HE is the Icelandic hero who walked up a volcano with 800 people on his back – and watched the Northern Lights dance with the moon in the red sky.
If that sounds like a Viking folk tale then it is perhaps apt, because Sigurður Albert Armannsson has become an unlikely light in the dark days of the pandemic.
The 65-year-old former teacher sparked an online frenzy when his live streamed walking tour up the Fagradalsfjall volcano this week went dark, leaving fans fearing for his safety.
When it looked as if website organisers might have to close the tour down, more than 800 virtual guests pleaded for more time and, just as they predicted, Albert reappeared to deliver the goods.
He had trekked uphill for three and a half hours, clambered up steep slopes on his hands and knees, and battled icy temperatures that stole all feeling from his hands.
All this after last year braving a six-week battle with Covid-19 that has left him with little sense of taste and smell, and, he jokes, trying to remember where on earth he put his short-term memory.
But then Albert Armannsson, from the small Icelandic town of Gardur (scene of ‘the most beautiful sunset in Iceland’, he maintains) is made of sterner stuff than most. Giving up, he says, was never even a consideration.
Albert streaming on the way up to the volcano
“I had done five tours on Tuesday, arrived back in Reykjavik then went straight out to the volcano,” he says. “At the main road to Keflavik, turning into Grindavik – volcano land – there was a police barricade and they were turning people back around.
“I managed to sweet talk myself through, saying I had some 400 people on my phone expecting me. A kind policeman let me through but when I reached Grindavik the road to the volcano was just jammed with cars. I tried for 30 minutes to get through but I couldn’t.
“The people walking were going faster than me! So I left my car and set off on foot. Sixty minutes later, it was my time to go live so I logged on and started showing people the long line of people waiting. There was a sunset to watch, and other things to see.
The long line stretched for miles
“But it made me think. There are refugees all over the world who have to walk in lines like this to save their lives but we were just there, feeling happy. All the crazy people were just doing this for fun. It was a bit like a rock festival atmosphere, like Woodstock.”
As Albert broadcast to his guests on the Virtualtrips website – shortly to be rebranded heygo – the going began to get tougher.
“When I left the road, it started going dark and I was walking over very uneven lava surface,” he recalls. “I warned my guests that there would come a time when I would have to drop out of live streaming because I had to go up such steep mountainside that I needed to be on all fours.
Nightfall brought new challenges for volcano watchers
“Once I got to the hillside, I had to put the phone in my pocket and I started crawling up the slope. At some points, even standing quite upright, I could touch the hillside above with my fingers, it was so steep. Finally, when I reached a more level surface, I restarted my phone.
“But there was a problem. I couldn’t rejoin the stream. Thankfully, I saw a message from one of the VT guys, asking if I was still there. I said: “Yes, I’m here but I can’t get in. Can you help me please?” He did something and I was asked if I wanted to start streaming again.
“And, of course, I did. I wasn’t just doing this for fun, you know. I had all my guests waiting. I felt the responsibility of the many people in my rucksack, and the number had been growing. I had 800 people in my rucksack. That’s quite something, you know.
“You don’t give up with 800 people in your rucksack. That’s not even an issue.
There were crowds at the top, prompting a closer look
“I have to admit I was worn out but once I got to a spot where I could get a decent sight of the eruption, there were so many people around me that the microphone pole wasn’t long enough to capture the sound of the lava. So I moved further down and, when the crowd started thinning out, you could hear the splashing.
“It was encouraging to see all the comments in the live chat – some guests even started assembling a setlist of fire-related songs: Light My Fire, Burn Baby Burn and the like. I may go through the suggestions and set up a setlist for my next journey because I am going to the volcano again, you know.
“So I was sitting down there, feeling totally soaked but so happy that I was able to bring my guests the sights and sounds of the volcano. I was so cold that I could hardly hold my phone still. Eventually I couldn’t anymore, and that’s when I shut it off and started heading back. I was among the last to come back from the mountain that evening.”
Volcano watchers start to leave the mountain
On the way back down, something magical happened, and Albert admits he was spellbound by the wonders of Mother Nature.
“When I walked down into the next valley and looked back, there was a full moon up there amid the red glow, shining through the sulphur from the volcano,” he says. “The moon was very yellow and, as I got further away, I realised that up above the glow were the Northern Lights.
The remarkable scene snapped by Albert
“This truly was a once in a lifetime experience. It was almost more than I could handle. Then, as I got closer to the sea I heard singing. The Oystercatcher was singing there, and I also heard the splashes of the ocean. This was the soundtrack to my journey down the volcano.
“When I reached my car, it was like meeting an old trusted friend. I wondered if I should take a nap but decided that if I stayed there, I would be worse so I set off home. When I got back at around 4.30am I took a long shower – as hot as I could stand – then I sat down in front of the television to capture my thoughts. That’s where my wife found me three hours later.”
Albert (“I am officially 29 years old, only unofficially 65!”) has been a tour guide since 2014 but has a long pedigree of passing on knowledge. He was a languages teacher for 21 years, schooling secondary age pupils in Icelandic, Danish, English and German.
“I served my nation as a teacher for more than 20 years,” he says. “I say ‘I served my nation’ because serving is not just military – we need good people to serve as teachers. I did 21 years then I was pardoned for good behaviour.
“When I started teaching, I saw the old teachers sitting in the corner and I said to myself ‘I am never going to be like that’ and I kept my word. Then I took an honest job in an office for 13 years and worked for the Union of Icelandic Bank Employees during the banking crisis.
“I experienced so often that people were waiting for their superiors to retire,” he adds. “I never wanted to be a person where those working for me were just waiting for me to retire. So I decided, having been a teacher, that becoming a tour guide was a continuation of sorts.
“Besides, I met a tour guide who was doing it until he was 92 years old so, to me, you don’t retire from being a tour guide,” he smiles.
Glacier Lagoon, one of Albert’s favourite trip locations
Albert went to university to study successfully for his guide accreditation, and also spent four years as a part-time one-man news crew in the West of Iceland for national television, using skills that stood him in good stead when he was approached to join the Virtualtrips platform.
Married with four grown-up children – his daughters are studying chemistry and surgery in Belgium and Denmark, and his sons have completed university in Iceland – Albert says virtual tourism has been a godsend during the pandemic.
“Tourism evaporated in just two days last Spring,” he recalls. “I took on the coronavirus myself and spent some six weeks trying to get over it. For ten days I was not belonging to this world. I did not know what was day and what was night. It took me six weeks to realise what my feet were for, and that I could walk. I was just sitting there, staring at nothing like a zombie.
The hope of a new day, as Albert returned down the volcano
“But then I regained my ropes and started doing things around the house. My senses of taste and smell are still absent and I also have trouble with my short-term memory. There wasn’t much of it to start with and I’m still trying to locate where I lost it…
“Thankfully, I never had breathing problems so I did not have to go to hospital. But unfortunately I brought it home to my wife and my youngest son, who both got it too. All are recovered.
“When I started doing Virtualtrips I was still driving my old diesel car and the income from tourism wasn’t even paying for the fuel,” he admits. “I had hoped one day to buy an electric car, and now I have been able to. I am very happy driving my Tesla.”
Diamond Beach, past which Albert used to drive a tour bus
Albert currently has 30 locations he visits on his trips, and is adding more. As well as returning to the volcano, he plans to take guests whale watching from Husavik once the weather allows. “It will be nice to take my friends sailing,” he says.
What are his hopes for the future? Well, the Manchester United fan would love to see the Icelandic national team win big (“Some say we won the equivalent of several World Cups when we beat the English,” he grins) but his hope is for travel to resume in all its many forms.
“That is the million dollar question, of course,” says this 21st century explorer. “My hope is that I can continue whatever comes my way. Even when travel gets back to normal, there will still be a market for virtual trips, too. They are here to stay, I think.”
Just like Albert Armannsson, in fact. His legend is still being written.
- Albert is heading up the volcano again on Friday April 2. His full tour diary can be viewed and booked at www.heygo.com