April 4, 2014

The Story Behind the Image – Iceland No. 30

2013-9-7 Iceland No 30 - Final 10-12-2013 1000 (1)Iceland No. 30


Why did I include this image in my Iceland portfolio, when I consider it just “average” at best?  Because it reminds me of the story behind the image.

It was in September of 2013 that I spend two weeks driving around Iceland and it was heaven: I was alone, I had no itinerary, no reservations and no plans other than to go wherever my eye took me. 

I don’t like to embark on a trip with plans and so the only two things that I put on my “to do” list was to soak in the Blue Lagoon hot pools and to photograph the icebergs.  I did have a wonderful soak, but the image above was the only one I was able to create of the icebergs, and here’s why:

The weather for most of my trip had been pretty good but on the second half it started to get windy.  Living near Wyoming I’m accustomed to strong winds, we often have gusts of 60 mph and sometimes as high as 80 mph. But what I encountered this day in Iceland made those Wyoming winds seem like a mild breeze.

I had driven around the island clockwise and things started getting windy in the east.  Then as I approached the south, things really got serious.  On the day that I visited Iceberg Lagoon, the winds were so strong that I could barely get out of the car or stand up. I saw people standing at a 45 degree angle as they braced into the wind.

I walked around a portion of the lagoon and tried to photograph, but I literally could not hold the camera still enough. I found a location where a hill blocked some of the wind and by using my tripod very low to the ground and putting my full weight on it, I was able to create Iceland No. 30 above, the only image I got of the icebergs. This was pretty disappointing given that I had come all the way to Iceland to photograph icebergs.  

Shortly after leaving the lagoon and continuing west, I started to see an enormous dust cloud coming off of the alluvial gravel fields. These dust clouds were very dark because they were made up of volcanic rock that had been ground by the glaciers over the centuries. It was an odd sight; this low lying ominous dust cloud against a blue sky.

I had just passed the Hotel Skaftafell and decided that I should turn around and not proceed into the dust cloud. I pulled into the hotel parking lot but was immediately stopped by a security guard who said that the hotel was fully booked. It turns out that Matt Damon was filming a movie and he and the film crew occupied the entire hotel. So I’m blaming Matt for what occurred next.

Since I couldn’t stay the only decision to be made was which direction to go: east from where I came or west towards my final destination? I didn’t want to go east because I’d be losing ground and the last hotels I had seen were quite a ways back. So I proceeded west…reluctantly…into the storm.

I approached a bridge with this enormous dust cloud pouring over it and I was having some serious second thoughts about my decision. The bridge demanded an immediate decision from me because once I was on the bridge…there was no turning back. The bridges over these alluvial fields could be very long and they were so narrow as to prevent turnaround.

My indecision became a de facto decision as I started onto the bridge and was immediately met by an oncoming car. My heart half stopped at what I saw: the car’s windows were all blown out on the wind side. I immediately feared that I had made the wrong decision.

Now that I was on the bridge and committed, I could only proceed and hope for the best. What I didn’t know at that moment, was how strong the winds had become. I later learned that this “storm of the century” had gusts up to 134 mph.

The visibility was so poor that I could only drive about 10 mph and the only thing that kept me on the road was the center stripe. Soon the sound of dust blasting the car became the sound of small rocks pelting it. The wind had become so strong that it hurled sharp volcanic rocks into the air, pummeling everything in its path. Well, my car was in its path and suddenly and without warning, the four windows on the wind side of the car simultaneously exploded and I was covered with broken glass. 

The rocks that had been smashing against my windows were now smashing against my face as I tried to drive. The wind pressure was so great that my ears hurt and I had to roll down the windows on the leeward side of the car, which relieved the pressure but also allowed the rocks to fly through the car with even greater force.

Fortunately I was wearing a hooded jacket and I used this to shield the right side of my face. This was a very abrasive situation, but how abrasive, I would not appreciate until later.

I had to keep driving because I had no alternative, but I didn’t know when or where I would find refuge.  The car was rocking so badly in the wind that I wondered if it would be blown over, and whenever I crossed over a bridge it became so violent that I would bring the car to a stop until the wind subsided a bit.

I drove like this for hours, crawling along slowly and clinging to the white stripe on the road.  At one point the stripe disappeared because an inch layer of the road surface was actually being blown away, peeling in the wind like an onion. This was unnerving and without the stripe, I was blind for a distance.

Along the way I encountered other drivers coming from the opposite direction and heading into the danger zone that I had just come out of.  I would stop and warn them by yelling and using sign language, indicating that they should turn around. Seven cars listened to me and we drove together in a caravan, however one car would not listen and proceeded anyway.

Another car initially ignored my advice and seemed determined to proceed. It was a young couple with a small child in the back seat and on the windward side. Seeing that child and imagining what would happen if they lost their windows really scared me and caused me to become loud and forceful, ordering them to turn around.  Which they did.

We caravanned for several hours and finally came across the Fosshotel Nupar. There were rooms available but the hotel was quickly filling as it became a refuge for the travelers in the area.  Soon the hotel was full and they had to put people in the lobby and other available areas. The scene there was unworldly, the wind was so fierce that people could hardly make it from their cars and into the hotel.  We all huddled together at the windows, watching the cars in the parking lot as their windows exploded, one by one.

We made it through the night and didn’t lose any hotel windows, but the cars were not so lucky. In the morning I surveyed the damage to my car and thankfully I had not lost any more windows, but the remaining ones were sandblasted along with the car’s paint, headlights and wheels. The car was a mess outside and inside it was full of broken glass, sand and small stones. 

The winds were still fierce, but much less than the day before and so I decided to drive straight to Reykjavik to get another car. I taped trash bags over the windows and got on my way. The trip was uncomfortable, cold and the bags were soon ripped off the windows by the wind, but I continued on because I desperately wanted a warm car with windows! Along the way I encountered several mild sand storms…but nothing like the day before.

Upon arriving in Reykjavik, the car and I were something of a celebrity.  The rental people said that they had never seen a car destroyed by the winds like this and asked how I was going to pay for it. I told them that I had State Farm insurance, to which they replied “not here you don’t!” I had assumed that I was covered by my car policy and so I never purchased the additional insurance. I learned an important lesson that day.

I paid for the damages using my Visa card (at least I got some frequent flyer miles) so that they would give me another car. But to my surprise Chase covered the damages because I had used their credit card to rent the car and had declined the supplemental insurance, thank you Chase!

Armed with a new rental car and better weather, I was able to finish my Iceland journey without further incident. This was the trip of a lifetime, regardless of the images I did or did not bring home.

Was this part of the trip a terrible experience? There were probably moments that I thought so at the time, but I now fondly look back at this as an adventure that I’ll always remember.

And that is the story behind the image.


P.S. Here’s a photo of the car.

2013-9-15 Two Missing Side Windows on Passenger Side



27 thoughts on “The Story Behind the Image – Iceland No. 30

  1. What an experience and incredible story Cole! Come rain or shine, the photographer always gets their photo ; ) I plan to go to Iceland this year (in better weather I hope). That Matt Damon…jeez : ) Thanks for sharing!

  2. Holy cow! We were in Iceland in September 2013 as well, but definitely NOT in the same part of Iceland! I’m curious why you call this image “average, at best,” and what you find lacking in it?

  3. Oh my word! What a story! Amazing story of survival. And even though it isn’t your most magnificent image, it is a pleasant one and one that certainly tells a story. Best, Robyn

  4. I think you are lucky to have captured any image given the circumstances. It’s a great shot and will give you a wonderful source of conversation for many years to come provided, you do not tempt fate and return to Iceland.

    Great story…and welcome home.

  5. Lisa, that is a good question that could send this discussion in an entirely different direction! I think this image is average because there is nothing special about it, it would make an okay calendar shot, but nothing more.

    Now having said that, someone else might just love the image! We all have different tastes.

    Ultimately, we all get to decide what is a great image and what is not. There is no universal expert on great.

  6. Thanks for sharing that story Cole! Quite an experience. That is what I love about photography, it brings us through experiences we may not otherwise have…and they make for great stories. It was a pleasure chatting the other day.
    Jon Paul

  7. A great story Cole, it events like these that makes travel so rewarding. Although not pleasant at the time these sorts of mis adventures are often looked back upon with fondness and isn’t it wonderful to have beautiful photos to remind us of them all.

  8. What a story! I drove that road in february this year. We had good weather but it was a long and hard trip! So i can imagine a little bit how it was for you, driving that lonely road so slow, with that strong winds blowin’ against the car.
    But i think you took more home with you than a lot of photographers with a lot of pictures on their cameras.
    Thanks for sharing this.

  9. Enjoyed your story, had me “on the edge of my seat” even though I know you are safe and sound. I think the photo is a bit more than average, although knowing the story behind the image makes it much more interesting.

  10. Crazy! Pretty sure nothing like that has ever happened to me, don’t think I would want it to! On the image, personally I like it and even thought it was a standout from this series. Goes to show about tastes and preferences, I suppose. I generally keep my own opinions about my own images to myself, but inside, I’m always surprised when people really like images that I think are weaker, and vice versa.

  11. Cole, I can also vouch for using Citibank card to rent a car. That card covered damage to a rental car I had a few years ago. But, nothing like the experience you went through. That is incredible. But,the good thing is that you were not hurt and that family with the little one listened to you.

  12. How about some photos of the car?

    Thanks for posting your story. That’s the adventure of a lifetime. I had no idea duststorms could be so fierce. At least the iceberg photo is great. Did you use HDR?

  13. What a nightmare! Amazing that you and your gear came through unscathed. My husband and I drove that road in June 2007 and stayed at the Hotel Skaftafell which was nearly empty because most people were camping in the park! In good weather I thought it was one of the longest drives of my life and I routinely drive across Montana. I imagine your family was glad that they did not join you on that trip.

  14. Amazing story and experience! Sooo glad you’re well.

    And an amazing comment….haha:
    “Why did I include this image in my Iceland portfolio, when I consider it just “average” at best? “

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