A Pirate’s Bounty- Skiing and Sailing in Iceland’s Hornstrandir Nature Reserve
Our pirate ship is anchored in the fjord with not another soul around. Yes I said pirate ship. The scene is so idyllic it barely seems real. The beach is covered in seaweed, and the strong scents of saltwater permeate the air. Only a skier knows the feeling- sunburned, windburned, and legs that are really burned, but you couldn’t be happier. The last run was an incredible way to cap a five-star day. One more lap with a smooth skin track, and even smoother turns right to the edge of the beach. Après was calling. But as much as it felt right to call it a day and cheers a beer on the boat, there was still sun shining on a ramp to the west.
Our cast of ten traveled from near and far to meet in Ísafjörður, a quaint Icelandic town home to less than three thousand permanent residents. We’re an eclectic bunch. Jocelyn and Talia are vibrant sisters with roots in Australia. Robert resides in Boston, Marc calls Pennsylvania home, and Imran is a resident of the California Coast. Then there are the pirates, Karyn Stanley and Jillian Raymond. Dave “Happy” Rintala, Andrew Eisenstark, and myself are ski guides that reside in Lake Tahoe, CA rounding out the group. Together we had had traveled from our respective homes to sail and ski in Iceland with the help of Captain “Siggi” Sigurdur Jonsson and his staff guide Magnus Batista aboard the Aurora Arktika.
Iceland has popped up on the radars of many ski travelers in recent years and for good reason. While the main story here is one of ski touring via sailboat in a protected nature reserve that is arguably a pinnacle experience for the human powered backcountry skier, as remote and out there as Iceland is, it’s really not all the difficult to travel to with the hopes of scoring great skiing. Most people look at the tiny island on a map and think it’s going to be one of those difficult, multi-day travel itineraries that end up forcing ski travelers to waste precious days on snow simply getting to their destination. Not true. In fact, of all the ski traveling I’ve ever done, Iceland might be the easiest, most user-friendly locale I have ever visited. My itinerary was simply a flight from Reno to Minneapolis, with a straight shot into the capital city of Reykjavik. Looking around, I saw a flight that went from San Francisco right into Reykjavik with no stops. If you’re traveling from the East Coast it’s even easier.
I met two friends after this sail to ski mission in Reykjavik for a mainland ski and sustainability excursion in and around the famous Troll Peninsula. My buddies flew from Boston, paid a few hundred dollars for their flight, had no stops, and the flight was shorter than if they had come out for a visit to the West Coast. An isolated country with the smallest population in Europe at just over 330,000 residents, Iceland is purely unique. Most of the country’s population lives near the capital city, and when you leave the city, you’re transported to a galactic landscape. The ocean and its waves are raw. The land bends from serene and verdant, to looking like the moon in no time. You can drive along the “Ring Road” that circles the island, as many visitors do, and take in this stunning landscape with relative ease. Volcanoes, glaciers, and mountains dot the skyline alongside friendly people, and special species of flora and fauna. Although there is no indigenous population, the country’s history is rich, and its present remains diverse as the nation has no army, but maintains an identity as one of the most developed and socially progressive countries in the world.
The makings for a smooth, memorable trip are easy with Iceland as a destination. My friends and I rented a van that provided us three beds and a place to cook, which allowed us to ski, travel, and roam the country at will. In fact, I’ve found myself pointing people in the direction of Iceland numerous times since visiting simply because it’s so far out there, but the experience is both welcoming and accessible. Even Reykjavik, with its uniquely Nordic, Viking culture could entertain travelers for weeks on end with delicious food, art, and music seemingly around every corner. The nation as a whole is almost completely reliant on renewable, geothermal energy. That was a major reason for my friends and I to visit this model country where plugging in equates to something different than it does for the rest of the world. After the country’s massive economic collapse in 2008, local turmoil has largely recovered due to tourism. Skiing was our other reason for a visit, and while a visit to the Troll Peninsula is a direct hit of Icelandic ski culture, there’s nothing quite like the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve.
Back to the ski and sailing mission, situated in the Westfjords, the Hornstandir Nature Reserve was established in 1975. I don’t pretend to be absent of using fossil fuels to support my skiing. However, human powered adventure is a primary pursuit both as an athlete and guide. In that light, the Hornstrandir is one of those places that calls to the ski tourer. You can’t land a helicopter here. There are no lifts, and snow machines are not allowed. A plane can touch down to drop adventurers off for excursions, but that method is very rarely pursued. Instead, most people sail to the Hornstrandir via sailboat, and use zodiacs to get to shore for ski touring in the winter and spring months, or hiking and backpacking in the summer and fall.
As is the case with most ski trips where a group of people sign up for a trip, but not necessarily the crew they’ll be skiing with, the participants on trips like this one matter. Luckily our group ended up bonding as well as a maritime snowpack throughout our adventure. The pirate theme was constant. While in Isafjörður adjusting to our various traveling itineraries, folks casually walked the town, snacked at the local bakery, and took in the very distinct scenery of the landscape. A few people needed some last minute supplies. Back at the boat, after loading gear, most of the cast was meeting each other, getting familiar with their new home aboard the boat, and generally commenting how both how cool the boat was, and how uncanny the resemblance was to a pirate ship. Meanwhile, Karyn and Jillian returned back from their town excursion with devious smiles and several bags of goodies. One member of the group quickly asked, “why are you girls wearing eye-patches,” and “is that a sword in your bag”?
Iceland is full of dramatic scenery, and the mountains are as unique as the local culture. Svalbard is the only other place where I’ve seen similar geology, but even then the mountains in Iceland are uniquely Icelandic. They seem to be relatively flat, for the most part, on top, with deep horizontal and vertical striations distributed throughout the mass of the peaks. Of course to the ski mountaineer the vertical breaks tend to collect in snow forming a variety of attractive chutes, couloirs, and ramps.
As we boarded the Aurora Arktika to set sail for the Hornstrandir the winds picked up. As a result we were able to use the power of the wind to sail to the farthest corner of the country, just below the Arctic Circle. The sun sat relatively high in the sky. It being late April, we had plenty of daylight to spare with our latitude being this far north. Our collective crew of eleven settled in for the sail while Captain Siggi entertained questions about sailing, and where we’d be skiing for the next several days.
As we woke to our first day of skiing the Nature Reserve, the scenery seemed to be pulled directly from a National Geographic special. A lone seal bathed in sunlight on a protruding rock near the shore. The air was crisp, making our zodiac ride to shore stronger than the best espresso in Reykjavik. At first the snow was firm, and to be honest, not having skied in the country yet, I was a bit alarmed that if the snow didn’t soften we’d have an issue on our hands. The country is named Iceland after all. Technically, there were four guides on the trip, and I had worked with Happy before, and am still fortunate to work with Andrew in places like Antarctica and Alaska annually. But we had a diverse group of skiers, and even the best aren’t too keen on firm snow that leads right into hypothermic inducing water. It was good that it was still early in the day, and from my scouting of maps, pictures, and on the boats deck earlier that morning, there seemed to be enough diversity of terrain to satisfy any level of backcountry skier. After some transceiver practice and general safety discussions led by Andrew, we started skinning and finally reached our first big sun/shadow line. At that moment everything changed.
We were barely a few hundred feet of climbing into our day, and as firm as the snow was near the water, this first step into the sun showed that the Icelandic snow crystals were already warming. Relieved that we’d at least have something semi-soft to ski we kept skinning to our first highpoint of the trip. The view was inspiring to say the least. An incredible peak seemed to literally rise right out of the ocean with a perfect chute dropping from its NW corner. The rolling terrain looked as though we could ski off this backside col right down to a beach where waves peeled immediately causing me to think about how we could turn this into a sail-ski-surf trip. Smiles were drawn on everyone’s face.
Andrew asked if folks wanted to keep touring, or to ski a lap to get a few turns under their feet. I questioned if the snow would be even close to ready, but understood the slope was mellow enough, and it’s always good to get a few wiggles in after traveling. Here’s where skiing in Iceland made its greatest mark on me. Yes, there is much uniqueness to this trip, and again, it’s very accessible for the ski traveler. I simply wasn’t expecting corn snow like this. Having traveled in various other Arctic locations in the past, I knew conditions could be hit or miss, with or without solar expose. Conditions are always changing, and I figured we’d be more likely to find winter snow during our trip even though it was late April. Wrong. And this is coming from a California based skier who doesn’t mean to stick his nose up, but is tough to sway that there’s any corn skiing out there that compares to Mt. Shasta and the Sierra Nevada when they are on. That said, Iceland might have some of the best corn skiing on earth.
One by one each skier dropped in, and one by one corn sprayed for each of their skis. You know when corn skiing is almost as good as powder skiing, and even then, the perfect stuff is so much better than marginal winter now? This was it. It was our first lap, but the theme continued each day, and everyday we skied so long as the sun was out.
Over the course of our trip we toured from fjord to fjord. Siggi would drop us off at one fjord, then sail around to pick us up at the next. At the top of every high point we skinned to where there would be ski options in every direction. Just being in this special place, learning its history, and taking in the views was sublime. The fact that the skiing was so high quality was something else.
I know that there are many ski trips that focus on Iceland, and I happen to know a few guides who run top-level trips. I’m just not sure how anything in the country can compare to what Siggi makes available. He’s a dedicated sailer and adventurer, and we were lucky that he decided to join us for the most aesthetic couloir we skied on the trip. It wasn’t easy getting him to join. Not because of his skills; he’s a great skier. It’s because he takes his role seriously. Not just as the Captain of the ship, but as a bonafide ambassador for his country and the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve. Everyday he was genuinely interested in how everyone’s day had gone, how the skiing was, and what support he could offer. We could’ve easily eaten food that was packaged back on the mainland and fit the bill for ski tourers that had been out and about all day. But no. After dropping us off to ski Siggi would take his zodiac out and forage for mussels, fish, and seaweed. That would be the cornerstone of our dinners on the boat. Sushi, sashimi, and other local delicacies harvested and prepared by the Captain himself.
Like all good trips this one had to end as well. It’s no surprise that the reason our crew found Siggi was because of Ice Axe Expeditions, a guiding outfit based in Lake Tahoe, CA that specializes in making the most far off ski trips in the world possible. I’ve had some of the best trips and turns of my life thanks to Ice Axe Expeditions, and while transparently I do guide for them, you can audit any of their trips. The people they bring together makes these adventures what they are, and to be as sincere as possible, I’d say a trip with Siggi is worth the trip to Iceland alone.I’m drawn back to the ramp with a slice of sun to the west, and the pull of après ski with my stellar crew. The environment is hard in Iceland. It’s so remote, but there’s also this fairylike narrative that seems to play out when you’re traveling there. I want to go back to the boat, put the eyepatch back on, crack a beer, and grab my pirate hook. I know that’s what everyone else is about to do since Karyn and Jillian decked our whole boat out in pirate garb, framing a story for our voyage that ending up making for as much fun on the boat as it was to go skiing. But that ramp is going to be perfect, I know it. The funny thing about corn skiing in Iceland? At least during our time in late April, there doesn’t seem to be an expiration to the quality so long as the snow stays in the sun. If it’s in the shade, forget it. And many of us corn skiers know that there’s a perfect time when corn snow is ripe for the harvest-when it’s almost as good as powder skiing. But that rule doesn’t seem to apply in Iceland like it does in the lower 48. All day, everyday, from early morning to the last rays of sunset, the corn stayed consistent. Perfect for each and every turn. Jillian is willing to stay out for one more lap. After all, as a wise ski pirate once told me, passing on perfect snow may come back to haunt you, so you better get to plundering while you can.