Driven: Arctic Trucks Iceland

We’d already dropped the tyre pressures of our highly modified Toyota pickups from 30psi to just 3psi, flattening their sidewalls until their footprints were more than twice their normal width and three times their normal length. And yet, despite the fact that the vehicles we were driving had been modified by Arctic Trucks, an Icelandic company with decades of experience in the coldest places on earth, we were completely stuck. There was nothing for it but to step out of the warm vehicle and into the howling gale to dig ourselves out. Again.

The problem was the same as it had been half-a-dozen times before: we were high-sided, grounded on a wedge of snow with nothing but half-a-metre of semi-frozen melt-water beneath our feet. We’d engaged both front and rear axle differential locks of course, which ensured that each wheel could make the most of what little grip there was – but in conditions like this, that just meant all four wheels were churning through the slush at exactly the same rate.

We didn’t panic; instead we calmly called for help, using our in-car radio. Then we sat. And waited.

Finally, we saw headlights. We watched as the rescue vehicle, an even more highly modified Jeep Wrangler on even larger tyres, picked its way towards us.

It got stuck too.

That meant seven of us were trapped in the highlands of Iceland with just one shovel per vehicle and a length of rope as thick as my wrist. Unlike almost every Land Rover you’ll ever see plodding along British greenlanes, we didn’t have a winch. Not that one would have helped; this is Iceland, a country not exactly known for its extensive forestation – and no trees meant there was nothing to fasten a winch cable to. Only fat tyres and sheer determination could help us now.

A freezing Polar wind made everything much harder than it might otherwise have been; the ambient temperature might only be hovering around freezing but the gale-force wind added a significant wind-chill factor, so it felt more like minus 20° Celsius.

My clothing helped, but not as much as I would have liked. Despite wearing a Fjallraven Expedition Parka No.1 over the same company’s Vidda Pro trousers, both of which were layered over a merino wool base layer plus a couple of thinner upper layers, I was still cold. Oh, and forget all about wearing a technical fleece for warmth; if you want to go authentically Nordic then what you really need is a super-thick woolly jumper…

So, despite wearing four layers underneath my heavy down-filled parka – a garment so well stuffed it could stand up by itself and so thick it was all but impossible to drive in – I was still shivering. The wind crept in past zipped and buttoned openings, and the chill slunk past the tightly cinched cuffs of my parka. I peered out through the fur-rimmed opening of my hood, where more freezing gusts of wind sand-blasted my face with shards of ice.

That same 50mph wind caused other problems. So strong, it pushed us along whenever we stood on ice, which was inconvenient but predictable and at least allowed us to adopt improbable poses in the odd brief moment of levity. Less predictable was the effect it had on us when we were pushed along the ice and onto a patch of snow. Snow is, despite what you might think, quite a grippy surface; its greater co-efficient of friction meant we pivoted about the soles of our feet and were dumped onto our hands and knees, plunging our extremities into the slushy water beneath.

Wet hands and wet feet are bad enough, but pushing ourselves upright again sometimes plunged us into knee-deep water, filling boots and soaking socks. Hypothermia started to become a very real possibility. We quickly learned to fall flat on our front or back and from there lever ourselves upright using the shovel, which is easier said than done when that same Arctic wind is powerful enough to catch the blade of your shovel and rip it from your hand. We soon realised we had to carry our shovels at an angle, minimising its surface area to the wind. It’s a neat trick in theory, but in practice it’s not one that makes shovelling wet, heavy snow in the dark any easier.

Photography is obviously much easier than digging, so I shot the unfolding drama while others worked. Then I put the camera back into the safety of the vehicle and dug too, because you don’t let your mates down. I like to think that Frank Hurley would have approved.

But even taking turns to dig wasn’t enough. We’d free one vehicle and then move on to free another – by which time the first vehicle would have become stuck again. Sometimes, an hour’s digging gained us only a couple of feet.

So, the water was going to kill us. Not by drowning, but by trapping us long enough for the cold to kill us. Death by hypothermia would be the official cause of death, but everyone would know that it was the blue snow, the shitty snow, that got us in the end.

Just like they’d warned…

2

Icelandic safety briefings tend to be informal affairs. I’d sat through one a year earlier in which the key learning point seemed to be to sit tight if I dropped into a glacial crevasse and just wait to be rescued. This year’s briefing was even simpler: We only have two things to tell you about the snow. The first is don’t eat the yellow snow. The second is don’t drive on the blue snow. Yellow snow is pissy snow and blue snow is shitty snow. Shitty snow has water underneath it and that’s a bad thing. So, don’t drive over blue snow, OK?

Which was sound advice. The trouble is that blue snow isn’t always obviously blue: if the layer of snow covering the water is thick enough, then it looks white, not blue. And then at other times you could be faced with a vast expanse of blue snow that is impossible to avoid. Added to that, the recent mild temperatures Iceland had experienced melted a lot of snow this year, which meant that a significant amount of it would be blue. We’d be fine once we hit the mountains, where the colder air meant the snow would be white, fluffy and very drivable. But to get from the ring road to the mountains meant driving along roads marked “impassable”; the smaller Icelandic roads are abandoned during the harsh winter months and cannot be traversed in anything smaller than our 38-inch tyred trucks.

In truth, the Toyota Hilux AT38s we were driving were a bit too small for the conditions we were going to be facing. A bit too weedy, if you like. Others were opting for a minimum of 44-inch tyres – and up to 800bhp. But we were plucky Brits. The underdogs. We almost relished the fact that we’d be trundling along with asthmatic 150bhp diesels and (proving everything is relative out here…) spindly little tyres.

So we piled a weekend’s worth of clothes and food and sleeping bags into the back of our pickups, lashed down the tonneau cover and popped out for a hamburger and chips to fortify the inner man. We set out in high spirits, using the car-to-car radios to take the piss. We topped up the cars’ twin fuel tanks at a petrol station in Hella and topped ourselves up with hotdogs (served in a toasted bun with a bed of raw, finely diced onions, dehydrated ‘cronions’ and a splash of mustard, in case you were wondering) and more coffee. We were in high spirits and, if I’m being honest, a bit cocky. We’d all been here before, when the towering performance of our Arctic Trucks had left us staggered at their sheer competence in the face of the worst Iceland could throw at us. We’d been told that we would be performing at the very limits of our vehicles’ capabilities, but we’d thought that dodging blue snow would be a matter of prudence, common-sense and driver skill.

We pulled into the side of the road a little later and dropped our tyre pressure to 6psi, a move that left each car handling like a marshmallow on a bowl of jelly, but gave invincible traction. Deep snow later stopped us dead, but whilst further dropping the tyres to 3psi did nothing to improve the handling, an almost-flat tyre has such a broad footprint that we could claw our way forward on little more than tickover. Each wheel is fitted with two tyre valves, one of which has no core, allowing for rapid deflation and reinflation after, using the on-board air compressor.

Special tyre pressure gauges, calibrated in 1psi increments, allowed us to accurately drop our pressures to the point at which ripping the tyres off the rims was a constant danger. But avoiding harsh acceleration with the steering wheel cranked over would mitigate the worst of the danger; the ever-constant risk of being stranded by a tyre-less wheel was the price we had to pay to stay mobile. (And I don’t think I was alone in wanting to try the old Icelandic trick of rapidly reseating an unseated tyre with starter fluid and a well-placed match…)

It’s fair to say that at this point, confidence levels were high. Which, in hindsight, I realise is the point where you need to start worrying.

Because sometimes you’re just an idiot who makes a mistake because you’re tired and just want to get to a warm mountain hut to drink beer, eat hot food, and kick back with tales of derring do and bravery. And anyway, in the face of a seemingly limitless sea of blue snow, what are you going to do but to try to tiptoe across it? Using the Ice Truckers trick of edging forward in low-range and first gear was an effective way of avoiding the sort of pressure wave that disrupts the surface ahead of you, and we made good progress. Initially, at least.

But we then entered a broad dip in the terrain and hell was unleashed. We stumbled and fumbled our way across, taking more than two hours to cover less than half-a-mile. The section from Hella to the F210 turn-off at Keldur was easy and took only fifteen minutes or so. The mountain hut at Hungursfit was then less than 18 miles away but it took us more than eight hours to cover. We’d travel at decent speeds for a while, rolling happily along in 4th gear, low-range for a couple of miles before sinking axle-deep in shitty snow and grinding to a halt. We’d then get out, dig, double-up our tow ropes to enable a longer pull, dig some more and then pack the recovery gear away before continuing on, wringing wet socks out in an over-heated cab in an attempt to stave off the bitter, biting cold before getting caught out again.

Literally, rinse and repeat. Time after time after time. The repetitive nature of the work helped warp and twist my thinking; like a nightmare from which there is no awakening, there seemed to be no end to that damned shitty snow.

We’d gained around 4,000ft in height in total by the time we saw the hut, which meant the wet, saturated snow at the bottom was slowly replaced by a lighter, powdery snow. This gave much better grip and our Nokian Hakkapeliitta tyres proved their worth time and time again. The wide, studded tyres patter attractively on tarmac, sounding exactly like hard rain falling on a tin roof – and any steering imprecision at road speeds is forgiven when you feel them claw their way up and onto the top of a deep mound of mountain snow.

And yet, despite the improving conditions, it would be fair to say that we all had a bit of a sense of humour failure at midnight. Our spirits rose when we arrived in the Hungursfit hut at half-past the hour, a situation that was further improved when we found free mattress space next to a roaring propane heater. Ten minutes after arriving we were tucking into strong English ale and hyper-chilled pork pies, while our wet socks steamed happily beside us. Other vehicles continued to drift in over the next couple of hours with their drivers sharing similar stories of battling through some of the worst snow they’d seen in years. Unpacking and drying wet gear, opening bottles and cans of beer, and loud greetings meant we had a late night. I finally fell asleep to the background babble at about three in the morning.

3

The modern wood-and-tin hut we were staying in slept 50-ish people. It was equipped with flushing toilets and cold water taps and had a purposeful, lean air to the exterior. Propane heaters were dotted throughout, making the place cosy even in the face of a howling snow storm, and the excellent cooking facilities meant you could enjoy home-cooked meals around the long central table. Guests tidied up after themselves as it would have been all but impossible for a caretaker to reach the hut.

Breakfast was hot: strong coffee and porridge, a fine combination to drive out the few remaining blue-snow demons. Others, better prepared than us, fried bacon and cooked home-made pancakes, draping both in warm maple syrup. Coffee flowed freely, with almost everyone having packed a cafetiere to make the proper stuff; instant coffee clearly plays little part in an Icelandic weekend away.

We left our pickups ticking over during breakfast to let them warm through; in the Antarctic, the vehicles Arctic Trucks is famous for supplying and using are never turned off in the worst of the weather. In less extreme weather, we’d settled for leaving the handbrake off and facing the pickup out of the prevailing wind. Others, lacking our foresight or possibly arriving too tired to think clearly, had to clear engine bays full of wind-blown snow before they could risk starting their vehicles.

Saturday was one of those gloriously cold, blue-sky days that serve as a poster child for the Icelandic tourist industry. We followed tracks made by 44-inch tyred monsters and went almost everywhere they did. Iceland has a wonderfully relaxed approach to off-roading in the winter: simply put, you can drive anywhere when snow covers the ground, allowing for a sense of freedom and exhilaration that is impossible here in the United Kingdom. However, penalties are rightly swingeing should you stray from the tracks and roads that crisscross the island after the snow has gone. Lava fields are delicate, and there are marks still from irresponsible off-roaders, even after thirty years.

Sure, we got stuck from time to time, but soft, fresh snow is easy to drive on and to extricate yourself from; I doubt any of us broke sweat during any single recovery. We shared the driving and took frequent breaks, brewing up coffee and tea using a special propane/butane mix to combat the freezing conditions. The rear differential lock remained engaged for the whole day, with judicious use of the front locker helping when things got tough. It was, sometimes, something of a ballet juggling the need for the front axle to be locked with the need to maintain at least a semblance of steering; Hakkapeliittas running on 3psi meant that the AT38 Hilux wasn’t an agile machine by any stretch of the imagination, even with the front diff running free. With it locked it was like trying to wrestle a greased hippo into a condom.

The highlight of the day for me was a passenger ride in a highly modified 320bhp bright orange Toyota Tacoma riding low on 44-inch tyres. While the UK and USA tend to sit their vehicles atop improbably high suspension, ground clearance and wheel articulation are less of a problem out here, so vehicles are lifted only high enough to allow the fitment of super-wide and high rubber. The result is a pickup that has incredible flotation and astonishing side-slope stability, allowing for the sort of high-speed jinks that more closely resembled a Paris-Dakar racing car in the sand dunes than a four-wheel-drive pickup. Engine noise vied for attention with gear whine, supercharger whistle, and the sort of deep-throated exhaust rumble that you feel as much as hear. My ride back to the hut was a swooping rollercoaster of a ride, during which we maxed out at just over 50mph in low-range. I smoked a cigarette next to it just to hear it ping its way down to ambient temperature.

There were, by now, around 20 modified vehicles dotted around the hut, ranging from a Suzuki Jimny sitting on 33-inch tyres all the way to a huge Ford F450 on 49-inch tyres that was the vehicle of choice when someone, anyone, needed rescuing. Arctic Trucks might be the company that springs to mind when you think of Icelandic super-jeeps but most of the vehicles taking part in this weekend’s adventure were home-built and a stunning testament to the ingenuity, skill and vision of the men and women who had built them. While the Tacoma is an exquisitely engineered way to bend the laws of both physics and meteorology, the retro-modded Toyota Hilux that had been complete restored and fitted with massive flared wheelarches, 38-inch tyres, and the 300bhp V8 petrol engine from a Lexus LS400 was my favourite.

Supper was lamb cooked in tin foil on a bed of charcoal dug three feet down into the snow. Served with a homemade Béarnaise sauce, baked potatoes and salad, it was a fine way to finish off the day. I missed the late night Brennivín, a caraway-flavoured schnapps that is the Icelandic equivalent of aquavit; I even slept through a pelting with empty beer cans and so missed tasting the traditional spirit that is often referred to as svarti dauði or Black Death. By the state of some of my fellow travellers the next day, that might have been a good thing.

4

The run back to Reykjavík on Sunday was largely uneventful. We’d gained our Blue Snow spurs by now, and appreciated that even a long detour was worth the effort to avoid having to dig our way out of trouble. We also coined a new term: Grey Snow. Grey snow usually indicated a thick layer of slush with gravel or lava underneath a thin layer of snow. This term actually started life as Nick’s Theory after the chap in our group who first coined it. This was later upgraded to Nick’s Law as experience proved its reliability; we quickly learned that even deep water need hold no fear if the snow lying on top of it is grey.

We stop on the first stretch of gravel road to re-inflate our tyres. A switch on the dashboard triggers an under-bonnet air compressor that makes short work of pumping them from 3psi to 6psi. (It’s an interesting fact that only in Iceland can you look at a tyre with 6psi in it and wonder if you’ve put too much air in…)

Later, on even firmer ground, we re-inflated the tyres back up to 25psi, a long-winded process that gave us ample time to reflect on the previous 48 hours. We’d learned a lot, added a new term to our polar lexicon, and started to realise that driving here was unlike driving anywhere we’d been before. But for now the UK beckoned, and we’d be arriving home in time for the arrival of The Beast From The East…

Carlton Boyce @motoringjourno