The engine revs as I hit the gas. The rental SUV, a lumbering Mitsubishi Pajero we’ve dubbed “Cool Runnings,” responds to my frenzied efforts with the steady, plaintive spinning of snow-bound tires. We’re two Americans and two Canadians on a winter road trip around Iceland, and we’re hopelessly stuck. It’s 6 p.m. in January, which means darkness arrived hours ago. The only light around us is the mocking glow of the gas gauge noting the tank’s impending emptiness. In one skittering second we’ve joined some fairly questionable company: tourists in Iceland who require emergency rescue.
Every year 600 to 700 people, most of them tourists, are rescued from Iceland’s unforgiving countryside. Swept away by the Arctic nation’s beauty, they underestimate its terrain and rapidly shifting weather. In 2013, a group of five campers, dubbed “the Glacial Picnickers” in an English-language magazine in Reykjavík, the capital, had to be rescued when the iceberg they’d selected as the perfect lunch locale was pushed out to sea by a strong wind. That same year a French couple was rescued after they drove past a warning sign into a sandstorm. The storm promptly blew out their vehicle’s windows, subjecting them to all of its might.
These unfortunates as well as my group were all saved by the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue, or ICE-SAR. ICE-SAR is not part of Iceland’s military; in fact, the Kentucky-sized country has no standing army. Nor is it a part of any municipal police force. ICE-SAR is staffed by volunteers, self-financed, and effective.