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Iceland Mag

Accidents, Search and Rescue

Four distress calls in 24h in Central Highlands: Travelers fail to heed weather warnings

By Staff

  • Fimmvörðuháls ICE-SAR assisting a German couple whose hike was brought to an end by the elements. A large puddle had formed where the people had pitched their tent. Photo/ICE-SAR

An unusually large number of distress calls from travelers who seem to have either ignored weather warnings or failed to check for such warnings has raised questions about the need to impose new and stricter rules on hiking in the Central Highlands. Despite the Icelandic Meteorological Office and ICE-SAR having issued travel and weather warnings for the entire Central Highlands four different requests for assistance on the Central Highlands in South Iceland were received in the past 24 hours.

Jónas Guðmundsson, the manager of ICE-SAR told the National Broadcasting Service that too many foreign travelers overestimate their mountaineering skills while underestimating the weather. As a result people bite off more than they can chew and embark upon hikes which are doomed to end in distress and rescue. He argues that ICE-SAR needs to do more to educate travelers and ensure people are aware of the conditions they are getting into. Stricter rules and the closing of hiking trails is another answer he argued.

At present it is difficult to close hiking trails, as its not clear who has the legal authority to declare trails closed to traffic. 

People fail to realize summer hasn't arrived in the highlands
Conditions in the Central Highlands are far from ideal at the present. Davíð Már Bjarnason, a spokesman for ICE-SAR told the local newspaper Fréttablaðið that there are tens of centimeters of snow cover on many hiking trails in the Central Highlands in South Iceland, including Fimmvörðuháls hiking trail: "There is still a lot of snow, and the weather on Fimmvörðuháls has been awful, rain and sleet. It's a beautiful trail, and it doesn't take long to hike in good weather. But it's in the highlands."

Davíð pointed out that people fail to understand that conditions in the Central Highlands are very different from those closer to the coast or at more southerly latitudes: "Of course its already summer in Europe, and most places in Iceland. The trees are green in Reykjavík, and people wrongly assume it's also summer in the highlands in South Iceland."

Four rescue missions in 24 hours
The first distress call came early Monday morning from a German couple who were unable to continue due to strong wind, sleet and rain. The people were located on Morinsheiði heath on the northern stretch of Fimmvörðuháls trail. Their tent had flooded as a large puddle had formed where they chose to pitch the tent. The people were too cold and tired to continue their hike. The people called for assistance at 4 am. 

Read more: Travelers rescued from Fimmvörðuháls hiking trail: Too tired and cold to finish hike

A second distress call came yesterday afternoon. A hiker who was located on the southern part of the trail, between Hvannagil and Emstur cabins. The man was lost and too exhausted to continue the hike. Due to a thick fog visibility was extremely limited, causing the man to become disoriented. ICE-SAR was able to locate the man and escort him to safety.

A third distress call was received yesterday evening, shortly after eight. This time a hiker had gotten lost on Fimmvörðuháls trail. Like the other travelers the man was able to call for help and give a rough description of his location to assist the rescuers.

Read more: Hiker ends up requiring rescue on Fimmvörðuháls trail after ignoring weather alert

A fourth distress call came early morning from a couple who were exhausted and too cold to continue their hike between Þórsmörk and Skógar waterfall. 

Read more: Foreign travelers rescued on Fimmvörðuháls trail early morning

Every single case could have been averted had the hikers in question behaved responsibly and checked the weather forecast and travel warnings. However, while we at Iceland Magazine wish people would not embark on reckless hikes we should also be stressed: The people did the right thing to call for help before things got really out of hand. People have died of exposure while hiking in the Central Highlands. 

Rapid response teams
ICE-SAR has operated rapid response teams in the Central Highlands over the peak months of summer for 13 years. Nearly 200 volunteers are posted at three different locations in the highlands, ready to respond to distress calls at a moments notice.

The rapid response teams will be deployed to their posts on Friday.

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