Many visitors to Iceland head out from the capital following Highway 1 around the south coast. They gaze north into the hills, possibly never quite appreciating the full extent of the Icelandic wilderness. Katie Featherstone, a first-time contributor to hidden europe, has spent four summers working in a simple mountain hut in the Fjallabak nature reserve — one of those primal landscapes which are central to Icelanders’ understanding of themselves and their place in the world.
I busy myself making coffee, as the volunteers of the search and rescue team pile into the lobby of the warden’s hut. This is Hrafntinnusker, a remote mountain hut on the Laugavegur Trail in Iceland’s hill country.
The volunteers pass the shoehorn around as they tug off their boots, and they peel themselves out of the top layer of their uniform — blue and red, the colours of the Icelandic flag, and well designed to protect them in a blizzard. I catch scraps of their conversation, discussing the conditions on the route. Wet snow around the back of the mountain had made it slow going, even for their monstrous super-jeeps.
Each week of the summer, a different search and rescue team positions itself twelve kilometres away at Landmannalaugar, a spot which in highseason can even be reached on a direct bus from Reykjavík. The rescue volunteers spend that week on call, ready with their big jeeps, their radios and other kit to respond to the numerous, inevitable misfortunes of the season.
As mountain hut wardens, we rely on these dedicated volunteers to find missing hikers, and to come to assist us when the hut’s first-aid kit isn’t sufficient to help someone on their way. On this particular occasion, the visiting squad from Landmannalaugar have come up to Hrafntinnusker just for fun or, as it will be recorded in their official log: “a reconnaissance mission to test out the route.”
I ask Eyþór, a volunteer in his early twenties who’s currently donning a thick, hand-knitted lopapeysa, why he chooses to spend his holidays working here with the search and rescue teams.
“Big cars,” he half jokes. Then, after a pause, he adds with genuine sincerity: “It’s interesting to work with people with different experiences and from varied fields of work, to see how we can combine our strengths to reach a common goal.”