The route to Landmannalaugar will take us to 1800 feet above sea level as we drive a wide plain, black-soil moonscape surrounded by lava fields covered in lichen and moss and a tall, wide bladed grass the (the first plant life to reclaim lava fields), volcanic mountains loom a couple of miles off, punctuated by the occasional steam vent. As if to prove his earlier point Jon directs Eggert through a landscape braided with trails, passing the occasional Ford Econoline van, Jeep Cherokee, and Toyota FourRunner at what feels like a smooth 35 miles per hour. At the base of a steep mountain they hold up long enough to drop the trailer, and then Eggert starts up the road, downshifting steadily until he’s in four-wheel low and creeping along at a motor-whining walking pace, up what feels like a 35 to 45 degree incline. At the top the road disappears from the windshield and there’s no sign of a mountain, just clear blue Icelandic skies. For a moment, from the front passenger seats of the van, it feels like we’re about to fall off the other, equally steep, side. But then the front wheels claim the lip of the summit and the rear wheels follow and we drive onto a rust colored relatively flat surface the size of a small convenience store parking lot and park. We get out and walk to the edge. ON one side is a huge lake reflecting the clouds and sky. ON the other edge a crater several acres wide and a few hundred feet deep of a volcano that erupted a few hundred years ago. As we’re standing there we hear the whine of a diesel in four wheel low and a red van, an Econoline, tops the ridge to share our narrow parking lot. The Mercedes, standing next to the van, looks massive, like a monster truck looming over a Chevy S-10, and those of us who rode up in the Mercedes take a snobbish pride by association.
After descending we pick up the trailer and follow the volcanic terrain, weaving our way back out along the trails that we followed up to the summit. There are little road markers maybe three feet high sticking up beside the road we’re following.
“So how much snow do you get up here,” I ask. “Are those markers to help keep you on the road?”
Jon laughs, tells me those are for driving at night. “In the winter we don’t use roads,” he says. “There are no roads. We just follow the GPS and drive in a straight line right across the snow.”
The modified truck, or super jeep scene in Iceland can really only be appreciated by seeing it in action. Driving the “road” to Porsmork, or scaling the highlands toward Landmannalauger, is like living in a four by four commercial. Standing at the parking area near the kitchen hut at Porsmork, I watch a cherry red muscled up Toyota Tacoma storm across a river, spreading sheets of water twenty feet in either direction. The trucks, jeeps, and vans are the same ones we have back in the U.S., but the impression they make is the same as if you took my body and pumped it out to Arnold Schwarzenegger proportions. As Ian Merritt writes for Road and Track Magazine, “In America, rarely are aftermarket modifications applied to real world needs. In Iceland, in the dead of winter, in daily 90 mph winds, and on some of the worst terrain on earth, everything on a truck must have a purpose.” As Jon explained to me, Icelandic trucks are not just tricked out versions of stock vehicles. Specialists start at the bottom with a strong frame, then work outward with new engines and modified transmissions to meet the conditions, In addition to these modifications, most super jeeps add a snorkel so the engine can breathe while fording rivers, an on-board air compressor so the tires can be inflated or deflated according to terrain (as low as 1 psi for snow, and around 24 psi for paved roads), air shock systems to balance the vehicle on uneven terrain, tool boxes, winches, and extra fuel tanks. However, one thing you won’t find on Icelandic trucks are computers and extensive electronic components. If a breakdown occurs in the field, repairs need to be as basic as possible.
The state of the art vehicle, for years, Jon tells me, was the Ford Econoline, highly regarded as one of the most versatile vehicles ever built. Built on a tough truck frame, the Econoline’s sparse boxy body provided the room necessary to add on engines and transmissions designed for other makes and models. Just making room for the massive 46 inch tall tires needed to drive on loose sand and snow requires considerable modification to the body of a truck, and Icelandic law requires extra-wide fender flares that extend to the width of the tires. As an example of the adaptability of the Econoline to extreme driving, in 2005 a mostly British team with an Icelandic mechanic drove a 1996 Econoline 700 miles to the South Pole. The van had been modified to add an extra axle (6 by 6 all wheel drive) with 44 inch tires and a 7.3 litre turbocharged V-8 diesel engine. Unfortunately, the classic Ford Econoline is no longer manufactured, a fact Jon mourned. According to Merritt, Icelanders are now turning to “Land Rover Defender 90s, 110s and 130s, Toyota Land Cruiser FJ70s, Nissan Patrols, Isuzu I370’s, and even Mercedes-Benz Sprinters.”
Occasionally, as we drive the long way to Landmannalaugar, Jon points to a passing truck says “that’s one of mine,” then grabs the radio mic and calls out a greeting. To replace the Econoline from his fleet of super-jeeps, Jon has turned to the Mercedes, where he drew upon his extensive knowledge of Icelandic vehicles, but added twists and innovations of his own. As I ask questions, he rattles off details about gear ratios, torque conversion rates, and a lot of other specifications that go right over my head. “It’s a big investment,” he says. “I could buy a nice apartment in Reyjkavik for what this truck cost, but I hope to keep this on the road for ten years.” He goes on to explain that because of its special weather conditions and isolation, Iceland has responded by becoming the leader in developing innovative modified super jeep technology, so much so that a modification plant has been built in Norway so that the Norwegian military can modify its entire fleet. They even export the technology to Saudi Arabia, where driving on sand is not much different than driving on snow.
Jon Kristinn obviously loves his trucks, his music, his technology. Sitting in the passenger seat of the Mercedes, he’s like a kid sitting in the detritus of Christmas morning, unable to focus on one gadget for very long before moving on to the next. Yet, it’s clear he loves the life he lives. Like all Icelanders, he is quite knowledgeable and proud about his country, and he loves to talk about it. After dropping us off at our lodging, and while we are hiking and resting, Eggert fires up charcoal for excellent lamb steaks, three inches thick and seasoned just right. Jon works in the communal kitchen whipping up a garlic and an herb sauce for the lamb, mashed potatoes, and cobbler for dessert. Backpackers staying overnight in the lodge, some fresh off the trail, some heading out the next day, boil water and stir freeze-dried meals in the kitchen and stare wistfully at the pile of meat left on the table after we eat. After supper, while the rest of us go for a dip in the hot springs, Jon and Eggert bug out in the Mercedes. The next day we discover that they spent a good part of the evening and night exploring deeper into the highlands, pushing on another 50 miles, and getting close enough to the active volcano that threatened to close Iceland’s air space to get a really nice picture of its glowing lava flow lighting up the night sky.
The closest I come to cracking Eggert’s veneer is in the kitchen at breakfast. I ask him about how long he’s been guiding and he opens up a bit. We talk about how ideally situated Iceland is for doing extended hikes with support. Hikers will pay good money to have someone drive ahead, set up camp, cook, break everything down the next day. “It’s good work,” he says. I fill in the gaps for him, describing supported raft and kayak trips in the American West. He nods, and I imagine Eggert driving in to a designated camp site in early afternoon, setting up the clients’ tents, airing out their sleeping bags, starting a nice supper, with plenty of time to smoke and enjoy being out in that beautiful wilderness. I feel like we’ve connected.
After breakfast we head back to Reyjkavik, taking a more direct route than the day before. I ask Jon if he feels guilty cooking steaks for us among all those backpackers. “Did you give away any of that meat,” I ask.
He shakes his head. “No. It’s in the ice chest. I take it home and what I or my family don’t eat, I feed to my dogs.” He gives me mischievous smile, showing no mercy for the backpackers.
We come to a pretty big river, probably three times as wide as the one Sigurdur drove his much less modified 18 passenger across. It’s flowing fast, but there’s clearly a road on the other side. “Do you think you could cross that in this?” I ask, pointing at the floorboard.
Jon and Eggert exchange laughs. “We’ve crossed bigger rivers than that,” Jon say, dismissing the river with a wave of his hand. He looks at Eggert and they laugh, and he looks back at me and winks. I don’t know if he’s pulling my leg or not, but I know enough by now that—as I learned with Sigurdur—if he pulled up to it he would most likely not stop to scout it out, and I wouldn’t be too worried about it. I’d get my cell phone camera out to capture the video and enjoy the ride.