Ski Touring In Iceland By Boat!
Iceland is a place known for its volcanoes and glaciers, but not necessarily for its skiing. Unknown to most of the world, the stark landscape is actually a skier’s dream, with rolling valleys and steep summit-to-sea couloirs. To top it all off, we’re based in a backcountry hut like no other. From our perch in the water, our captain had simply to move the boat to an area we had set our eyes on skiing. Once the anchor is in, we hop into the zodiac and zip to shore where, within minutes, we find ourselves skinning up towards a peak we sought from the sea. Using a sailboat to access ski terrain might seem like a strange concept, but the transport is hard to beat. It fascinates me how quickly we switch from life at sea to life in the mountains, where I’m much more at home. These two worlds intertwine here, just below the Arctic Circle. It’s a smooth transition, however, with both worlds sliding into each other until they become one. That’s what is so unique about skiing in Iceland. This surreal landscape that literally rises out of the North Atlantic sea is meant for this blend of travel, by boat and by skis.
We are on a 6-day ski trip onboard the sailboat Arktika in the Westfjords of Iceland. Local legend, Captain Siggi, runs ski and sail trips based in the fishing town of Isafjordur, the hub of the Westfjords. From here we set sail towards the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, one of the most beautiful and remote parts of Iceland on the far northwest tip of the peninsula. There are no roads here; the only way you can access the land is by boat. We set a course towards the fjords inland of the peninsula, for here the sea is more protected from bad weather and the raging storms that roll though on occasion. It’s about a 3 hour boat ride from Isafjordur to our resting place for the night. Our captain is scanning the surface of the sea, while my eyes are drawn to the mountains towering above us, marking the difference between the eyes of a sailor and the eyes of a skier. There are lines everywhere I look. The mountains are not high around here – only about 700m – but very aesthetic with steep couloirs and big alpine bowls that spill all the way down into the ocean. The beauty of it all is that you can easily climb a peak in a few hours and be standing on the summit, surrounded by dramatic views of snowcapped peaks and stunning ocean vistas. From the top, you can peer down at your home for the night and then enjoy a nice run back to the water, where the captain is waiting with the zodiac.
Once the boat is anchored and we’ve finished dinner, we set out for an evening ski, not getting back to the boat until 10pm. The greatest thing about the arctic this time of year is that it’s never too late to go for a ski! And the beauty of skiing from a moving vessel is the plethora of possibilities for traversing mountains, skiing from one fjord to the next, and bagging summits along the way. This is exactly what we will do for the next few days. Sometimes we’ll reach one, two or even three summits before skiing back down to shore where we are greeted by an abundance of sea life – everything from seals, arctic foxes, puffins and a wide variety of sea birds. We’re even treated to a spectacular show by a humpback whale one day as it returns to the north after travelling 7000km from the Golf of Mexico! This is one of the first signs of summer on the northwest coast of Iceland.
At night we sit around the table savouring delicious local cuisine, sharing stories and listening to folklore as told by our crew. Iceland is a land full of stories about elves, or the hidden folks, as they are also called. Most Icelanders don’t deny the existence of elves and it’s quite natural that the people here have a sense of nature being alive, with a spirit of its own. The nature here sure feels alive, with everything from bubbling hot springs, grinding glaciers, cascading waterfalls and spurting geysers, to glowing volcanoes and spectacular northern lights.
Soon, the wind picks up and we hunker down to wait for a weather window, dark waves crashing the side of the boat. It’s surprisingly comforting to feel the boat rocking back and forth. I start daydreaming about elves, and their stories really resonate with me. Here, you can truly feel the pulse of the earth and it reminds you that you are never in charge; nature is the boss. When you put yourself in the heart of these elements, in this raw and magical landscape, this is when the greatest rewards come. The moodiness is truly beautiful and I’m loving every bit of it.
Ski touring in Iceland means chasing the fall-line to the ocean in perfect corn snow well into the evening, basking under the midnight sun and exploring the mountains from fjord to fjord without a road or civilization in sight, just endless of untouched terrain and the wealth of sea and birdlife. It truly doesn’t get much better. This is what makes Iceland a world-class destination for backcountry ski touring. Why it remains such a secret is anyone’s guess.