Land of Fire & Ice | Is Iceland The Ultimate Adventure Destination?
“All the dramatic scenery you see on Game of Thrones, you think it's CGI? It's not, it's Iceland.”
We’ve teamed up with Seiko, who make the Prospex Diver’s watch collection, to produce a series examining one of the world’s most stunning dive sites - the Silfra Lagoon in Iceland. In this final instalment we take a look at the land around Silfra, and the vast array of opportunities for adventure in Iceland.
When Palmi Georg Baldursson met his riding buddy that afternoon, neither of them had any inkling of what was about to happen. “It had been dumping snow, so I left work early to pick up my friend," the Icelander says. “We had a three hour window before it got dark". The two were heading out splitboarding - using snowboards that split into two skis to tour up a hill before riding down it. They got out of town quickly - the mountains are just a short drive from Reykjavik - and set off. By the time Palmi heard something, it was too late.
“I could hear a layer of snow popping underneath and then there was a big woosh sound, and we were on the way down." The avalanche was massive. It carried him and his friend downhill “about 50 or 60 metres," ripping out a huge slab of snow that was “three or four hundred metres wide". Incredibly, when the hundreds of tons of snow came to rest, Palmi was left with his head sticking out. “I had my head up and one of my arms up, so I could dig myself out. My friend was upside down maybe ten metres away from me so I had to dig him out," he says.
"The avalanche was massive, ripping out a slab of snow 'three or four hundred metres wide', and carrying the pair 50 or 60 metres down the slope..."
In disaster situations you need quick reactions and equipment you can rely on - avalanche victims' chances of survival drop dramatically after 15 minutes. Thankfully Palmi had both. Working quickly and calmly, with precise movements of his shovel, he managed to free his friend. Even he would concede however that there was a huge element of luck involved. His head being above the snow is what saved them both.
“It was just two of us, no-one knew where we were." With no-one else to search for them, if he’d been buried they might both have been killed. “It was stupid 101," he says. “Midweek, after work. No-one was expecting us to be there."
What stands out about the story is not just how lucky they were however. It’s the fact that Palmi and his buddy could head out splitboarding after a day in the office. As after-work activities go, getting caught in an avalanche is a bit more adventurous than your average five-a-side football game.
Talk to those who know it best however, and it seems like this is the kind of country that Iceland is - where adventure is on your doorstep. “You don't have to travel far," says Palmi. “You can see some sick mountains from the city. Drive for 15 minutes out of Reykjavik and you’re completely in the wild."
Steve Lewis, the Brit behind The Empire Expeditions, an adventure guiding and logistics business, moved here for precisely that reason - because it offered incredible and relatively accessible opportunities for adventure. “Iceland has volcanoes, glacier, mountains, trails, snow, and a lot of open space on a relatively small island," Steve explains. “The land is all very pristine and unique, and I think that most people that participate in adventure sports [want that]."
"The population of Iceland is just 330,000, slightly smaller than the London borough of Croydon."
He’s not wrong about the open space. The population of Iceland is just 330,000, slightly smaller than the London borough of Croydon. And yet the country they live in is bigger than Hungary, Jordan or Ireland. “Its beauty is undeniable, there’s an essence of raw nature almost everywhere you go," says Steve.
Lewis now works regularly with Palmi (who, perhaps inspired by his close shave, went on to become a professional mountain guide) and the pair of them lead groups “kayaking, mountain biking, fat biking, hiking, skiing [and] splitboarding". Creeks, mountains, ski resorts, biking trails and vast backcountry areas, Iceland has it all. And as a list of activities you can do here, that’s not even exhaustive.
Just a short drive outside of Reykjavik lies Silfra, one of the jewels in Iceland’s adventure sports crown. It’s a lagoon with water so clear that people have been known to suffer from vertigo when peering into its depths. Jonathan Sherrington, who works as a diving instructor there, knows it well. But he doesn’t restrict himself to exploring beneath its surface - when he's not working he's constantly out chasing new challenges.
“For me Iceland's not just about the diving, it's about the surfing, the windsurfing, the hiking, the snowmobiling... the possibilities are endless here," he says. “All the dramatic scenery you see on Game of Thrones, you think it's CGI? It's not, it's Iceland."
His counterpart Chris Urquhart, a fellow Brit, agrees: “Iceland is such a unique place. Every hour you drive in this country it changes. You go through lava fields and volcanoes, through big plains, the landscape, the terrain here is constantly changing."
It’s not just a question of stunning scenery either. Iceland’s appeal to adventure seekers lies as much in its geology as its geography. Located on the fault line between two tectonic plates, the island is literally moves beneath visitors’ feet.
As Palmi puts it: “The land is so young, lava is bubbling up everywhere, there [are] lava fields everywhere. Stuff is changing the whole time, so there’s lots to explore." The very landscape of the island itself presents adventurers with a challenge - constantly shifting to create new opportunities for exploration. The lagoon at Silfra for example is formed by the gap between the Eurasian and North American plates which move apart incrementally every year, creating new caves, rockfalls and crevasses. Every time he goes down there, Chris Urquhart says, he’s “struck by how much power there can be in nature".
“The land is so young, lava is bubbling up everywhere, stuff is changing the whole time."
Given how well set up Iceland is as an adventure destination, what’s perhaps surprising is how few people come here for adventure sports. Official statistics show that nearly 1.8 million foreign visitors came to Iceland in 2016, a figure that’s been growing at an astonishing average of 25% year-on-year since 2010. The numbers for how many of these engage in adventure activities are not recorded by the government, but independently both Steve and Palmi put it at “less than five per cent".
The rest, Palmi says, “are just on bus tours, driving around the circular road which goes round the island, doing all the same tourist spots". These bus tours might include walking a short way to a waterfall, taking a quick look at a geyser, or even dipping a toe into Silfra on a snorkeling tour, but in terms of real adventure they’re barely scratching the surface.
“I guess you've seen the waterfall that you can walk behind?" Asks Palmi. “There's like 7 million pictures of it on Instagram. I took [a group] to the waterfall that's 500 metres away and there were only like 10 people there! Iceland has been sold as one fixed tour, but there's a million and one other things you can do."
For adventure-lovers of course, Iceland's popularity is a double-edged sword. Tourism is good for jobs of course, and an increase in visitor numbers probably means cheaper flights and more plentiful hotel options in the long run. And if most people want to stick to Highway One, the road which runs around the island? Well, at least the interior will stay untouched. At the same time, more tourists undoubtedly means there’s a risk of overcrowding at the most popular sites, including Silfra.
Steve certainly thinks there are problems brewing - that tourism has been pushed too hard, and too far in the wrong direction. “It’s a lot to do with the crash of Iceland’s economy [following the 2008 financial crisis] and [the government] realising that it’s one of the only industries that could save the country," he explains. In its current form he believes “it’s not an industry that’s well-managed. Everyone is expecting another crash as Icelanders are treating it like a gold rush with very little view of sustainability [or] control".
This may be true. If Iceland’s tourism industry continues to grow as it has been, it will require careful management. The already astronomical annual growth rate rocketed from 29% in 2014-15 to 39% last year, the highest ever year-on-year increase in visitor numbers.
For now, at least if you’re prepared to venture off the beaten track, there are still vast areas of wilderness to explore. “The [whole] centre of the island is uninhabited, so it’s still untouched," says Palmi. But nurturing the remarkable tourism boom sustainably so that it doesn’t impact negatively on nature is clearly going to be a big challenge in the years to come. After all, nature in all its glory is the very thing that tourists have come to see.
As Jonathan puts it: “You can see photos online, you can see videos on Youtube, but nothing compares to actually being here and feeling the power of the earth in Iceland. It's an incredibly unique place."
Brought to you by Seiko Prospex – Built for the challenge.