HLADIR, Iceland- I saw another one of those large, converted military trucks parked in the gas station in Hladir, on the banks of Hvalfjordur — a fjord just north of Reykjavik. Only this one was painted nicely white and had florescent orange and bright yellow stripes, it was clearly an official vehicle — a rescue truck.
As I rode by on my bike, its driver began walking towards me. He was dressed in a jump suite that matched his truck — a rescue man. He extended his hand which contained a business card. Instinctively, I stopped riding and took the card. On it was printed: “Safe travel.is. Call 112 for emergencies.” But what was really appealing to me about this card was that on its backside was written: “Free cup of coffee at any Olis service station.” Score.
Hey, could I get a few more of these . . .
“I am here to remind people to be safe,” the driver told me.
“Are you traveling here out in the wilderness?”
I looked around — mountains, a fjord, a gravel road. It looked pretty wilderness to me. “Yes,” I responded.
“Ok, be safe.”
“So what do you do?” I asked him simply.
“We are volunteers and we go out and rescue people when they are lost in the mountains or out at sea.”
“So you don’t get paid for this?” I asked.
“No, I am a camp counselor when not doing this.”
“How often do you rescue people here?” I asked.
“What happens, why do so many people need to be rescued?”
He then told me that many people get lost in the mountains when hiking, or don’t bring enough food, or their vehicles get stuck on the roads, or a storm comes in. Basic rescue scenarios, but in a landscape and climate that lends impetus to a higher frequency of actions. I could see how, just from riding my bicycle through this area for a few days, people could easily get in over their heads here and need rescued.
“Who did you rescue today?” I asked, looking for a good story.
“I came out here to meet with a kids group. Now I’m just standing on the road reminding people to be safe.”
My attention was now fully planted on his large rescue vehicle. “Can I go for a ride in your truck?” I asked boldly.
“You can get inside of it,” he responded.
Fair enough. I jumped in.
“How many people can fit in this truck?” I asked as I moved from the back seat to the front.
“12,” he responded, but then thought better of his answer. “Well, it is suppose to be 12, but today as soon as I stopped and opened the doors all of the kids jumped inside.”
I hung our in the truck for a while, played with the knobs and dials, probably acted exactly like one of the kids who were so enthusiastic to meet with this rescue volunteer and his truck earlier in the day.
“What was this truck before it was a rescue vehicle?” I asked, knowing well that trucks of this magnitude are rarely manufactured for such uses.
“It is a German military truck,” the volunteer responded. “You can see in the top the hole where the guns use to be.”
There was a circular hole in the roof of the cabin, made specially for a gunner. It was now firmly latched shut.
“How many kilometers does this thing get to the liter of gas?” I asked, careful to use metric units.
“25 liters of gas per 100km,” he told me, or roughly 10 miles per gallon. “It is really not too bad.”
I then jumped out of the vehicle, and asked the volunteer to tell me about the craziest rescue he ever did.
“That would have to be in Grimsvotn,” he responded without hesitation.
“What?” I asked, not understanding the reference.
“In the volcano that erupted this year.”
“OK, what did you do?
“This was the only truck that could go into the area,” he began, “so we were basically the ambulance. But there was so much ash in the air that we could not see anything in front of us. We needed a man with a super strong flashlight to stand in front of the truck searching for the road the entire time. He would walk ahead one meter and we would drive forward one meter, then he would look and find the road again, and we would keep following. But if he got this far [around ten feet] ahead we couldn’t see him anymore. See this blue light [positioned on the side of the truck just behind the driver's door] we had it on but we could not even see it in the mirror. The ash was very thick, we couldn’t see anything.”
But they rescued many people unfortunate enough to have gotten stuck in proximity to the eruption, and ferried them back to safety, many to hospitals.
“People always ask me how fast it can go,” he added proudly. “It can go 60 or 70 miles per hour.”
I nodded, shook hands, and made to leave. The rescue volunteer called after me:
“If you have any problems, just dial on your phone 112.”
Iceland has very well equipped, punctual, and highly trained search and rescue teams based throughout the country. The first search and rescue team (or ICE-SAR, as they call themselves) was formed in 1918, and now there are over 100 throughout the country. 3,000 Icelanders (1% of the population) volunteer to be part of these rescue teams — ever standing at ready in case a call comes in. By dialing 112 into a cellphone, you will be connected to the nearest search and rescue team, who will typically come out and save you ASAP. Cellphone coverage seems to almost be a complete dragnet in Iceland — even in remote locations, cell phones often still get reception.
I met a French girl who actually needed to be rescued while traveling in Iceland. She was traveling with her friends in a rental car in some remote location and had gotten stuck. No matter what they did, they could not budge the vehicle. They called 112.
“It took the rescue team a couple of hours to get to where we were, but they arrived and dug us out,” she told me. “And the best part was that it was free. We asked if they wanted money, but they said that they are volunteers and do it for nothing.”