This is a story that I honestly don’t enjoy telling. While it was definitely an adventure, it is not something that I am proud of. Having to get rescued by an Icelandic emergency rescue team on my first day on the Laugavegur Trail is something I consider a failure rather than a success. However, this is the totally true account of how I slid somewhere between 400-500ft down the side of a mountain and survived. I hope that this can help some hikers make better decisions than I did, and also hopefully give some good safety tips to those who (hopefully not) may experience a dangerous slide in the future.
TLDR: I survived with minor injuries, a newfound caution of heights, and a lot of luck.
**Affiliate links may be used: If you purchase through my links, I will receive a small commission. Your support purchases through my links allow me to follow my dreams!* Plus I only added them to this article because they literally helped save my life**
Hiking the Laugavegur Trail in Iceland
I have been dreaming of hiking the Laugavegur Trail in Iceland for years, and I finally was getting the chance to do it. This 55km trek goes through the Icelandic highlands, through old volcano fields, over mountains, and around glaciers. There is truly nothing like it. It is commonly thought of as one of the most beautiful treks in the entire world. The plan was to combine it with the difficult 15-mile day hike: the Fimmvörðuháls trail from Thorsmork (where the Laugavegur Trail ends) to Skogar.
After spending months planning and training for these hikes, we were finally ready to complete this hike. As someone who got taken off the 56-mile Foothills Trail last year due to a severe plantar fasciitis flare-up, I had spent a long time healing my feet and preparing for this journey. For once, I wasn’t worried about my feet taking me off the trail. I had done everything possible to prepare, and I was determined to finish it.
But that’s not what happened.
How the Day Started
Eric and I have talked about this day a million times. We have gone over in our minds every little decision and mistake that led to putting us in a life-threatening situation and let me tell you, there were a lot of them.
- For one, we didn’t realize that the bus ride to Landmannalaugar (the starting point) would take 4 hours. This put us on the trail at 1pm instead of 10am like we were planning. This meant that our 15-mile hike on day one was going to be rushed.
- Landmannlaugar has 4 different trail options, none of them being well marked. All 4 trail options ended up connecting to the Laugavegur Trail at some point, so we followed the one with the most people
- As we quickly ascended, we started to wonder if we had taken the right trail (we hadn’t), but we could see on our GPS that it did connect, so we continued.
As it turns out, the reason we saw so many people going up this path was because it was a famous day hike to this beautiful mountain top. We were glad when we reached the peak that we had taken that route because of the amazing views. However, we quickly realized that we had spent all of this time ascending, but we took the trail that was going to make us descend all of the way back into the valley. That idea sucked because we basically wasted the afternoon ascending for no reason. We hate wasting energy going up and down hills instead of staying on the higher ridges once we have made the ascent. Going downhill seemed like a miserable idea.
BUT we saw ANOTHER trail split that offered less of a descent and supposedly connected up ahead with the Laugavegur Trail. Of course, this seemed like the better option, we could see the path, and our GPS showed it to be a real route that connected to our future route. So we split off the main trail and went on the road less traveled.
How We Fell
It is important to note that the Laugavegur Trail has a VERY short hiking season due to snow and ice. It usually opens in late June-early July, and we were hiking the first week of July. This meant that winter had just faded away and the trails hadn’t totally been combed over to see how winter had affected them. As we got further along this trail on the ridgeline, it was clear that recent erosion had taken place. Winter and spring had taken their toll on this section of the trail as the path became thinner and the side of the mountain became closer due to this erosion. It was rapidly becoming a slope instead of a trail. We knew now that this path was unsafe, and it was time to turn around and backtrack to a different path.
Just as we had decided to turn around to try and find a safer path, the ground eroded under both Eric and I, and we slipped. We both slid about 10 feet on our stomachs as we jammed our poles into the earth to try and stop ourselves. Eric was able to get his poles into the earth quickly and climb back up. I was not.
Eric’s trekking poles had lost their “feet” a long time ago so he was able to jam them deep into the ground and pull himself slowly back up to the top, but my trekking poles still had the feet on them, so I could only jam them into the ground about 2 inches–not enough to stop myself or pull myself back up. The ground was an eroded mix of gravel and sand that was preparing itself for a landslide.
When Eric reached the top of the ridgeline, he tried to reach his pole down to me to pull me back up, but there was no way he could reach me without falling again himself, and if he fell from the angle he would have had to lean to pull me up, he would have fallen face first and tumbled down the mountain. A face first tumble would have been deadly. It wasn’t an option.
The ground eroded again under me and I fell uncontrollably. This was the scariest part of it all. I was sliding on my stomach unable to stop, not knowing how far I was going to fall and if I would be able to stop at all. I couldn’t see anything but the sand and rock as I slide down on my stomach. I screamed, not knowing how far as was falling or what was behind me. I slid somewhere around 75ft down the side of the mountain before I could jam my poles into the earth to stop myself. I was able to slowly turn around onto my pack and lean against my backpack and the dig the poles into the ground as far as I could to hold myself in place. As I sat there, I was able to take one pole out at a time and screw the “feet” off so I could dig even deeper into the ground. Doing this saved my life.
I held myself in that spot basically using my arms and my poles to keep me from falling the rest of the way for around 45 minutes as I watched rocks fall beside me and the ground erode nearby.
I had a lot of thoughts while waiting on that mountain. Most of them prayers and pleas to God. The rest of them were simply reminders not to panic because panic could kill me. This was not an easy task for someone who was on extremely high doses of anxiety medication.
The Safety Gear that I Will NEVER Hike Without
During that time Eric used our Garmin InReach Mini (highly recommend hiking with one) to send out an SOS call because I was very stuck. I couldn’t climb up because the ground was basically a landslide waiting to happen, and I couldn’t move from my spot because I would slide down the rest of the way at speeds that could put me in serious, potentially fatal, danger. Basically, I was in a lot of danger, and there was nothing I could do but wait and hold myself in place for as long as my arms would allow.
Quick Plug for the device that rescued me: This device is AMAZING. This was ironically our first hike using it. It sent GPS points to my family back home and we could send pre-set messages for free like “We’re done hiking for the night” or “We don’t have cell phone service, but we are doing well” to those back home who were following our hike. Also, the plan that we were on comes with FREE emergency services. Eric hit the SOS button and the Garmin people immediately reached out to him and the Icelandic Emergency Services. While I was hanging on the side of the mountain, Eric was in constant contact with the Garmin people and the Garmin people were in contact with my parents back home since they were set as my emergency contact and Icelandic Search and Rescue. This device also showed us maps and altitudes and a lot of other cool things. After using it, I will never hike without it. PLUS it only weighs 3.5oz for those of you ultra-light hikers. Ok, plug over and back to my story. You can buy it here* or at REI.
Eventually, I could feel the ground under me giving way, and I knew I was going to fall. My arms were exhausted from holding myself up for so long and the spot that I had been holding myself up at was eroding around me. I had no other option but to do my best to descend safely. I had to choose to continue falling.
Here are some of the things I planned as I was hanging there that helped me stay safe:
- Do not, under any circumstances, allow myself to lean forward and tumble. At best, thus could cause a broken neck, back, or blackout. More likely, I would break my neck mid-tumble and not survive the speeds that I would gain as I fell.
- Do my best to go as slowly as possible. The longer I slid, the more speed I would pick up— the harder the crash would be. I knew I wasn’t going to die if my plan worked, but I didn’t want a lot of broken bones or to be airlifted out of there. If I was unable to stop myself from sliding, I would likely sustain life-threatening injuries. As I sat there, I watched fairly large chunks of rocks fall around me and COMPLETELY SHATTER when they reached the ground. That was not comforting. I knew I had to find as many chances as possible to slow my slide down.
- Do not panic.
- I noticed that there were two types of terrain: snow and eroded ground. The snow and ice would be too fast going down but the eroded ground was too weak to jam my poles into. I decided to go in the middle of the two so that I could use both types of terrain to slow me down.
- I would go down with one leg out straight to guide me and one bent, digging into the ground to slow me down and build up dirt under my foot as I slid. My hope was to use my momentum to dig my own foothold.
I finally slipped out of my stronghold and began to slide.
What It Was Like
The short answer: it was absolutely terrifying. I am lucky to the type of person who becomes super rational during a crisis, but that didn’t stop me from being completely afraid.
I slid down the mountain, and began gaining speed. Every time I started to really speed up, I would jam both poles as hard as I could into the ground and they would yank me back, pulling all of my muscles, but helping me come to a stop. Then I would catch my breath, and convince myself to allow myself to slide again. And again. And again. Every time I stopped, I knew that I was lucky. And every time I stopped, I had to convince myself to choose to continue sliding again.
At this time Eric had walked away from where he could see me because he had contacted other hikers who were calling to tell the rescue team the exact path we were on. He didn’t know that I had slid out of my stronghold, and he definitely didn’t know that I was attempting a semi-controlled descent of the mountain. Looking back, I’m thankful Eric did not have to watch me attempt this.
I ended up sliding 400-500 feet down a mountainside, but I survived.
I broke one of my carbon fiber hiking poles completely in half because of how fast I was sliding, but I walked away with only soreness, a decent case of road rash, minor back injury (compared to what it could have been) including multiple pulled muscles in my back and arms from being yanked back by the poles. If I didn’t have the trekking poles, it would have been bad and not at all the same happy ending.
I’ll admit, it was terrifying. I don’t have a fear of heights and I love a good adrenaline rush, but this day had me praying like never before. It’s rare that I’m scared, but I was definitely scared.
I’m really lucky to have made it through with such minor issues. I’m so, so lucky.
The Garmin reached the SOS team and they came looking for us, and Eric made a flag out of an emergency blanket so they could spot us from far away (Brilliant really). I was stuck at the bottom of this canyon that was completely off-trail.
The Icelandic emergency search and rescue team was like a well-oiled machine, they found a different, snow-covered path, down the mountain to come to get me. They kicked holes about a foot deep into the snow to create stairs for me and them to climb back up to where Eric was. They were able to quickly locate and alternative option to get out of the canyon (not using the same mountain I slid down obviously).
The search and rescue team got me to safety where I was finally reunited with Eric, but our hike was over at that point. I was super sad to not be able to complete this hike that I dreamed about for so long and spent so long preparing for, but I am greatly for the miracle of walking away with no major injury.
Definitely a crazy adventure that I do not want to repeat.
How this will affect our Future Hikes
- Eric and I will ALWAYS double-check the map with someone before taking the random side trail
- We will never hike without our Garmin SOS device
- The emergency blanket was actually super helpful and I will probably always carry one
- We will continue hiking and plan on taking on the Laugavegur Trail again next year
1 Year Later: An Update
It’s been a little over a year since I slid down that mountain in Iceland.
I despite being incredibly lucky to be alive and not majorly injured, I didn’t walk away totally fine.
A year later, I’m still having back problems (I had them before this event, but it definitely made them worse).
I also can no longer hike down steep and slippery ridges without incredible amounts of anxiety. I’m completely fine hiking uphill and on high ridges, but downhills that are steep and have a slip danger still freak me out in a way that makes these sections of hikes fairly difficult for me.
I also still have physical scars from the road rash.
But, I think that I am SO incredibly lucky to still be able to hike. I could have easily broken my legs, back, or worse.
I do a lot of hiking. It’s one of my favorite things. I hope to work myself out of my anxiety overtime, but right now, it’s not always easy for me to go downhill.
Some things have changed though. Now we ALWAYS hike with our Garmin. Even if it is an easy hike. I’ve also increased the size of my med kit that I also always hike with. My “just in case” bag in my day pack has grown and my daypack is no longer “ultralight” but everything in there goes on the list of “you would regret not having this if you needed it.”
I also always hike with a few emergency foods as well (usually a granola bar or some salmon in a package) as well as some liquid IV.
I’ve even had the opportunity to give this food to a man who had been waiting on trail for hours because he had lost his friends and was hoping they would find their way back to him (he had no food or water). So it has come in handy. Plus sometimes I get hungry on trail so it’s nice to always have a little something just in case.
Eric and I also have a few hiking/travel rules that we live by. 2 of them we formed while hiking back to base camp after my fall.
Rule #1: No shortcuts. If a section of trail cuts off a difficult part but isn’t the main trail, don’t take it. (This also helps us not get lost when driving in new places).
Rule #3: Don’t let small mistakes turn into big ones. (This applies to all of life really.
If you are wondering: rule #2 is never pass up a friendly bathroom. It’s just solid advice tbh. Lol
I guess I’m sharing this to say that surviving a life-threatening experience isn’t all bad, but it’s definitely not great so be careful out there.
Anyway, thanks for reading. If you have a cool story from hiking or adventuring, comment below. I’d love to hear it!