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Stuck on an Icelandic highway

Yesterday I posted a somewhat cryptic status on the Facebook page about our car breaking down on Ring Road 1. I realized soon enough [even before one of our loyal readers requested more info] that I hadn’t provided very much detail. So, for anyone who is left wondering what exactly happened, here is the story.

Icelandic highwayAs many people will know, Christmas in Iceland is steeped in family tradition, and one of our traditions is that EPI’s extended family all meets up on Boxing Day [which the ever-prosaic Icelanders call “second in Christmas”]. This year the meet-up was being held at his brother and sister-in-law’s place in Selfoss [about an hour’s drive from Reykjavík].

The weather had been abysmal over Christmas, so everyone was a bit iffy about driving to Selfoss – at least us city wimps who aren’t used to it [the Selfoss denizens swore it was no problem]. We studied weather and road conditions carefully before setting off, especially conditions on Hellisheiði heath, which can be pretty dicy. We decided that EPI would drive his [elderly] father’s car and that I would drive our car [both are 4WD] and that we’d fill both cars with passengers. I was going to take my sister-in-law and her two kids [7 and 11], my daughter Aldís [22] and our dog Apríl [age: we’re not sure].

However, at the last minute we decided to take my sister-in-law’s car instead of mine because we realized we wouldn’t need 4WD as much as we might need studded [nailed] tires, since there might be icy spots on Hellisheiði. We have all-season radials on our car, but she has the nails.

Thus equipped, we set off. My SIL’s car is a Toyota something [it seats seven people, that’s all I know] and is about seven years old. All was well, and we were barreling along up on Hellisheiði when I noticed that all the lights on her dashboard were flicking on and off. The car seemed to be running fine, though, so we weren’t too worried about it – my thought was that it might be a fuse that needed to be replaced.

So we get to the party and have a merry old time, and decided to set off for home around 7 pm. By then it was dark and very cold, and the wind was starting to blow. Worried that the lights might flick off again, we arranged it so that EPI would drive in front of us doing the speed limit and we’d follow behind, so that if the lights went off we’d at least know how fast we were driving. That worked fine for a while until cars started to overtake us and we lost EPI somewhere up ahead.

So we get to Hveragerði and sure enough the dashboard is flickering, and my SIL comments that the car feels weird – it doesn’t have same sort of power as normally. She starts to panic a little bit because by this time we’re almost on Hellisheiði and she doesn’t want to go up there with the car acting all strange. So she decides to turn around and go back to Hveragerði but by this time there is no place to turn and cars are whizzing by [as they do – I’ve ranted plenty about the Icelanders’ driving habits in this space so saynomore] so I suggest she pull off to the side so we can decide what to do. No sooner does she pull off [she was barely off the main road – I think we were almost half on it, still] than the engine just cuts out and the car won’t start again].


It’s pitch dark out there and we can’t find the hazard lights so instantly my biggest fear is that we’ll get rear-ended by someone doing 100 km/h. After a few moments of sheer panic, however, my SIL does find the lights, they actually WORK, and we all breathe a sigh of relief because at least we can then figure out what to do without being in mortal danger at the same time.

So we start a round of telephone calls to various parties, including FÍB [Iceland’s version of the AAA] who say that, because my SIL’s husband is registered with them and not my SIL, he has to be in the broken-down car for them to qualify for assistance. [FUUU.] [He was at home with their third child, who was sick.] Meanwhile, EPI has figured out that we’re not behind him any more, and has called to see what’s happening.

Anyway, long story short, what happened in the end was that the in-laws who live in Selfoss sent two of their kids in two separate cars to take us all to Reykjavík. It took them around 20 or 30 minutes to get to us, and we were purretty darn cold by that time. The FÍB people decided to relent and take pity, and sent their Hveragerði tow-truck guy to the site, even though he happened to be at his own Christmas party in Hafnarfjörður [Reykjavík] which he had to leave in order to get to the car. Which was mighty big of him, I must say. [The same won’t be said for everyone else passing by, because not a single person stopped to see if we were OK or needed assistance.]

The problem with the car turned out to be the alternator, which is being replaced as we speak.

So anyway, we were not in any danger at any point, except for the risk of being rammed from behind by some crazy driver. No rescue squad had to be dispatched, over and above our own personal rescuers. However, we did get a bit of a taste of what it must be like for people who get stuck in their cars in bad weather, and boy, I would NOT like to wind up in that situation. It cannot be said often enough: before you set out on an Icelandic road-trip, ALWAYS check the weather and road conditions [here], and don’t head out if there’s any doubt as to your safety. Also, take a blanket and a well-charged cellphone, though you should keep in mind that there are places in Iceland that don’t have any service.

[pic licensed under Creative Commons and found here.]



Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Mike December 27, 2013, 3:03 pm


    Glad to hear you’re okay Alda. I’ve been up on Hellisheiði a couple of times in the snow and it’s scary enough in a working car. It’s typical that cars only go wrong when it will be most inconvenient.

    Hope that didn’t spoil Christmas too much and perhaps stay home for the New Year?


  • Douglas Landis December 27, 2013, 3:06 pm

    I have had a couple of exciting Icelandic weather experiences. Each one has taught me the fear and respect you give to Mother Nature is well justified. Now, the idea of getting stuck in Iceland in a broken vehicle with no heat as the temperature drops REALLY scares the crap out of me! Glad you were in cel service area!

  • hildigunnur December 27, 2013, 8:57 pm

    Our car broke down just outside of Hveragerði years and years ago. It was snowing quite heavily and I was really happy this didn’t happen in the middle of Hellisheiði. We walked to the town and rang the doorbell at a random house, got invited in by the nicest people and could call my in-laws in Rangársýsla who then came and picked us up. Yes this was on Christmas Day.

    No cell phones – this was in 1987…

  • Wow December 28, 2013, 6:35 pm

    Amazing how not so long ago you ridiculed tourists for getting themselves into similar situations. How quickly you forget your imperious ranting which it suits you.

  • Wow December 28, 2013, 6:37 pm

    when it suits you.

  • alda December 28, 2013, 9:14 pm

    Wow. Which part of “We studied weather and road conditions carefully before setting off” did you not understand?

  • Wow December 28, 2013, 9:27 pm

    Clearly that didn’t help you anymore than it does tourists. You are not going to WORM your way out of this one.

  • alda December 28, 2013, 9:58 pm

    Wow. I seem to have deeply offended you at some point. Please accept my apologies.

  • Wow December 28, 2013, 10:08 pm

    You offended A LOT of people. Lucky for you your shit doesn’t stink like ours must to you.

  • Strategist December 28, 2013, 11:44 pm

    Well, I loved your post, thanks for posting it, and please don’t ever let nasty feedback stop you posting more!
    I think maybe it’s good for us all to feel the fear sometimes, and all the better if it can be done without actually being in really dangerous peril.

  • Mike December 28, 2013, 11:57 pm

    A couple of Aprils ago I was working with a documentary crew in Iceland and we realised just how quickly the weather can change from lovely to absolutely terrifying. Our pared-to-the-bone budget had restricted us to a VW Polo which had been fine right up until we were offered a chance to film at the Búrfell power station in Þjórsárdalur. And despite not knowing us from Adam, the nice people at Landsvirkjun even invited us to eat with the crew when we got there.

    That turned out to be an ‘if’ we got there.

    We left Reykjavík in bright sunshine, crossed Hellisheiði in the most gorgeous early spring weather and a bit past Selfoss turned off the ring-road up into the interior. About 5km up the road it began to snow, and I’ve never seen anything like it. Within a few minutes the road was almost invisible – as was the front of the car, visibility was perhaps a couple of metres despite a wind that was pushing the car across the road. What had been quite a lot of fun became quite terrifying to a bunch of not-vikings. So we wisely decided that a retreat was in order, and thanking German engineering and 66 North jackets, scuttled back to an excellent Thai restaurant in Selfoss which was bathed in warm evening sunshine.

    A shame – I was looking forward to a home-cooked lamb stew.

  • alda December 29, 2013, 1:40 am

    Thanks Strategist. I won’t stop posting. Haters gonna hate. Though I might have to reconsider the comment thing and not allow anonymous posters. (Oh, that includes you I’m afraid 😉 ) Either that or just close comments and have discussion only via Facebook and Twitter, like I was doing before.

  • Katharine Kroeber December 31, 2013, 12:33 pm

    Well, most of us know there’s a world of difference between
    a) studying forecasts carefully, (not to mention having the locals saying travel would be okay!), trying to select the best-equipped-for-the-conditions car, notifying people of the route to be taken, driving in pairs, having charged mobiles, and having the car conk out on you unexpectedly… and being able to call relatives and friends, and
    b) ignoring forecasts and the advice of locals who are telling one to stay put, having an inadequate car, and blithely driving, solo, up roads with chains across and/or clearly marked IMPASSABLE, and driving oneself into a ditch, fence, or storm that was predicted, in an area where you haven’t notified anyone you might be, and having to be rescued at great expense by volunteers giving up time at their paying jobs.
    It’s kind of like the difference between a zoo-keeper being damaged once in a lifetime of caring for an animal and the idiot visitor who decides that they should climb all the fences and walls and moats between them and the tiger and poke it. (As really happened here in the U.S.) So don’t worry, Alda, we’re glad you all are safe (at least until the fireworks go off; keep hold of April!) and your post actually is a great reminder to people to be careful of Icelandic weather!

  • alda December 31, 2013, 1:12 pm

    Thank you Katharine, I couldn’t have put it better.

  • Katharine Kroeber January 7, 2014, 5:59 pm

    Just testing, to see if I’m blocked here. 🙂

  • Cynde Delaina January 11, 2014, 3:32 am

    If you could e mail me with a few tips on how you made your blog look this good, I would be thankful.

  • ~kAtHy~in~CoLoRaDo~ January 22, 2014, 10:32 pm

    Your words, “It cannot be said often enough: before you set out on an Icelandic road-trip, ALWAYS check the weather and road conditions [here], and don’t head out if there’s any doubt as to your safety. Also, take a blanket and a well-charged cellphone, though you should keep in mind that there are places in Iceland that don’t have any service,” should be heeded by anyone/anywhere. Thank you for taking the time to post this as a reminder to travelers. I’m in Colorado, and one day entered Eisenhower Tunnel from the east in beautiful, sunny weather and emerged on the west side is an absolute white-out blizzard. Glad your story had a happy ending. FYI: I found your blog while researching places to visit, things to do, etc. for our first trip to the Reykjavik area this coming July. If you or your readers have suggestions, please pass them along. I’ve already watched the video about ‘showering naked’ before entering the pools. Hmmmm.