Somewhere between Mývatn and Grímsstaðir, the road rose up into the mountains, through rocky valleys and deserted farms before the tarmac roads stopped and I found myself on unpaved roads and covered in dust and grit every time other vehicles sped past. The road became more and more exposed, frequently twisting and turning to reveal sharp drops to hidden valleys. At one point, I pulled over to visit a mountain hut. These huts are provided for emergency use only, and it was easy to see how grateful you would be to find one of these huts in the isolated areas where they are located, especially in the deepest snow and bitterest winds. The hut was painted orange, which I suppose would have helped in stand out in an Icelandic winter wonderland, and was a square, flat roofed affair, with a short covered chimney poking out from one side. It excited my adventurous spirit, and I couldn’t wait to peek inside. I was pleased to find the hut unoccupied, and cautiously opened the door. Ignoring the smell of slightly stale air, I found a small bed, warm blankets, a cupboard with meagre supplies, and most reassuringly a fire set and ready for lighting. I later found out that nearby Grímsstaðir holds the record for Iceland’s lowest ever recorded temperature: -38C in 1918. I thanked the warm June sunshine that I wasn’t here in an emergency, or the winter of 1918 and stepped back outside. The view from the hut was absolutely stunning, looking down a series of valleys from which the road would disappear and then reappear far in the distance. The sun glinted off a solitary vehicle far below, making them look like shooting stars across the rock strewn, alpine-esque scenery.
This little emergency hut, providing shelter in the face of whatever weather is thrown at it, is the responsibility of ICE-SAR – Iceland Search and Rescue association. ICE-SAR can source its roots in the Westman Island Rescue Team in 1918, but has changed quite a bit then. Oh, and they’ve achieved a great deal too. ICE-SAR were the first international team to arrive on scene for the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, they have acquired the first rescue ship, and for that matter, first rescue helicopter in Iceland. They have dealt with some volcanoes going off or something too. I forget the details. You might have heard of them.
ICE-SAR is a modern, all singing, all dancing search and rescue organisation. Although singing and dancing are frowned upon during actual rescue missions. Not only do they have all the kit – snowmobiles, super jeeps, mobile communication centres, ships, lifeboats, dog teams, quad bikes, hovercraft, snow groomers (me neither!), mountain bikes, kayaks; anything you can think of, they have some of the most highly trained and specialist search and rescue teams in the world. And there is something else. ICE-SAR members wear a red and blue uniform that is not dissimilar to that of Spiderman. Except it doesn’t shoot webs.
ICE-SAR are not only looking out for us land-lubbers. ICE-SAR also take maritime safety very seriously, as well as the previously mentioned ship, it has 14 other vessels around Iceland’s coast, 35 RIBs (Rigid Inflatable Boats) and 90 inflatable boats. It runs a compulsory maritime safety course for sailors, which has dramatically cut the number of Icelandic lives lost at sea.
ICE-SAR has some neat tricks up its – no doubt, Gore-tex – sleeve. 80% of it’s funding comes from sales of fireworks on the lead up to New Years Eve. How cool is that? If that doesn’t grab you – fundraising and firework displays – check your pulse, or else how about purchasing a really cute ICE-SAR keyring? This years is irresistible with an ICE-SAR rescue worker holding a child in his arms. ICE-SAR is even encouraging foreign travellers to record their travel plans with them at their website, so they know where to look should you go missing. Its kind of thoughtful, isn’t it?
ICE-SAR’s biggest achievement though, if you are asking me, is harnessing the huge power of altruism and skills of Icelanders across the country to save lives. Whether it be through daring incidents of wrenching hapless tourists from deep glacial crevasses, changing tyres in the West Fjords, educating others in accident prevention or running youth groups, ICE- SAR do all of this through volunteers.
ICE-SAR has 95 search and rescue teams dotted right across Iceland (you’d think they would make it 100, wouldn’t you?), which contain an amazing 3500 volunteers who offer their services, skills and knowledge to get Icelanders and foreigners out of sticky situations. I think this is quite a feat; roughly 1% of the countries population are wiling to perform such a crucial role, for no pay. With accident prevention and other volunteers, this raises to a total of 18,000 volunteers. This is surely something to be commended. I can’t think of many other countries where this could happen.
There are many reasons for people to sign up to ICE-SAR – getting to drive a big truck whilst wearing shades, being involved n training exercises, camaraderie, access to Gucci kit, but beyond all, Icelanders seem to have an inbuilt need to help each other. Maybe it’s after centuries of living on a harsh, inhospitable island isolated from the rest of the world, maybe it’s because they just want to be self sufficient in every possible way. Whatever the reason, I’m glad that they are there. Next time you drive past a little orange hut in the middle of nowhere, I hope that you are too.