”
It felt as if the sky was falling down and the world closed in on the Keinan family. There was no air.
Soon after Nir and his fiancée, Inbar, arrived at the house. Nir and Eyal made one call after another trying to find out as much as possible about Ido’s ordeal. They contacted the Foreign Ministry, the embassy and the honorary consul of Iceland in Israel and the one of Israel in Iceland. They talked with the Icelandic police and the search and rescue team and urged them to send out a helicopter. The answer to their request was painfully sobering. The weather was too bad, the visibility was less than one meter, and there was no chance of a helicopter. But help was on the way, the rescue team from the nearest town, Hella, had already sent seventy people out to look for Ido.
Somewhere around half past five Icelandic time, while Fanney Gunnarsdóttir had her hands full drying clothes and helping the hikers that needed shelter, she got a radio call from Landmannalaugar. “They said a young man from Israel was reported missing and asked whether he was in the hut. I was surprised because all the people who were registered for the hike that day had already arrived. When I asked everyone, a young couple said they had seen someone by his descriptions on their way up near Brennisteinsalda [a colourful and prominent mountain close to Landmannalaugar].” Soon after she passed that information to her colleagues in Landmannalaugar, Fanney went out on her own to look for the missing person. Unable to find him in that terrible storm, she went back to the hut.
When the first volunteers of the rescue team arrived in Landmannalaugar, they were joined by Helgi Hjörleifsson. Helgi was a ranger in the nature reserve, so he knew the mountains very well. “We were ten or fifteen fast runners and we searched the area quickly and efficiently. But the weather was just crazy. It was wet and windy and cold and it was very easy to get lost up there. Even some members from the rescue team almost got lost. We looked everywhere, but we couldn’t find him.”
If Ido wasn’t in the area around Landmannalaugar, he had to be higher up in the mountains near Hrafntinnusker where the weather was even worse. Around midnight, Fanney was about to go to sleep, someone knocked on the door. “Volunteers from the rescue team stood outside. The storm was raging, so I invited them inside the hut where it was warm. But they refused: ‘We are going,’ they said. I followed them outside and saw how they spread, they must have been fifteen.”
Approximately one hour later the rescue team called, asking Fanney if they could come to the hut to get warm. By the time they arrived Fanney had already prepared hot drinks. They went inside and sat down.
“Did you find him?” Fanney asked.
“Is he dead?”
And that was everything that was said about the search. “Maybe it was the shock,” Fanney says, choosing her words carefully, “It might sound strange, but we talked about other things. The rescue volunteers finished their coffee and hot chocolate and left. And that was it.”
Meanwhile in Israel, more and more family had gathered in the Keinans’s house. Everybody waited in agony. Until finally, around three o’clock in the morning, the phone rang. A body was found in the mountains. They assumed it was Ido, but needed details about his clothes and his backpack to be sure.
“My boy!” The storm that caused Ido’s early death was now raging through his mother’s head. Tamar refused to believe it, but the reality was cruel.
One Year Later
The following summer the Keinan family travelled to Iceland in Ido’s footsteps. With them they carried a bronze memorial plaque with the inscription: ‘In loving memory of Ido Keinan / who passed away in a blizzard / so close to the safe hut nearby / yet so far / at only 25 years old / June 27th, 2004.’ From Hrafntinnusker they walked to the place where Ido was found. The landscape around them they described as otherworldly: ‘A black-and-white wilderness, totally arid, with glaring white surfaces of ice strewn across stretches of volcanic ash and jet basalt rocks. Not a single tree. Not a bush. No object on the horizon.’ The endless expanse and the bleak weather suited the mood the Keinans were in. They built a cairn with the black lava stones they found and placed the bronze plaque in memory of Ido.
On the way back to the Höskuldsskáli hut, the weather changed. A thick fog reduced the visibility, the temperature plummeted and it started raining heavily. All of a sudden the Keinans experienced a tiny bit of what Ido went through one year earlier. Blinded not only by the fog and the rain, but also by their tears, they walked away from the newly built memorial, thinking: if only the storm had lied down for a moment. If only.
Ten years later Ido Keinan is not forgotten on the Laugavegur hiking trail. His memorial near Hrafntinnusker still reminds hikers of the hidden dangers concealed in the Icelandic highlands. Those who wish can light a candle for Ido on his website.