Route One is Iceland’s main highway. Completed in 1974, it loops the country, carving a path through tracts of farmland before reaching the lava fields and sweeping floodplains of the southern coastline, rattling over countless bridges along the way. The single carriageway passes high mountains ranges, waterfalls pouring from towering glaciers, winding through stretches of lava, the undulating fjords of the east, windswept northern passes, and the farms and villages of the west. It returns to Reykjavík after 1,332km of road.
Completing Route One over several days is a popular road trip. Thousands of people traverse the Ring Road each summer, taking in the overwhelming sensory flow of Iceland’s wild and diverse landscape. Winter, however, brings a near-constant barrage of bad weather, with frequent snowfall and windstorms punctuated by rare clear days. The conditions change quickly and vary widely on any given day or, for that matter, at any given moment. Winter travellers are at the mercy of the elements—as we’ll soon discover.
350 km, Reykjavík to Öræfi
On a stormy February Friday, we begin our five-day road trip around Route One. A frighteningly powerful windstorm is sweeping over the capital, closing the roads out of Reykjavík entirely. The online weather reports look bleak as we pack the 4×4 SUV, dressed head to toe in weatherproof clothing.
The storm breaks at 11am, and we join an uncharacteristically quiet Route One. The southern road is all-but empty as we crawl cautiously past Rauðarhólar and out into the countryside. The devastation from the storm is visible everywhere. Tens of abandoned cars sit strewn by the roadside, the drivers having been picked up the night before by the emergency services. The asphalt is invisible under sheets of ice, and powdery snow blows from tall drifts, dancing over the surface in undulating strands. We don’t pass a single car coming the other way.
The first sign of life we see is at Litla Kaffistofa, the old school roadside diner that marks the start of the notoriously windswept Hellisheiði mountain pass. Two huge orange snowploughs sit side by side on the gas station forecourt, emergency lights blinking as the drivers shout to each other over the noise of the gunning engines. On the parking lot, the back of an unfortunate car sticks out of the snow diagonally like the stern of a sinking ship.
We pull over to ask about the conditions ahead. One of the drivers climbs down to talk to us. His name is Elvar—a former fisherman who’s been in the job for just four months. “It’s okay up there now,” he says, casually. “Just a little snow. It’s not so bad, but there are a few cars in the way.” He smiles grimly. “Some people didn’t stop when the road got closed last night.”
We cruise slowly up the long hill, watching the vast steam plumes rise from the snowed-in Hellisheiðarvirkjun power station. Some blinking orange lights appear at the crest of the pass. It’s a sole policeman dressed in all-weather gear. He directs us onto an alternate road that weaves down to sea level more gradually, reconnecting with the Ring Road at Hveragerði. We’ve just left the city, and we’re derailed already.
It turns out to be a fortuitous diversion. Along the way lies Raufarhólshellir, a lava tube that’s right by the roadside. There’s a recently erected visitor centre offering guided tours into the cave, but we’re pleased to find that the opening hasn’t been gated and is still accessible to curious passersby. It’s too icy to venture far inside without crampons, but we get a glimpse inside. The cave is carpeted by gleaming, globular ice stalagmites lit by a beam of light from a natural skylight in the cavern’s ceiling.
As the road winds further south, the snow dissipates. The sun breaks through, shining down over a plain of green fields with statuesque mountains in the distance. Reykjavík, it seems, got the worst of the storm. Rejoining Route One, we turn up the stereo, finally back on track.
The next town is Selfoss, where the streets are lined by two-metre-high piles of ploughed snow. We pull over at the town’s Búllan burger joint for lunch, passing some time with the cook, Kort Þórsson, as he greets customers and flips burgers.
His parents are from Hvolsvöllur, but he lives in Selfoss. “They run the Eldstó gallery café,” he says. “I used to be the chef there, but I need to move on with my life, and get my own apartment and stuff, so I moved here. This town feels like a really big public piss stop. It’s always the middle of a journey and never the final destination. When people ask me if there’s anything interesting here, there’s nothing really to say. We have the pool, of course—but it’s the area around Selfoss that’s interesting.”
With only three hours of daylight left, and more gloomy clouds on the horizon, we aim for our first hotel, with a couple of stops along the way. There’s a new Lava Centre in Kort’s hometown, offering an engaging explanation of Iceland’s volcanic nature. A hundred kilometres later, we see it up close as we pass from the flatlands onto the narrow shelf of land and glacial floodplains of the south coast. It’s a breathtaking drive with tall glaciers rearing up through the thick clouds, looming over waterfalls that tumble down the jagged, bouldered cliffs and out onto wide river-streaked black floodplains.
After a final stop at the weather-lashed Reynisfjara beach, it starts to snow again. The wind picks up as we streak across lava fields and black sands all the way to a hot meal and a warm bed in the comfortable confines of the Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon.
310 km, Öræfi to Fáskrúðsfjörður
The next morning, I’m greeted by a luminous sunrise that fills the room with a surreal pink glow. After a trip to the sauna and a filling breakfast, we hit the road, this time under a clear blue sky.
The south-east corner of Iceland is dominated by almost unimaginably massive Vatnajökull glacier. Its squats in the mountains like a living organism, spilling down into long valleys to form glacier tongues and dramatic icefalls that terminate at sea level in meltwater lagoons littered with blue icebergs. This stretch of windblown coast is largely barren, but we linger briefly at Sandfell Öræfi, a curious site where a single ash tree stands defiantly next to some historic ruins.
We meet Einar Rúnar Sigurðsson, also known as Einar Öræfingur, in the roadside café he runs with his wife, adjacent to the Skeiðarársandur floodplain. He knows the area better than most, and as an experienced mountain guide, regularly summits Iceland’s tallest mountain, the 2,110m tall Hvannadalshnúkur.
“I was born one kilometre from here, on the next farm,” he says. “I’ve been in the tour business since 1991. My father started out taking people to see the puffins down at Ingólfshöfði, and I joined in 1994 with mountain guiding. The company is called Öræfaferðir, or ‘From Coast To Mountains,’ in English. We’re the oldest mountain guide company in Iceland.”
On January 1st, Einar climbed Hvannadalshnúkur for the 300th time, making him a world record holder. He laughs at the notion, saying: “Who else has the privilege to live right in front of the mountain? It’s not really fair.”
In the winter, the demand for climbing tours decreases, so Einar instead innovated Iceland’s first ice cave tours. Initially for photographers, they’re now popular with all kinds of tourists.
Living on this exposed stretch of coastline, Einar has seen his fair share of rough weather. “It’s common to have totally crazy winds here,” he says. “The road gets blocked every winter, and we have cars blown off the road, with all their windows broken. Of course, I try not be in the mountains on those days.”
The worst weather Einar can remember happened during his teens, in the 1980s. “I was at school in Vestmannaeyjar, and came back for Christmas,” he recalls. “We got stuck in the bus just after Svínafell. After two or three hours of sitting there, something came crawling up the road on all fours. It was a guy who had been blown off the road, his car totally wrecked. He was trying to get to shelter, and had crawled five kilometres because it was too windy to walk. We dragged him into the bus—all his fingernails were broken, but he survived just fine. It’s rare, but it can still happen—in 2006 we had a house moved on its foundations, and roofs were blown off.”
I eye the blue sky with suspicion as we continue on our way. After lunch at a lobster house in the serene and picturesque harbour town of Höfn, we stop next at Þórbergssettir, a museum dedicated to beloved and eccentric writer, thinker and critic Þórbergur Þórðarson. The displays of turf houses and artefacts are interspersed by Þórbergur’s texts. His thoughts on Iceland’s nature and history are resonant and vivid, and I buy a book on the way out. Þórbergur’s words will bring the storied landscape to life for the remainder of the journey.
The 1 km Almannaskarðsgöng tunnel feels like the gateway to the east. After pausing briefly to watch two wild reindeer cross the road behind us, we arrive at the bright orange Hvitanes lighthouse as the sun begins to set.
Taking in the tall, snowy mountains, cloaked at their base by mist from the violent surf, something strange appears in the sky. An unusual rainbow spectrum of colour spreads overhead, like an oil spill in the clouds. It’s a sight as breathtaking as the aurora, and it stuns us into silence. We find out later that this phenomenon is known as nacreous clouds, occurring when light is diffracted from below the horizon by clouds up to 25,000 metres high in the stratosphere.
The day has gotten away from us, and once more we’re suddenly racing the nightfall. We’re soon driving in the dark around the sinuous coastal road of the eastern fjords, passing through the seaside towns of Stöðvarfjörður and Djúpivogur before arriving at the Fosshotel in Fáskrúðsfjörður.
After crossing the slippery ice sheet of the car park, we’re relieved to finally check in. Housed in a converted hospital, there’s a basement museum about the French merchants who once lived here. We tuck into some succulent local lamb steaks and drink French wine in the empty restaurant. The hotel is full of charm, with lots of history and personality in the walls and hallways. I fall asleep in a powder-blue bedroom with Þórbergur’s ‘The Stones Speak’ still open in my hand.
Read part two here.
— Reykjavík Grapevine (@rvkgrapevine) April 6, 2018