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Skiing by Schooner: Exploring Iceland's Uncharted Slopes

Alf Alderson takes to the sea in search of fresh tracks

Words and photos by Alf Alderson

As I’m emptying the seawater out of my ski boots it suddenly occurs to me that what was a bit of a laugh at the time could have been a lot more serious had the circumstances been a little different. But more of that later…

How you come to be draining your ski boots of saltwater whilst ski touring is a bizarre enough story in itself, but when it comes to skiing in Iceland pretty much everything is bizarre.

I doubt many people could say they’ve encountered dolphins, blue whales and minke whales on their way to a day’s skiing.

This was my second visit to ski in this most amazing of countries, and having done it the easy way the first time (see side panel ‘The Easy Way’) I’d chosen to go for the tougher option this time round, with a ski touring trip amongst the wild and largely unskied peaks of the Í Fjörðum region on Iceland’s north coast.

This is a perpetually snowcapped landscape of mountains and moorlands that’s virtually inaccessible by vehicle and which has no settlements other than an occasional remote, abandoned farmhouse or an equally remote ‘summer house’ here and there along the shoreline.

Being so inaccessible the obvious way to access this sublimely atmospheric country is by boat – the peaks we were exploring are easily reached in just a few hours sailing from the busy whale watching centre of Húsavík, which despite a modest population of just 2,500 souls is one of the largest settlements on Iceland’s north coast.

Our vessel was the beautiful 60-metre, three-masted oak schooner ‘Hildur’, which along with the crew of three had aboard nine skiing passengers – a mix of Brits, Canadians and Icelandic along with loquacious local ski guide Friðjón Þórleifsson, who besides having an unpronounceable name had an endless supply of unrepeatable jokes to keep us amused over dinner on the ‘Hildur’.

This being Iceland in early May – and just south of the Arctic Circle at that – darkness was restricted to around a couple of hours a day; the big advantage of this is that there’s no rush to start or finish your days in the mountains, and even if you got benighted it wouldn’t be a major issue.

Another big difference between this and any other ski trip I’ve ever been on is that I doubt many people could say they’ve encountered dolphins, blue whales and minke whales on their way to a day’s skiing.

For as we sailed west across Skjálfandi Bay from Húsavík for our first day in the mountains, the glassy blue waters were regularly broken by one cetacean or another breaching. A good thing in every way possible, if not just because it briefly took my thoughts away from the range of high, snowbound peaks rising abruptly up from the nearby shoreline, peaks that we would have to skin all the way up under our own steam in a little while.

SKI BOOTS AND BOXING GLOVES

Our days followed a regular pattern. Rise to bright sunlight glinting on the still waters of whichever bay we’d anchored in for the night, down a huge breakfast and then start getting into your ski kit – which was easier said than done.

I’m shacked up in a cabin with fellow Brit Graham – he’s on the top bunk, I’m on the bottom, and other than the space the bunks take up there’s just enough room to get out of bed and stand up straight. So getting into ski gear requires military (or should that be naval?) precision; one man at a time whilst the other one issues insults and witty advice from the comfort of his bed.

Getting into ski gear requires military precision; one man at a time whilst the other one issues insults and witty advice from the comfort of his bed.

Ski boots don’t go on until you’re on deck, by which time the crew will have dropped the Zodiac tender over the side and loaded it with skis and daypacks.

Getting into said Zodiac in ski boots is about as easy as tying your shoelaces whilst wearing boxing gloves, and getting out once we’re ashore on a small, unnamed shingle cove ain’t much better – the last thing you want is a dip in the North Atlantic in full ski kit (that will come soon enough…).

Once ashore we set off bootpacking towards the snowline, which this winter is around 200 metres above the shoreline, but in a good season will be at sea level. Here we remove skis from packs, attach skins, clip into our bindings and then settle in for several hours of skinning up to our chosen summit.

This is a slog. But every time we stop for a breather we’re greeted by views of elemental sub-Arctic landscapes – sky, snow, sea. It’s about as primal and as glorious as it can get and more than repays the effort.

Most of the mountains that stand guard along this stretch of Iceland’s north coast top out at around 1,000-metres, which means that give or take, the couple of hundred metres of snow-free slopes at the bottom, you’ve earned a descent as long as that in most decent sized ski resorts when you eventually reach the summit of your chosen peak.

Getting to the top of 1129-metre Skálavíkurhnjúhur is hard work – although probably easier than trying to pronounce it.

One of the highest summits we tackle is on our second day, when we’re broken in after our first day of touring (three hours up; thirty minutes down) but not as tired as we’ll be later in the week. Getting to the top of 1129-metre Skálavíkurhnjúhur is hard work (although probably easier than trying to pronounce it) and the views once up there are a million miles removed from those you’ll get in a regular ski resort.

There are no ski lifts here. No groomed pistes, no mountain restaurants – just a seemingly endless array of mountains to the east, west and south, and to the north the cobalt blue waters of the Atlantic, the ‘Hildur’ a speck on the surface close inshore, after which the cold waters stretch north beyond the Arctic Circle until they turn to slush and ice.

FIRST TRACKS

One of our group, Elli from Reykjavik, is a surfer like myself and remarks on a couple of small point breaks in the unnamed cove way below. I notice another left breaking off the northern tip of the small island of Flatey to the north-west. We wonder if anyone has ever surfed them; probably not.

There again, by now Elli may have been back in summer when you can access the coast in a 4WD via a long, long dirt road (the F899 off Highway 1 if you’re interested) and scored these Arctic waves for himself.

Scoring first tracks, whether on snow or wave, is no big deal in Iceland, mind. With a population of just over 300,000 in a landmass slightly smaller than Ireland (population 4.6 million), you’re never going to be bumping shoulders with your fellow citizens once you get outside the few towns and cities.

It feels entirely natural to have the whole of Skálavíkurhnjúhur to ourselves, and once on top we picnic in the sunshine, take the regulation summit pics, listen to a few of Friðjón’s dodgy jokes and generally chill out before beginning our descent – hey, there’s no rush, it’s only 3pm so it won’t be dark for another ten hours…

There’s no rush, it’s only 3pm so it won’t be dark for another ten hours…

When we eventually decide it’s time to head back to the boat Friðjón leads the way down almost a thousand metres of creamy spring snow; wide open snowfields at the top gradually diminish until we’re searching out fingers of snow creeping down small stream valleys between heather clad moorland to take us as low as we can go.

It’s fun – turns get tighter and tighter as the snow gets scarcer and scarcer until eventually we have to admit defeat, strap skis to our packs and put boots into walk mode for the last few hundred metres back to the coast.

Which is where it all goes wrong…

The Zodiac awaits us on the beach, above the waterline, and after loading all our gear Elli, Graham and myself help to push it back out to sea stern first before hopping aboard – just as a waist high swell comes rolling into the bay and straight up the back of the Zodiac.

Before we know it we’re almost submerged. Packs and ski poles are floating around in and out of the boat and seawater is pouring into our ski boots. The obvious action to take is to jump over the side – straight into thigh deep Atlantic at about 4 °C.

It’s only afterwards that I consider what would have happened had we jumped into six feet of water wearing ski boots…

So we try to get ashore as quickly as possible; but ever tried running/wading in ski boots full of water? Not possible; in fact it’s all I can do to drag my legs through the shallows and back onto dry land. But it doesn’t take long to bail out the tender, get gear and skiers aboard again and motor back to the ‘Hildur’, everyone cracking up at the ridiculousness of it all.

It’s only afterwards that I consider what would have happened had we jumped over the side whilst wearing ski boots into six feet of water…

But hey, we didn’t, and I’m here to tell the tale; and to advise you that you’ll probably never make a more memorable ski trip than one by boat and skins along Iceland’s north shore.

THE EASY WAY

If you want to enjoy northern Iceland’s amazing skiing and scenery without all the hard work heliskiing is the obvious option.

The year before my ski touring trip I skied the majestic flat-topped peaks of the Troll Peninsula with Arctic Heliskiing. There are hundreds if not thousands of peaks here that are still unskied, and we got to make over a dozen first descents, from altitudes of over a thousand metres all the way to the black sand beaches of the north coast.

The operation uses small, efficient AS 350 B2 Ecureuil Astar helicopters to carry four skiers plus guide and pilot up to the Arctic highlands above the base lodge; the small size of the group means there’s no waiting around on pick-ups or drop-offs which makes for a busy day of skiing – we did 40,000-feet of ‘vert’ on our first day.

We did 40,000-feet of ‘vert’ on our first day.

In May, when I visited, the coastal snowpack of the Troll Peninsula provides perfect spring ‘corn’ snow; “It’s not deep and fluffy like BC powder but great fun and easy to ski – skiers who may be put off by the need to have the deep powder skills required for most heliski operations can still come here and enjoy themselves,” says Arctic Heliski’s owner and lead guide Jökull ‘JB’ Bergmann.

That may sound less than appealing to committed powder hounds, but there’s another big bonus to taking on Iceland’s corn snow – the maritime snowpack is very stable in terms of avalanche danger, making it possible to ski steeper and more exposed lines than is normal with, for example, Canadian heliski operations. That said, earlier in the season powder can be abundant.

We got to put the steep skiing theory to the test pretty quickly. After some gently angled initial runs on the glacier we took on increasingly steeper descents until it became pretty standard practice to search out 40-45 degree chutes, where your skis would slice through the butter-like snow and provide confidence-building stability before eventually hooning out of the bottom with a hoot, followed by a quad burning run out on gentler terrain back to the waiting helicopter.

Kind of similar to ski touring – but different…

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