Lost on the Glacier

English translation by Anna Yates

Synopsis: The first obituaries had already appeared in the newspapers, five days after an airliner returning to Iceland from Europe went missing in 1950 with a crew of six on board, and 18 dogs – when a faint radio signal was picked up: “Location unknown … all alive.” An extraordinary chain of events followed. People wept in the streets with joy that the crew were alive. But how were they to be rescued? It was the most demanding rescue in Iceland’s history.

Land and sea searches resumed, and eventually the plane was located 1,800 m above sea level, half-buried in snow and ice on top of Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Europe.

When a rescue mission by the US military failed, a party of nine Icelanders braved the harshest weather that the north could muster, and travelled non-stop almost 80 km on skis to scale the glacier and bring the crash victims, who had absolutely no idea where they were, back to safety. Based on interviews with the survivors and their rescuers, as well as contemporary newspaper reports, Lost on the Glacier is the gripping story of real-life ordeals and challenges, setbacks and unfailing determination, the triumph of hope over impossible odds.

Sample: pp 16 – 19

The laden plane was flying at nearly 400 kilometres per hour, with all four engines on full throttle, and ice was building up, adding to the weight of the aircraft. “We’re hardly maintaining our altitude,” thought the pilots. Bolli was adjusting his radio equipment, and Dagfinnur was stretching his seat. He loosened his safety belt a little, looked up at the button that controlled the de-icing equipment and stretched out his right hand. His fingertip touched the button and …

Suddenly the aircraft bucked alarmingly. There was screeching and banging – something awful was happening – something no member of the crew had ever experienced before. What was going on?

The captain’s first thought was that the plane had crashed into the sea – somewhere off the Westman Islands. He thought his time had come.

“I was suddenly in freefall – like someone falling without a parachute, half-dazed. I automatically thought, ‘We’re going into the sea! We’re going into the cold sea, we’ll have to get out immediately.’

The plane seemed to be falling, it somehow floated in the air.”

Then another massive blow struck the aircraft – sweeping the crew off their feet. They all felt, briefly, stunned.

Then an eerie silence. All the engines stopped. All the equipment ceased to function. Nothing but breathing could be heard. Darkness, cold – everything was topsy-turvy.

Magnús felt as if he was regaining consciousness – he felt dampness in the air … seawater… or? He felt something heavy lying on top of him. It was a man. The captain lay on his side, with another man lying on top of him in the dark. The port side of the flight deck was facing upwards. All the electricity had cut out. The flight deck was pitch black. No, there was a faint glow somewhere. Magnús was immobilised by his safety belt, and had suffered a heavy blow to the head. He had been thrown forward onto the control column or instrument panel, breaking his nose. It was Einar who had landed on top of him. The engineer lay curled up on top of the captain.

Magnús thought the plane had dropped into the sea. He thought it must be Einar on top of him. That was most likely, as the engineer’s seat had been behind Magnús and to the side; he had practically been able to breathe down his neck throughout the trip.

“Out, out, out!” thought the captain.

Magnús thought the plane was floating on the surface of the sea. They would have to move quickly if they weren’t to go down with it.

He called out to his crew:

“Get out, get out of the plane! It’ll sink!”

Ingigerður could not hear the captain’s voice. The partition between her and the flight deck was closed, and there was no way to open it. The flight deck was on its side, but the rear part of the fuselage had become twisted, and was upside down.

Her blanket was gone. The cabin where she lay was now open to the elements – the fuselage had been ripped open and the port wing had been torn off, with its two engines.

When Ingigerður regained consciousness, she could not work out where she was. Her first thought was that all the rest of the crew had abandoned the plane, or were dead. She could see nothing in the dark, and she could not hear anything. All she knew was that it was cold. Ingigerður shouted:

“Help! Help! Help! Is anyone there?” But there was no reply. Where were the lads – her companions? Why couldn’t she hear them? – They had been there a minute ago!

Einar, who had been standing between the pilots’ seats, had been thrown forward onto the window-frame, hit his head and lost consciousness. His face was scratched. The engineer now realised how strong is the instinct for self-preservation, when it is a matter of life and death:

“We’d been out over the ocean. The first thing I thought of was the sea, because we were supposed to be approaching the Westman Islands. And how the hell do you get out of the plane? And then what… waves? Suddenly I saw a glow of light. I thought a spark had dropped to the floor and might set the plane alight. ‘I’ll have to put the spark out at once, with my bare hands if necessary,’ I thought. ‘The plane could explode or burst into flames in a second. We could all die.’”

Einar bent down in the dark to cover the glow of light with his hands. What…? It was not burning. It was something else. Yes, it was a torch. It had dropped from the captain’s pocket. For some reason the torch was switched on.

Einar was starting to feel the cold:

“With the first cold gust I thought it was water. But it didn’t seem to be. I was coming to realise that we weren’t in the sea. We had to be on a mountain or a glacier. What had happened?

Magnús was pushing at me, to free himself. I was still sort of lying on top of him. We had to get out at once.

Bolli and Guðmundur had been trying, without success, to open the door back into the cabin. I started kicking at the window. We were in a hurry to get out.”

“Einar, kick it! Get us out of here! Kick it. Kick the side window up there!” urged Magnús, who supported Einar so that he could kick straight up above him.

Ingigerður was trapped and could not move. She was wearing her thin white blouse and felt something icy-cold pouring in over her. Was it seawater? No, hardly. It did not taste salty. Outside a storm raged in the darkness.

“The plane’s wrecked, and I’m the only one left alive!” the flight attendant thought, shouting out for help. There was no reply. She felt paralysed with fear, but carried on shouting at the top of her lungs.

The starboard side window of the flight deck gave way to Einar’s kicks. Magnús released his seatbelt. Now they had to move quickly. Magnús stood up briskly, raised his arms and grabbed the frame of the window. He thrust his head out, and felt the blizzard strike him in the face. He peered into the driving snow and pulled himself farther up.

Outside snow was pelting down on them. The captain realised that the plane had not come down at sea. Wherever the plane was, it was not moving – not riding the Atlantic waves. The captain, in his thin shirt, decided to slide down the curved exterior of the plane … to the earth, mountain, glacier.. whatever it was. Magnús was outside the aircraft. He knew he was on dry land. But where?

“I was amazed that the window gave way. It was strongly constructed. Normally you could slide it back, but that wasn’t possible now.

Bolli and Guðmundur were joining me and Einar outside.

‘Where’s Dagfinnur? Where’s Dagfinnur?’ the lads were asking.”

The men were standing almost knee-deep in snow. They had been lightly-dressed in the comfortable warmth of the flight deck. Now they were out in the blizzard in their thin shirts and trousers. Some were in stockinged feet.

The shock was enormous. It must be a glacier. The storm battered them. It was just like leaving a warm bath for an icy shower – and not just briefly, for the storm went on and on. Fearing an explosion, they dared not venture back inside the plane.