The Icelandic highlands are a famously inhospitable region. In the winter, deep snow and regular storms make them unsafe to enter for anyone but the most well-prepared and experienced Arctic traveller. The whole region is often referred to as uninhabited—and uninhabitable.
But last winter, that wasn’t the case. At the geothermal oasis of Hveravellir, site manager Kristīne Skrebele kept the lights on throughout Iceland’s darkest time. Latvian by birth, she first came to Iceland four years ago, and ended up working at Hveravellir. “It was a hard summer!” exclaims Kristīne. “Afterwards, I said: ‘I will never come back to this madhouse!’ It was my first experience working with people. But I did come back. The next year was much easier.”
Kristīne had caught the bug for the place. “I said I’d love to come to celebrate New Year’s Eve,” she says. “Then during the winter I got a call from the boss at Gray Line saying they needed someone to be here all winter. So I quit my job in Latvia, and came back.”
Getting to Hveravellir is winter is challenging. It takes an experienced driver in a modified super jeep or snowmobile, and even then, the conditions are sometimes too much. “If there’s a storm, and you can’t see your hand in front of you, the jeeps can’t come,” says Kristīne. “But on the right day, it’s fine, so groups come through every few days. It’s like another world—everything is white. If it’s sunny, it’s like driving through heaven.”
It took Kristīne some time to adapt to her extreme surroundings. “I was here alone, just me and Orion the dog,” she recalls. “At first the constant darkness was scary—I’d switch on all the lights, and turn up the music. Sometimes, the electricity would go off, or the heater would stop working, and I needed to fix it by going up to the generator on the hill. I know nothing about pipes and electricity, so people from Reykjavík would call me and talk me through it. Now I know a lot more.”
The highlands receive a heavy snowfall throughout Iceland’s long winter. At some points, the house in which Kristīne lived was completely buried. “Every few days I’d have to climb out of the window to dig out the door of the house,” she says. “The windows were blocked. It was like a cave. Sometimes, cars could come by without me even knowing, because the house was totally insulated from sound, and they didn’t expect anyone to be here.”
Kristīne even slept out under the stars sometimes. “I have a very good sleeping bag,” she says. “There’s no light pollution, so you can the aurora very clearly. And every few days someone would come along, so I wasn’t lonely. It’s an extremely good experience to be in the middle of nowhere, especially as a woman, I would say. I really enjoyed it.”
Kristīne plans to return for the winter again this year. So if you should pass by the buried cabin at Hveravellir in the dark months for some soup and a dip in the steaming geothermal pool, don’t forget to knock.
Also read: Welcome To Nowhere—An Escape Into The Highlands.