The moment I returned from Australia, I received a phone call from my photographer friends, Andrew Ling and Connor Surdi. They had planned a European vacation to Iceland and wanted me to come. Sure, why not? I reached out to Ice Rovers, a company that rents uniquely-Icelandic, adventure-ready Land Rovers to ask about arranging a Defender to explore Iceland. The trip was planned for mid-February, their off season, so using one of their Defender 110s wouldn’t be any problem. We soon would discover why mid-February was their off season.
We arrived in Keflavik around six in the morning and were greeted by Ice Rovers owner, Agust. He asked why we came to Iceland in February and warned us to watch for the two pending storms forecasted. The forewarnings may have been overlooked by me, as a native of the Northeast weather and Andrew from the Pacific Northwest. We figured we'd seen it all. What could possibly go wrong?
One-third of the country's population lives in and around Rijkivik, leaving the rest to the reindeer. In terms of size, it's about the same size as Colorado or England. The population density of Iceland is approximately nine people per square mile. Although it feels like a new country, it has a very long heritage. The Icelandic people are very proud of their country and work together to make it better. It's beautiful. As a citizen of Iceland, you are responsible for yourself and your actions. So be kind, clean, use what you need, and respect others.
After signing some insurance forms, we headed to Reykjavik to get some provisions. A few SIM cards, food and booze were all we needed. By nightfall, we intended to reach Kirkjufell, two hours away, on the northwest coast - but we were swept up in the most severe snowstorm either of us had ever witnessed. As we checked road.is (highly recommended when traveling to Iceland), we discovered that every road was closed. Yes, every one of them. Closed.
Ice Rovers lent us a 2.4 TDCI Land Rover Defender our adventure. Thirty seven inch Interco snow tires was mounted on 15x10" wide steel wheels. There was no spare. Other Land Rover Defenders also do not have spares. The majority of off-road vehicles lack winches because there's not much to latch onto to pull you out of sticky situations. You must rely on your own experience when driving off-road.
Still, our Defender 110 had 37-inch tires, so why not press on? After a few hours, visibility dwindled to ten feet or less and the wind picked up dramatically. Using only the thin blue line on our GPS to indicate where we might be on the road, we kept the truck moving at a moderate 40 mph in the pitch black. The plan was working well until we hit ice and spun into a massive snowdrift. Despite the fact it was very late and dark outside, we had no idea where we were. There was nothing but wind battering our Defender. This was a bad situation.
This was my first time spinning a Defender into a ditch and I was surprised it didn't roll over. As a result, I attempted the Icelandic Rock, which involves creeping forward a bit, engaging the clutch, letting it roll back, and then easing the accelerator to creep forward again. Having repeated this process untold times, we eventually gained momentum and continued on at a more reasonable 20mph.
Driving through snow this deep can be very challenging. The RPMs should be kept low and the average speed must remain constant. Ideally, I like to be between 1500 and 2000 rpm. By doing this, the tires would be unable to cut too deep into the snow, minimizing wheel spin. It's important to keep moving forward constantly so as to not dig in too much.
A lot of drivers spin their tires aggressively in the hope that the car will catch a solid surface and free itself. It's never the case. When you feel the wheels spinning, you stop immediately and fix the problem. Digging yourself deeper only makes things more difficult. For every inch you sink your truck into the snow, you will have to shovel an hour to free yourself from the situation. If you don't believe me try it next time.
It was inevitable we would bury the Defender several more times. When stuck in deep powder, the "Icelandic rock" method came in handy. Basically, it’s a way to get rid of small amounts of snow behind and in front of your tires. As you rock it forward and backward, it will move an inch forward and an inch back. Repeat this several times until those inches grow into 8/9/10 inches and only then do you feel your tires climb over the small ridge you formed to emerge from being buried and on top of the snow again and moving forward. Patience is necessary.
Three hours short of our destination and exhausted, we pulled over for a rest, leaving the Defender running and the heat on max to prevent us from freezing to death. Four hours later, we awoke to sunlight and silence; the storm had passed; we were alive had not frozen to death.
We were blown away by the landscapes, and every picture we took brought in a different light. As we were heading back to Reykjavk, we heard a larger storm was fast approaching. This one packed 125-mph, Category 3 hurricane-force winds. The storm would far exceed "the most severe snowstorm I have ever seen" just a day earlier and bury us for days with no help... Of course, there is more to the story….perhaps we can revisit it on another day.
Iceland blew away any expectations I might have had as a first-time visitor. As beautiful as the photos were, experiencing it in real time was incredible. In my life, I've never experienced complete darkness and complete whiteout. There is something so unique about this country, and if you ever get the chance, I hope you visit Iceland.