Home / News / Black Ice and White Knuckles: Braving the Elements on Iceland’s Ring Road

Black Ice and White Knuckles: Braving the Elements on Iceland’s Ring Road

The studded tires on our rented Toyota minivan have been spinning, however we weren’t getting out of that three-foot snowbank alongside a distant Icelandic highway with out some assist. Luckily, I noticed a passing 4×4 tour automobile and flagged down the motive force, who shook his head as he rolled down the window.

“What are you guys doing?” he stated.

Good query.

As an automotive author for The New York Instances, I’ve pushed a $4 million Bugatti at 100 miles per hour alongside the winding Mulholland Freeway in Los Angeles, and a Lamborghini at 160 m.p.h. on a monitor. However none of that ready me to do 30 m.p.h. on a slim, icy freeway in northern Iceland.

4 of us — together with my spouse and two pals — have been visiting the Godafoss waterfall, about 90 miles from the Arctic Circle, on Day 5 of our 13-day circumnavigation of the island. It was the third week of October, the temperature was within the 20s and snow already blanketed the roads and fields, the results of a heavy storm the week earlier than.

Godafoss, a 36-foot cascade about 90 miles from the Arctic Circle, is nicknamed the Waterfall of the Gods.Credit score…Carol Zulman

We have been desperate to see the 36-foot-high cascade nicknamed the Waterfall of the Gods, which we anticipated to be a largely frozen wonderland of ice and mist. To get there faster, I made a decision to take another route. I had made it only some yards down the gravel highway after I modified my thoughts. Reasonably than backing out, I did a three-point flip, and shortly our van was axle-deep in snow.

The tour operator hooked up his winch to a tow hook on the again of our van and commenced to tug — and pull — till we wound up caught in one other snowdrift, our tires once more spinning uselessly. Aggravated, he switched the winch to the entrance of our automobile and hoisted us out as soon as once more. Success.

We realized the exhausting method that figuring out the way to drive throughout American winters doesn’t essentially translate to Iceland, the place snow begins to fall as early as September, and roads are windswept, usually unpaved and often lined in black ice in the course of the chilly months.

The rocky shoreline of the Snaefellsnes peninsula in western Iceland.Credit score…Carol Zulman

We have been planning to drive round Iceland, a virtually Kentucky-size nation with a inhabitants of about 376,000, on the roughly 830-mile Ring Street, which circles the island. That will give us time to see a magical panorama of majestic waterfalls and glacier-filled lagoons, and to take a couple of mountain hikes in solitude. This late within the 12 months, we anticipated to come across few vacationers, and even Icelanders.

We determined to drive clockwise across the island — the other way most vacationers take. Not solely would site visitors be lighter, we thought, however we additionally needed to begin our journey from Reykjavik with the geysers and waterfalls of the favored Golden Circle route, after which see the dramatic basalt cliffs of the Snaefellsnes peninsula and the black-sand seashore at Djupalonssandur, simply north of the capital.

From there, we deliberate to drive on to Akureyi, a metropolis perched on a fjord within the far north; then to Myvatn, an unlimited volcanic lake; and round to 2 small cities hugging the southern coast. We aimed to finish up on the well-known Blue Lagoon geothermal swimming pools close to the airport earlier than flying house. With my spouse within the passenger seat relaying Google Maps instructions to me, we set out with the solar peeking above a lunar panorama.

Alongside the Snaefellsnes peninsula. Within the colder months, Iceland’s climate is very unpredictable: Sturdy winds can all of a sudden blow out of clear skies, and rain and snow can seem seemingly out of nowhere.Credit score…Carol Zulman

The important thing to driving round Iceland in wintry situations, we realized, is flexibility: common monitoring of climate and highway situations, and being prepared to change journey and resort plans when the Ring Street all of a sudden shuts due to snow or excessive winds. And the climate can change at any time, going from brilliant solar to a heavy downpour or a snowstorm.

“I’d by no means drive out of Reykjavik between November and March with out winter tires and studs in them,” stated Pall Thorsteinsson, the general public relations supervisor for Toyota of Iceland. “You should hearken to the climate forecast each 4 hours, as situations can change very quick, with heavy winds and piling snow, and no cities for 2 hours.”

Icelandic maps divide roads into 5 sorts, from the paved Ring Street, or Route 1, to the mountainous, gravel “F” roads, that are closed to all autos from round September till June or July and usually are not beneficial for traditional passenger automobiles at any time. Many roads fall someplace in between, however unhealthy climate could make any thoroughfare a lot, a lot worse.

“Vacationers hire a small automobile after which suppose they’ll drive across the Ring Street within the winter in 4 days,” stated Gunnar Gunnarsson, the top of security for the Icelandic Transportation Authority. “Icelanders would by no means try this, as you’ll most likely get caught.”

Despite having a automobile significantly bigger than a small automobile, we actually realized that lesson at Godafoss. However extra challenges awaited us on the Ring Street: black ice lurking on the asphalt, a solar that set as early as 4 p.m. after which simply peeked above the horizon after 9 a.m., and really excessive winds that blew unexpectedly. Our van’s doorways have been generally ripped out of our palms by highly effective gusts that got here out of nowhere on an in any other case sunny day. My spouse twice had the door painfully ram into her ankle with out warning. Rental automobile insurance coverage usually received’t cowl injury to doorways from these gusts.

An ice fragment washed up at Diamond Seaside, close to the Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon in southern Iceland.Credit score…Carol Zulman

One factor we bought proper: We didn’t hit the bottom working the second we landed. After waking up at 3 a.m. to get to the Los Angeles airport after which spending 19 hours touring, we knew we might be in no form to drive, so we determined to spend the primary two nights in Reykjavik. Arriving at our resort at 8:30 a.m., we skilled what felt just like the longest day of our lives — a lot of it in darkness — as we waited to examine in at 4 p.m.

Most North American guests arrive at Keflavik airport, about 31 miles from Reykjavik, at round 6 a.m., and lots of begin within the early-morning darkness after getting little to no relaxation, which could be very harmful. To discourage keen vacationers from hitting the roads whereas half asleep, the federal government has teamed up with a lot of lodges close to the airport to supply rooms at a cheaper price for a couple of hours. The brand new program, known as Nap and Go, lets visitors keep in a room till round 2:30 p.m. for about $70.

Driving on Icelandic roads, even the Ring Street, shouldn’t be like driving in the USA or Europe. The Ring Street is a two-lane, undivided freeway with a most velocity of 90 kilometers per hour, or about 56 m.p.h. Bridges are sometimes one lane and provide restricted visibility on the opposite facet. Crossing them at 30 m.p.h., I prayed a hidden automobile wasn’t lurking behind a blind rise.

To maximise visibility always of the day, we needed to keep in mind to manually activate our headlights, as a result of by legislation each these and the taillights should all the time be on. Leaving the headlight swap within the computerized place is not going to illuminate the taillights in the course of the day.

With gasoline stations generally hours aside, we by no means let the gas stage fall under half a tank; we topped it off each day, at a value of about $8.70 per gallon. And since even the primary roads in Iceland are sparsely traveled within the colder months — we usually noticed about one automobile each mile in both path — vacationers usually take harmful dangers, similar to exceeding the velocity restrict in icy situations or stopping in the course of the highway to take {a photograph}.

Fines for dashing can run as excessive as $1,750, in line with a spokesperson for the Icelandic police. Touring simply 20 kilometers per hour, about 12 m.p.h., over the restrict on the Ring Street may end up in a $350 high-quality, payable on the spot through money or bank card.

The week earlier than we arrived, a storm had shut elements of the Ring Street, and we feared that if snow or excessive wind delayed our bold schedule, we’d miss a number of of our pay as you go resort reservations. It seems our worries have been unfounded.

“We very seldom have an issue rebooking somebody who’s delayed due to highway closures,” stated Daniel Smarason, the proprietor of Lodge Akureyri, a hip movie-themed resort with tiny rooms, transformed from one of many nation’s oldest cinemas. The hooked up hydroponic farm makes use of wastewater from the warmers to develop greens year-round. The resort was socked in with snow once we arrived.

The northern lights shimmering within the early-morning hours at Lodge Laxa, close to Myvatn, in northern Iceland.Credit score…Carol Zulman

We additionally arrived with out delays at Lodge Laxa, a snug spot close to Myvatn, consuming Aperol spritzes throughout its lengthy completely satisfied hour and admiring the attractive views of a large snow-covered plain. The resort would have tried to rebook us at no cost if we had been held up by a storm, the supervisor, Fionn Larkin, instructed us. If the resort stays inaccessible to visitors, he stated, it is going to refund the reserving with out penalty. We have been completely satisfied to be consuming scrumptious lamb and fish within the restaurant, and that night time at about 2 a.m., we awoke to see the spectacular sight of the northern lights shimmering overhead.

A couple of days and some patches of black ice later, we arrived on the Blue Lagoon, however after our journey via the solitude of the Icelandic countryside, the tour buses parked exterior dissuaded us from stepping into to take a preflight soak. As a substitute, our capstone grew to become the Reykjanes peninsula, close to Keflavik airport, watching Icelandic horses graze and visiting a desolate seaside church.

We had managed to get across the island with just one temporary scare. However for many who don’t heed warnings and get caught in snow or ice, there’s no equal of the AAA to name. Whereas some rental automobile corporations provide roadside help, the nation maintains a volunteer search-and-rescue group, dispatched after a driver calls the emergency quantity, 112. Luckily, regardless of its low inhabitants density, Iceland has wonderful mobile service, with protection accessible just about all over the place alongside the Ring Street.

The excellent news is that guests don’t want to attend till they’re in peril to name for assist. Earlier than our journey, we may have registered our itinerary and anticipated arrival instances every day on the Protected Journey web site. If we didn’t notify the positioning that we had arrived, a search-and-rescue group would have been despatched out to search for us.

After our expertise in that snowdrift, we are able to attest that that’s a comforting truth.

However some Icelanders, like Mr. Thorsteinsson of Toyota, have their very own surefire methods to maintain themselves from getting caught within the snow. “I by no means go exterior of Rekyjavik within the winter,” he stated.

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