We are on an island just below the Arctic circle surrounded by the stormy North Atlantic. Even though people have lived here for more than a thousand years it is still a wilderness of glaciers, mountains and thermal pools. Nature’s powers are felt everywhere. Arctic winds assault us and storms throw snow, hail and ice into our faces. Though it is April, winter’s vice like grip is firmly holding on. In fact it had started snowing that “winter” in September.
On a typical day of spring skiing, the Icelandic weather changes every 20 minutes or so.
Conditions range from sunshine to storm, powder to breakable crust and most of the time in the same run. The mountains throw everything at you here. The average day in April has close to 17 hours of light, more than enough time to satiate even the most hardcore skiers. This is my second trip to this amazing place. It is a skier’s paradise.
Our first goal was to ski from the summit of Snaefellness, a 1,446 meter volcano, on the west coast of the island. This volcano was made famous by Jules Verne, in his book Journey to the Center of the Earth. Here is his description, written in 1864.
“We began to ascend the slopes of Sneffels volcano. It’s magnificent snowy- night cap, as we began to call it, by an optical delusion very common in mountains, appeared to be close at hand; and yet how many hours must elapse before we reached its summit. What unheard of fatigue must we endure!”
Our ascent was a lot less dramatic. We started skinning up the slopes with a strong spring sun warming our faces. Dense and chalky wind affected snow covered the volcano. As the slope steepened we changed to crampons. Enjoying their security, we hiked to the summit. A cold blue ocean, with white caps skimming along the surface, could be seen on three sides providing a unique experience. We quickly gave up the fantasy that the sun would turn this snow into a soft spring corn. Not today.
As we came closer to the summit we could see snow formations that had been created by winds screaming off of the North Pole. This was an enormous pile of wind hammered rime and ice. I jabbed it with my ski pole but it barely scratched the surface. After a bite to eat, we stowed away crampons and clicked into our bindings. Skis chattered on the descent as we skimmed from one wind swept section to another. While the climb and views are wonderfully etched in my mind, the conditions on the descent were not. Some days it’s elegant powder turns and some days it’s bone jarring survival skiing. This was somewhere in between.
We spent the night in the sleepy hamlet of Olafsvik. To our surprise, the owner of the only open hotel happened to be a gourmet chef. Being an island, Iceland has some of the best fresh seafood available. Freshly caught Haddock was on the menu for a main course and cerviche was served as an appetizer. Everything was prepared to perfection. Along with the fish we were served homemade breads, potatoes and dessert We ate as if it was our last meal. Breakfast was an equally sumptuous buffet feast with scrambled eggs, smoked salmon, home baked pastries and bacon.
Everyone we met was friendly. They asked us if we liked Iceland, if the skiing was good. At one hostel, I was greeted by the owner who told me there was a bowl of seal steaks for my group in the refrigerator. Use the grill outside to cook them. Yikes!!!
I brought the steaks to a local bar. Entering with a Zip lock bag of seal steaks brought a smile to the owners face. He cut one steak into thin strips, marinated it in lemon juice and served it to us raw. This is why we travel.
It soon became apparent that almost the entire country has good skiing. As we drove to our next location we saw amazing terrain everywhere. All one needs to do is pull over on the side of the road and head up. Broad open slopes, high summits with views of the ocean and tight chutes abound.
The driving from ski destination to ski destination proved to be an adventure in itself. Roads went over mountain passes where wind blown snow kept the plows busy all day. Whiteout conditions were common. Driving from one orange marker to another was your only indication as to where the road goes. This accounts for the high number of huge SUV’s and trucks on the road, reminding me of something out of a scene from Mad Max. There is a little monster truck madness on this Island. Vehicles are jacked up high, huge tires stick out from under little fenders and gas cans are strapped to bumpers.
VESTFIRDIR- THE WESTERN FIJORDS
The town of Isafjordur, in the western Fijords, barely 35 miles from the Arctic Circle was our next stop. This is a land of deep fiords and wind swept mountains that rise abruptly from the sea. In the 17th Century, Danish merchants settled here and set up trading. Some of the buildings from that era still remain. This peninsula, sparsely inhabited, leaves you with a feeling that you are truly far from home. Perhaps Trolls do live in these mountains as Icelandic folk lore would have us believe!
We began the first day skiing barely 20 minutes from town. But once you turn towards the mountain you realize the seriousness of the place. Winds scour the surface and plumes of snow fly off of the ridges and mountain tops. At our high point of the day, we watch as a front of black clouds races towards us from the sea. We transition quickly, pulling skins, locking heels and ski down to an abandoned hut. This squall left as fast as it came in and now skies are sunny.
Next, we set our sites on an unnamed broad sweeping mountain face. Using skins and crampons we reach the top quickly. We have the entire range to ourselves. The descent is a series of sweeping linked turns on consistent wind effected snow. Pockets of hidden powder made for an incredible run. We spend the night in Isafjordur and dine on more freshly caught fish. What a life. Tomorrow we will meet the guides from Borea Expeditions.
We board their speedboat, the Bjarnarnes and cross the fijord Isafjaroardjup. Constantly scanning the waters for whales, seals or other sea life.
We are heading to the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve and the Kviar Ski Lodge. This lodge, once a working farm, was built in 1923. The people lived off of the land fishing and gathering products from the sea. It can only be reached by boat or on foot. In the 1940’s people started to leave the peninsula, seeking an easier life in a less remote location.
The house was abandoned and stood empty until Borea Expeditions decided it would make a great mountain hut. After visiting the hut, we boarded our boat and headed to another location in the reserve. We transfer our skis and gear to a Zodiac raft and land at a shallow spot just a few feet from snow line. We walk along the shore seeing mussels and other shell fish. Birds fly above us and seals stick their heads up wondering who are these strange creatures in Gore Tex. We then head up to the mountain tops.
We ski unnamed mountains in a remote land. Runs take us to the waters edge and then we head back up. A mountain top to sea ski run is a first for all of us, skiing to the waters edge brings an extra sense of excitement to the day. With tired legs and huge grins we board our boat as the days skiing comes to an end. We head back to Isafjordur hoping to spot a whale.
In a few days time I will be back in Vermont wondering how long it will be before my next adventure.
If you are interested in skiing in Iceland contact Andescross Adventures. www.andescross.com