Iceland Magic | We Went Heli Skiing In The Land Of Fire And Ice
With a guide whose name when literally translated was "Glacier Mountainman"
Words by Arnie Wilson | Lead photo by Mike Arzt
Iceland has been described as “hot land meets cold ocean“ where there are only two seasons: “the dark one – and the bright one".
It‘s only three hours by air from the UK, which makes it an ideal stopover en route to North America. That‘s how many travellers first encounter this intriguing country that‘s not much smaller than England yet with a population around that of Newcastle. And if they stop over for a day or so – perhaps even for a week – before resuming their journey to the USA or Canada, they can easily be seduced into returning another time with Iceland as their objective, not simply as a stepping stone. Especially if they try skiing there.
"When Neil Armstrong visited Iceland he said: "I was very tempted to sneak a piece of limestone up there with us on Apollo 11 and bring it back as a sample.""
Rather like the Red Knot, a migratory sandpiper (possibly named after King Canute) which drops into Iceland on its way from Europe to North America, Icelandair stops off on the way to such destinations as Vancouver, Denver, New York and Boston via Reykjavik. Embracing the primeval landscape of the world‘s most recently formed land-mass – “a geologically teenaged island“ - the airline even names its fleet after volcanoes.
Öræfajökull, for example, is the largest active volcano in Iceland, and on its north-western side is Hvannadalshnjukuer, Iceland‘s highest peak. The volcano has not erupted since the 18th century.
According to legend, Snæfellsjökull volcano features the entrance to the centre of the Earth, and some believe it‘s a landing site for extra-terrestials. No surprise then, that 50 years or so ago, 10 Apollo astronauts travelled to Iceland for a week‘s “geology field training“, spending a week exploring the barren highlands and volcanic geology. They felt that Iceland was the most moon-like of all the other locations they‘d visited, such as the Grand Canyon, Alaska and the Meteor Crater in Arizona.
When Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, visited Iceland later, he said: “I was very tempted to sneak a piece of limestone up there with us on Apollo 11 and bring it back as a sample."
Also unsurprisingly, the island has made a magnificent location for all kinds of films including Batman Begins, the Bond films A View To A Kill and Die Another Day, Tomb Raider, Game Of Thrones, Star Wars, and Star Trek.
To reach Iceland‘s best skiing you need to fly on from Reykjavik to the defacto northern capital of Akureyri. En route we must glimpsed many of Iceland‘s 130 or so volcanoes (about 30 of them are active but the remainder, though spectacular, don‘t have a particularly volcanic appearance) but sadly not the celebrated – and unpronounecable – Eyjafjallajökull (Aya-feeyapla-yurkul) . We were flying in the wrong direction to see the volcano which caused so much havoc when it erupted in March 2010, for the first time in almost two centuries. Though perhaps that’s for the best as flying over it could have been tempting fate!
By way of contrast, the last volcanic eruption in West Iceland occurred almost six centuries ago near Hallmundarhraun. It was a huge event, resulting in the longest lava cave in Iceland, Viðgelmir (148,000 cubic metres – more than three and a half cubic miles).
Unlike Chile, which has ski lifts on or near the lower slopes of five volcanoes, the skiing on Iceland’s volcanoes can only be reached on foot - or by helicopter or snowcat.
There are 11 ski areas – mainly clustered around Akureyri. In terms of terrain, Hlíðarfjall – just under four miles from the town – is the largest, with almost 10 miles of slopes, and a vertical drop of 1555 feet. The Akureyri region has six ski areas all told, and five of them are available on one “5X5" pass. They tend to be on the small side, but Hlíðarfjall in particular will keep most skiers happy for a day or so.
"The skiing on Iceland’s volcanoes can only be reached on foot - or by helicopter or snowcat."
After skiing Mt. Hlíðarfjall’s five lifts, we moved on to Sauðárkrókur, which in spite of only having one lift has some good off-piste and a long back-country route back down to the main road. Next came Siglufjörður, with four lifts serving almost three and a half miles of runs (1475 vertical feet), and finally Dalvík Ski Area at Mt. Böggvisstaðarfjall – two lifts serving more than three miles of slopes, with a vertical drop of just over 900 feet. We didn’t ski the fifth of the “5X5" resorts, Ólafsfjörður on Mt. Tindaöxl as the ski area was busy hosting ski races. But in any case, with only one lift and less than a mile of skiing it’s the smallest of the five ski areas covered by the 5X5 pass.
If you want to take advantage of the 5X5 pass you’ll need a car, as the five ski areas are not exactly next door each other. Assuming you might use Akureyri as your base, the furthest (Sauðárkrókur) is 73 miles and the nearest, apart from Akureyri’s own local ski area of Hlíðarfjall is Dalvik, 24 miles out of town.
"You can actually “heli" almost anything in Iceland…"
For serious skiers who want more excitement and more terrain, Iceland has some superb heliskiing and cat skiing, and you can sometimes even ski down to the ocean’s edge.
You can actually “heli" almost anything in Iceland. There’s heli whale watching, heli geothermal tours, heli waterfalls, heli fire and ice (landing on a glacier), heli craters, a heli glacier lagoon expedition, heli quad biking, heli ice-caving and even a heli happy hour – a scenic round trip to a nearby mountain where you land and enjoy bottle of sparkling wine!
My heliskiing adventure was with Arctic Heli Skiing, run at the end of the Skíðadalur Valley in the Troll Peninsula by its founder Jökull Bergmann (lead guide for Bergmenn Mountain Guides). His name literally translates as Glacier Mountainman. As Iceland's first and only UIAGM-IFMGA internationally-certified mountain guide he has more letters after his name than any other guide in Iceland. By way of contrast, he’s known to all simply as JB.
The operation has 4,000 square kilometres of terrain at its disposal, with countless potential runs – “and no-one’s skiin’em!" someone says. We can’t wait. But before we fly, there’s a very thorough two-hour safety briefing from the lead guide, Einar Ísfeld Steinarsson.
"His name literally translates as Glacier Mountainman."
Among other instructions, Einar tells us what to do if the guide himself gets buried. He’s so tall – about 6ft 4 maybe – that it occurs to me that it would take a fairly big avalanche to bury him completely.
And finally we’re off. Unusually, the seat cushion backs have been removed to make space for our airbag packs, so that we don’t have to remove them from our backs. They have built-in avalanche airbags which instantly inflate two “balloons" if you pull an electronically powered toggle in the event of an avalanche. (Don’t forget to switch them off in the helicopter – and back on again at the top of each run!)
These airbags are designed to keep skiers on the surface in the event of an avalanche and help prevent them being buried. We also have radio telephones in our packs which in theory we don’t need to use except in an emergency. The volume is turned up high so that routine instructions from the guide can be heard without needing to remove them.
In the Alps or Rockies it can sometimes be hard to take in the more distant peaks because those in the foreground dominate the skyline. But in Iceland you can often see myriad mountain-tops receding into distant seascapes.
Although the peaks are not as high as their Canadian counterparts, the fact that many mountains start off literally at sea level makes them look just as dramatic and utterly awe-inspiring. Almost hypnotic in fact, often lined with multiple narrow streaks of dark rock that shows through the snow, which make you stop and stare at them across the steep-sided valleys before taking yet another plunge down the mountain.
The quality and length of the runs we ski is deeply impressive and unexpected – just as good as anything I’ve experienced in the global heli-ski capital Canada. In good snow, with our wide-bodied skis, and helped along by the relatively low altitude, we can plunge almost effortlessly for a hundred turns before thighs start to burn. We even manage a “first descent" of 2,500 vertical feet - Iceland by definition is full of runs that have never been skied - and we decide, since there are three Brits in the group, to name it Union Jack.
The rest of the group seem to be impressed with my efforts, calling me the “David Attenborough" of skiing. Since the great man is now 90, I wasn’t sure how to take this. “We mean your encyclopaedic knowledge about skiing," they added hastily.
But even our relaxed and exhilarating descents were finally challenged late in the day on a run called South Peak when dropping temperatures suddenly made our turns more difficult. “Finally we’ve found Mr Crust," grinned JB. We called it a day. But what a day!
In Akureyri he stayed at the Icelandair Hotel