Fourteen People Rescued from Glacier in Massive, 24-Hour ICE-SAR Operation

Fourteen hikers are cold and shaken but thankfully safe after being rescued from Mt. Hvannadalshnjúkur in Vatnajökull National Park on Friday. The operation, which took almost 24 hours from the time of call-out, is one of the most extensive rescue missions to have been undertaken in recent history. All total, the rescue was conducted by 140 ICE-SAR volunteers, hailing from across South Iceland and even further afield. RÚV and Vísir reported.

A group of twelve Polish women and two Icelandic tour guides began their hike up Hvannadalshnjúkur around 3:00 AM on Thursday morning. Hvannadalshnjúkur is the highest peak of the Öræfajökull volcanic glacier. The group planned to reach the 2,109-m [6,921-ft] summit around noon on Thursday and then make their way back down. During their descent, however, their GPS broke, and unable to continue, they called Search and Rescue for help around 4:00 PM on Thursday.

Björgunarfélag Hornafjarðar, FB

Group took shelter in two tents at 1,800 metres

“The first information we got from them, it looked like it would be pretty easy, even though nothing’s easy up there,” explained Jens Olsen, vice-chair of the Hornafjörður ICE-SAR team. A team of rescuers on snowmobiles reached the group around 11:00 PM that night. “That’s when it started looking like it was going to be pretty complicated.”

“The temperature was just around freezing, it was raining, sleeting, snowing. So the conditions weren’t good and the visibility was basically nill,” continued Jens. “We decided to stay put and give them something to munch on and drink and then wait for more snowmobiles. They were just up on the glacier in the caldera at an altitude of 1,800-metres [5,905-ft] in two tents.”

Björgunarfélag Hornafjarðar, FB

Rescue took nearly 24 hours

Transporting 14 people down a glacier is no simple task, of course, and getting the whole party down the mountain was time-consuming and arduous. The first hikers started being transported down the mountain to Höfn í Hornafjörður around 5:00 AM on Friday; the last hikers made it to town at 3:00 PM that afternoon—nearly 24 hours after they made their emergency call. A crisis shelter had been set up and was waiting to receive them.

Jens’ colleague, Sigfinnur Mar Þrúðmarsson described the harrowing process of getting down the glacier. Due to low visibility and worsening conditions, it took rescuers almost eight hours to reach the hikers in the first place, and then it took six hours for them to make it back down. “Nearly all the way there we had maybe ten, fifteen metres [32-49 ft] of visibility. So if the closest car got too far ahead, you actually lost it. It was really wet snow and then on the way back, it had snowed a ton and people really had their hands full finding their way home.”

Considering what they’d been through, the hikers were all doing relatively well by the time they’d made it safely down the mountain, but Jens said the situation was verging on “critical” when the group was first found by ICE-SAR on Thursday afternoon. “I don’t think they could have stayed there much longer and everyone’s glad that it went so well. It could have been much worse.”