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A horrific accident at Látrabjarg

I could practically feel the blood freeze in my veins this afternoon when I heard that a man had fallen off the cliff at Látrabjarg, on the West Fjords. There was no way he could have survived, was my first thought — and tragically, this was the case.

To me, Látrabjarg is one of the most imposing and awe-inspiring places in Iceland. It is a sheer rock face that rises up more than 100 metres from the sea, and it is the westernmost tip of Iceland – and, indeed, of Europe. I went there for the first time in 2005 and was completely captivated by the place — so much that I wanted to go back as soon as possible. Went there again in 2007 and found it just as amazing the second time.

I suspect part of the appeal was the fact that I was scared sh*tless there. That, and the endless numbers of puffins that live there in holes just below the edge of the cliff and who are so unafraid of people that you can practically reach out and touch them. Like this guy:

My special puffin friend

Yet going close to that edge terrified me, and there was no way I would have attempted it without lying down on my stomach about 2 or 3 metres away and inching my way forward. Even that was pushing it. And so, I found myself wondering how that accident could have happened. Was that poor man so caught up with watching the birds that he forgot to be cautious? Or was there a strong wind that made him lose his balance?

In any case, this is probably as good a time as any to point anyone who plans to travel to Iceland to the website safetravel.is. It’s set up by ICE-SAR, the Icelandic Search and Rescue Team, a team of volunteers who risk their lives and limbs to search for and rescue people from precarious situations. In many cases those situations involve tourists who are just not aware of the many dangers of Icelandic nature, and who perhaps are not aware that here in Iceland, unlike in many countries in the world, there are hardly any ropes or chains or fences keeping people away from potential harm. In Iceland, you really do enter at your own risk.

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  • megan June 9, 2010, 11:48 pm

    That is a very sad story. While the lack of ropes and rails could be dangerous if you’re not careful, it was one of my favorite things about my visit to Iceland last spring. Coming from a place that is practically wrapped in bubble wrap because of lawsuits (I’ll give you one guess) it was a refreshing change to use my own judgment regarding how close to get to a ledge, etc. Iceland is gorgeous and approachable, I hope it never changes!

  • sylvia hikins June 10, 2010, 12:26 am

    When I re-visited Iceland in March I hired a Toyota Yaris for 3 days and headed up to Reykholt, then took a dirt trail up towards Langjokull. The weather was sunny with good visiblity but the wind became so strong that three times the car was nearly blown off the road. I was miles off the beaten track without another soul about. If I had been blown off the road I could well have been toast. So it’s not just the unpredictable weather but the isolation of Iceland that makes it both magical and scary. So a question: Is the mobile phone network connected across the whole of Iceland? And has safetravel.is got a telephone number?
    sylvia from viking wirral

  • Lissa June 10, 2010, 12:39 am

    One of the things I enjoy about Iceland is the lack of rails and such. You have to pay attention to your surroundings. There is no way that every dangerous bit of terrain in Iceland could be cordoned off.

    This is a tragedy.

  • alda June 10, 2010, 12:51 am

    Sylvia – the quick answer to your question: no, there is not a mobile phone network in all of Iceland. It does cover most inhabited places, but not the outback. That is probably why there was that tragic accident in March or April with the three people who got lost while going to see the eruption.

    As for ICE-SAR, you would call the emergency number, 112. They dispatch the search and rescue teams as needed.

  • Jeff Garland June 10, 2010, 1:59 am

    Having spent time observing and catching a Puffin on Heimaey, I can tell you being on top of the cliffs where they live is scary and dangerous. We were in a group of 3, and crawled on our bellies to get near them. When we reached into the nest to grab one it was done with all 3 of us hanging onto one another. Scary up there, but an awesome view. and wonderful, colorful birds! Oh yeah, we had towels to wipe off the recycled dinner the Puffin shared with us once caught.

    Here’s my favorite Puffin video. Anyone know if their food supply has increased?
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zoHD2GxcBMw

  • Jeff Garland June 10, 2010, 2:46 am

    yes I was scared, but it was the Puffin that was scared sh*tless. 🙂

  • Joerg June 10, 2010, 7:02 am

    I don’t know anything about this particular case but Látrabjarg can be pretty treacherous. It is susceptible to foggy conditions with poor visibility and sometimes I couldn’t see the edge of the cliff, even if I was standing close by, due to the fact that the grassy meadows were sloping upwards towards the edge.

    The coverage of the mobile network has increased over the last years and extended far into the outback. I even had reception in Hveravellir, Landmannalaugar (on the hills), Langisjór and many other places. It might be worth to walk uphill to look out for reception.

  • Chris, Reykjavik June 10, 2010, 10:03 am

    Yep, tragic is the right word. When I thought about this for a moment, I began wondering, that there are actually very few accidents happening, although you can see dangerous behaviour in quite a lot of places. Examples? People climb near the edge of Dettifoss for example, if one of the rocks breaks away, they will find themself in one of the biggest glacial rivers in the country. Or people on cliffs: I have seen a lot of people walking over the “bridge” formed at Cape Dýrholaey, or going very close to the edge at the Reykjanesviti cliff. And I have seen a lot of photographers trying to get photos of puffins at Látrabjarg. People often doesn’t seem to realize, what is dangerous and what can be considered safe, something you can also watch by the growing number of warning signs and fences in the country.

  • Rajan Parrikar June 10, 2010, 4:51 pm

    I was at Látrabjarg on Tuesday night. The tragedy must have occurred a few hours later, and I now wonder if I saw the couple on our ferry from Stykkishólmur. Almost all books warn about the turf near the cliff edge and how it might not support one’s weight.

    Those puffins are lovely –

    http://www.parrikar.com/blog/2010/06/09/latrabjarg

  • idunn June 10, 2010, 8:41 pm

    Pity the accident at Látrabjarg. Yet also nice one might enjoy it sans railings, etc. of any kind. Some things in life are best approached entirely free, with the inherent risk and responsibility that is living.

  • John Hopkins June 11, 2010, 6:29 pm

    100 meters? I’m thinking it’s 1000 meters, isn’t it, Alda? Not that 100 meters is any more survivable than one order of magnitude higher, but…

    As a former geophysicist who has been around volcanoes in a number of places, I would also warn people specifically about the thermal areas in Iceland. Despite knowing those terrains, I had an instance where I went slightly over boot-deep in an area north-west of Hveragerdi many years ago. A grassy knoll near a small mud pit collapsed when I was standing on it — I got major burns on both my ankles where the mud got around the boot top. The 10 km walk out was a nightmare…

  • alda June 11, 2010, 6:48 pm

    You’d think so, but no — 1,000 metres would be a kilometre, and it’s not quite that tall.

    It’s actually been confirmed that the man fell 140-160 metres and was likely killed instantly.

  • John Hopkins June 11, 2010, 7:24 pm

    ahah, a little looking-up — 440 m (1400 ft) — I was thinking feet then, I knew it was +1000 something! Big friggin’ cliff!

  • alda June 11, 2010, 8:19 pm

    John – I think that’s the highest point, but not where most of the tourists are. It’s a fairly long cliff, too. 🙂

  • Øystein June 12, 2010, 6:25 am

    Hi Alda – people like to search places like this. In the region I live a cliff is an important attraction to tourists. People need to walk a couple of hours to reach it – but that don´t prevent more than 100 000 to visit the place (Norwegian name is Preikestolen – in English “The Pulpit Rock” . I have followed Germans, Danes, Americans and French people (and Norwegians too ;-), and will do it with some Swiss this summer. It is easy reachable to Icelanders, as Icelandair have summer routes to Stavanger.

    The hight is 600 meters. Here is a nice view from above:

    http://www.brodyaga.com/pages/viewlarge.php?id=8545&cty=Preikestolen&place=Norway,%20Norway
    Here is a nice