Updated: Feb 7, 2020
By Elin de Ruyter, Icelandic Roots Genealogist
****This article has been updated with the rescue story of Jón****
The recent avalanche tragedy on Mt. Esja and the January avalanches in the villages of Flateyri and Suðureyri in the Westfjörds of Iceland remind us of the power of nature and a stark truth: that we are at the mercy of nature no matter how much we try to harness it. Despite the destruction it caused in Flateyri, there were thankfully no fatalities. Hearing and reading of this event I was reminded of an Icelandic man I had read about who had survived one of the worst avalanches of the 20th Century, the 1910 avalanche in Hnísfdalur. This man was my grandmother's uncle. His story has always stayed with me and I wanted to know more about him and this avalanche of 1910 which took the lives of twenty people, ten of whom were children and left twelve people seriously injured.
Hnífsdalur is a town situated in the Westfjörds of Iceland. It lies north of Skutulsfjörður between Ísafjörður and Bolungarvík and was at the time considered one of the best fishing grounds within Ísafjarðardjúp. Its name translates as ‘Knife Valley’ perhaps referring to the sharp ridgeline of mountains that sit above the town which also make it a dangerous place to live in winter with the risk of avalanche.
Many Icelandic newspapers of the time reported on the 1910 avalanche in Hnífsdalur. Scouring through these articles, reading stories of this dark time, emerges within me feelings of deep sadness at the lives taken too soon, but also a sense of awe at the power of the human body and the will to survive in the face of extreme adversity. These reports also speak of the strength of community coming together. It was said that the people of Ísafjörður, when informed of the disaster, ran the whole way to Hnífsdalur, a distance of five kilometres. They worked tirelessly with their neighbours to rescue those that were buried in the snow wreckage and the ones who had washed out to sea.
The avalanche occurred at 8.45 in the morning on Friday the 18th of February 1910 . It was still dark out and the small community of three hundred people or so lay in the grips of midwinter. During the days prior there had been relentless northern drifts and heavy snow fall and the sleepy village of Hnífsdalur lay unaware of the build up of snow in the moutain Búðarhyrna above them. It was said to have happened at the speed of a gunshot. The snow fell and travelled down Búðargil directly over the farm of Búð sweeping away everything in its path including homes, sjóbúðir (crofts by the sea where fishermen would live and row from over the winter) and storage houses. There had been no forewarning and no chance to outrun the speed of this flood of snow. Turf walls were flattened to the ground and ran down to the sea, the snow spreading out over a 150 fathom radius (274.32 metres). Men, women and children still waking and preparing themselves for the day ahead were taken unawares, many buried beneath snow and wreckage, others swept into the icy ocean and drowning.
My grandmother‘s uncle Jón Sveinbjörn Steinþórsson (IR #I419181)was one of those that survived the avalanche of 1910. Originally from the farm of Dalshúsum in Önundarfjörður, he had spent the winter in Hnífsdalur in a sjóbúð, rowing out to sea for his livelihood, as was custom in those days. At 18 years of age he was already a foreman of the boat he was employed on. So easily his life could have been wiped out when it had only just begun but he was one of the lucky ones. The newspaper Ísafold dated the 26th of February 1910 retells the story of his rescue:
"Jón was staying in a sjóbúð employed by Páll Pálsson from the farm Heimabæ. There were six people who died from this croft: four hásetar (rowers), the woman who tended the croft and her seven year old daughter."
Jón had been half asleep in his bed when the avalanche hit. Along with the rest of the croft and its occupants he had been swept with the force of the snow towards the winter sea. While some like Einar Magnússon woke in the ocean others like Jón were buried in the snow well into the foreshore. Jón was discovered late at night and dug out by Páll Pálsson and some other rescuers. Miraculously he had survived the many hours in the snow and was stark naked when they uncovered him. He sustained injuries to his head and one of his arms were broken.
I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be sleeping in a warm bed one minute and the next waking in an icy ocean. The ocean temperature at this time of year in the North Atlantic is on average about 2°Celsius or 36° Fahrenheit. Wh