I first read about skiing in Iceland in the late 2000s in a ski magazine article on heliskiing. The images I saw were so eye catching – alpine treeless white slopes, powder spray and tugged in the upper corner of the shot was the sea / fjord. At the time I was only skiing the European Alps and to see the familiar alpine scene transported to the coast was fascinating.
When the call came from Al about skiing in Iceland last year I wished I had no worldly obligations like painting the house and gardening. So I waited for a year, and how a mere year would change spring skiing in Iceland. The picture painted in my head was frozen lakes, white carpet from peak to coast – A ski in and ski out paradise with lines everywhere as soon as you get up to the top, around 1000m of vert. This was somewhat confirmed when we travelled to Northern Iceland on the Troll Peninsula last autumn to check out the terrain. The ominous sign, however, was that the first snowfall had not arrived yet which was unusual.
Before we arrived late April 2017, there was a powder window. Whilst it was sic, the locals did mention that it was a record low season for snowfall, the snow came late and the weather was warming quickly during the first few days of May. The snow line on our arrival was receding up to around 200m, and some of the west facing aspects were melting even quicker.
Just to digress from skiing, here are some travel tips. The airfare to Iceland will be the cheapest thing you’ll buy, or best value. Once you get here, everything has a higher markup than you would expect, unless you are used to dining out and shopping in Sydney, according to my parents it was fair. Secondly, do raid the duty free before you come through the arrival gate – here you will pay only double the cost of beers rather than triple at the Vinbudin (groc shop) or bar prices. You can, however, rest assure that Icelandic beers are great! The food was amazing especially if you were not a vegetarian.
For the first few days we went for casual strolls up to the snow line to look at the condition of potential ski areas. We enjoyed some care free touring and cruising, trying not to wear myself out amongst the endless expanse of couloir lines and small drainages which were perfect mini half pipes. All the while the sea would frame the upper eyeline as we skied down towards the coast. There were plenty of loose wet avalanches dotted around the mountain and some slush slides at low angles right to the flat areas. You could hear running water under some of the gullies and snow bridges with variable holding strength. We were able to catch what might have be the last lift ride of the season in Siglu before the snow all melted at the lower station.
We ventured into a valley just outside Dalvik where Al and Dick had skied the previous year. With a much higher snow line the approach this year was booting up the bank of the creek along a dirt path. It took around 15 minutes before we could start ski touring. The snow was holding up well in the valley, although the south facing aspects were starting to get patchy. It was a picturesque winter wonderland once we got deep into the valley with ski lines on either side of the valley. Depending on how much warming was needed for the snow to corn you could pick either the south or the north face to ski. The climb on one of the planar aspect was honest work, and looking down to the base was slightly daunting. Without any trees and a slippery smooth slope with increasing gradient a little concentration was needed, especially at the turns. It was just as well we picked a less rocky aspect to climb up. The view from the plateau drew the eyes through a long frozen valley walled on both sides by jagged mountain ranges towards the sea. The lack of trees and the vastness of Iceland took away the sense of scale, and everything seemed neither big or small. It was just there, filling all that your eyes could see. The lack of transitions between below-treeline, treeline to alpine was as unique as the close proximity of the sea. The flat tops of the mountains were within reasonable access as they were around 1000m tall. It was really a matter of climbing up and skiing down wherever you fancied and deemed safe.
As part of our reconnaissance, we went to the Gold Coast region only to find the cat skiing operation had all but packed up for the season. The approach was so far up, without a 4WD vehicle, the hike up would take significant effort and time. Next on the list was the Akureyri ski area. It was closed for the season, and a wind slab avalanche the day before our ski day cleared up most of the upper face of one drainage. We ski toured up the front of Akureyri after we picked Mike up from the airport. His first ski was down towards the second biggest city in Iceland on an endless sunny evening with apres ski drinks in the sun just before 8pm.
I didn’t really know how many hours of sunlight there was. The sun just never really set, it got close to the horizon turning it yellow and orange, and casting a magenta skyline far away on the opposite side. An eye mask would be a good idea if you were not a champion sleeper like I am. The long day length eliminated the urgency to get off the mountain at the end of the day, and late starts in the morning were very much appreciated.
I spent the second week skiing with the crew from Acadia Mountain Guides. We had a week of mixed conditions from bluebird to white out to gale force wind with horizontal rain, sleet and snow. We skied some scenic terrain in Siglufjordur, Dalvik and Olafsfjordur through firm snow, perfect corn, wind blown powder to wet sticky slush. In the end we got 4 ski days with a heli bump. Whilst it was good to have a speedy ascend on a helicopter, the remote area we accessed meant a 2 hour long boot out at the end of the day. The all terrain ski mountaineering day was well worth it. The certainty that getting back was all up to us put an additional edge on the adventure, which in turn was enhanced by the effort we exerted. The wilderness gave us a sense of isolation. It was paramount to stay located and injury free under the guidance of Dick and John from AMG. A brief edit of our ski days in Siglu and Dalvik are posted under ‘Iceland The Diary’.
The weather improved eventually as I entered my last week in Iceland. We had a bluebird day with low wind in Siglu, and we took advantage of it to ski the backside of the range. It was so good that we ended up staying out for over 8 hours. The snow condition was perfect corn and the terrain had flow and features to keep it interesting. We could all ski freshlines in an open expanse with low consequence, provided we could see the line all the way down without having gaps of rock or cliff. The ascends on the other hand required some effort due to the gradient, but nothing a good booting couldn’t sort out, the snow was soft and deep enough to kick in a good uptrack.
We visited Olafsfjordur again to find a well receded snow line at the approach. This time, however, we were able to see and the wind was reasonable. There was a sense of being like a child in a toy shop picking a favourite toy or two. The group split up and we went on our separate way to climb and ski different couloirs. The plan was to rendezvous where we split and head to the waterslides and jacuzzi. Upon reaching the top, our group requested to split again to ski another couloir on the other side of the valley. We enjoyed our run of the day before readjusting our travel plan with the result that part of the group would be released, and allowed to ski for themselves. Thinking as a skier I would always like to ski as much as possible especially if I were on holidays. But whilst the mountain would always be there, I didn’t feel that I had to ‘ski it right now’ if conditions, whether personal or natural are not optimal. So the previous line I skied just so happened to be my last for this trip and season.
As I packed my gear it was blowing a gust and started to snow. This would continue for another two days. I was told there was as much as 60cm of new snow accumulated in the mountain after I left. There was talk of an avalanche, a close call and some magnificent bluebird ski days as well. I guess I might just have to come back again next year.
Coming next: Spring Skiing in Iceland – The Film…