The Skier and the Sea
Steve had never eaten shark. Neither had I. A fisherman, who had obviously spent most of his day in the pub, immediately picked up his phone. “I’ve got a guy,” he assured us in perfect English, as he began rapid firing Icelandic over the receiver.
On that day in Siglufjörður in Northern Iceland, it had been a week since Steve and I first landed in Reykjavík, the busy capital city of Iceland. With all of the other ‘firsts’ we had experienced that week, we had missed out on fermented shark meat. Everything was new to us in fact, and life on this island was clearly lived in its own quirky and beautifully unique way. Seeded in a deep history of persistence and survival, Icelanders have held tightly to their traditions, no matter how unpalatable some of them are to the modern tongue. To survive on an island in the middle of the North Atlantic for 1500 years, I suppose it takes some degree of stubbornness and resiliency.
Over the course of that first week on the Island, that resiliency had become apparent. Iceland’s landscape is not conducive to human habitation. As Steve and I began our drive away from Reykjavik in our beater rental car, signs of a volcanically active world greeted us; we found ourselves in sparsely inhabited countryside covered with expansive lava fields and steaming hillsides almost immediately after leaving the capital city. Traveling further east along the rugged southern coastline, massive ice-capped volcanoes rise directly from the ocean; from their flanks, basalt cliffs and lava fields spill into the North Atlantic. Eyjafjallajökull, gained notoriety recently, shutting down air traffic in Northern Europe and across the North Atlantic for a week during its well publicized 2010 eruption.
Sightseeing aside, we were in Iceland to ski. We had lofty goals of skiing the entire ‘Ring Road’ around the island, beginning in the Eastfjords, up to the Troll Peninsula in the north, and finishing in the Westfjords on the northwestern reaches of Iceland. Three years prior, Steve was not a skier. Raised in the similarly proud and stubborn culture of South Boston, Steve had become a ‘mountain person’ later in life, finding climbing, and later guiding, in his early adulthood. Only in the last few seasons had Steve discovered skiing during a few bleak winters in the Sierra and then Utah. Yet here we were, driving around an island in the North Atlantic, searching for steep skiing above the ocean.
Aside from a few restaurants, life in eastern Iceland in April was still quiet. Most of the fishing villages we passed appeared to be abandoned after 5 p.m., leaving us little opportunity to mingle or learn about the people inhabiting this wild place. So Steve and I stuck with what we knew; waking early every morning and looking for skiing alongside the roads and tiny villages. The eastern coast of Iceland is the drier side of the island, and the Eastfjords frequently required walking through deserted farm fields to reach snowline. It was a different kind of corn skiing. The low sun, long days, and northern latitudes meant perfect corn snow conditions lasting longer each day than we had ever seen in Utah. We called it “slow-roasted” corn. Steve had never skied corn like this, no thanks to the scorching Utah springs of the previous years.
Making ski turns in the mountains above the Atlantic Ocean wasn’t something Steve ever imagined he’d be doing years earlier, working retail to pay bills, playing metal music as a creative outlet, and trying to find his way to an adventurous life. It was skiing that brought us to this quiet corner of Iceland, and here Steve was, opening it up on ‘hero’ corn snow in massive cirques and bowls above the Atlantic Ocean.
Traveling from quiet fishing village to the next, we found skiing and we found our stride. Without social interaction in the deserted evenings, we continued to struggle with simple pronunciation of these towns, let alone learn any Icelandic for the sake of conversation. We found humor in trying to pronounce the names of villages in an American accent, and these butcherings became actual names in our conversation. Reyðarfjörður became Radar-pern-durf; Neskaupstadur became Nescafe-town.
Neskaupstadur was the quietest of all in the Eastfjords and we resorted to sleeping in the abandoned town campground. Clear skies provided Steve with another ‘first’. A faint green glow throughout our tent and over our heads turned into a full-blown light show as the Northern Lights erupted one evening. Unlike the few times I’d seen them before from a distance, domes of green and purple flares shot over our heads. We were in the Northern Lights, not just witnessing them from afar.
The rugged landscape continued north as we crossed the Mid-Atlantic Rift Valley. Geologically, Iceland is one of the few places on Earth where an oceanic ridge, where the Earth’s crust is born, appears above sea level. We drove our beat-up but still humming Rav4 from the Eurasian Plate onto the North American Plate. Despite a disgruntled 3rd gear, our car kept plugging along. Driving past shield volcanoes, lava fields, sulfur vents, and magma-heated lakes and pools reminded us that Iceland was a living and breathing piece of ice and fire.
The isolation and corn skiing in the Eastfjords was in our past. Finally, on the Troll Peninsula on the northern coast of Iceland, we found our first taste of Iceland ski culture; first in Dalvik, the epicenter of Iceland ski touring, and then in the surrounding small fishing villages in fjords further north up the peninsula.
Siglufjörður is where we found Tómas and friend, our drunken fishermen with the lead on “fresh” fermented shark. “You haven’t eaten shark yet?” asked Tómas in disbelief. Blank stares from Steve and I answered his question. “Don’t worry, I’ve got a guy.” A few minutes later, a local ‘kid’ pulled up in a beat up old sedan, surely not fit for driving in Northern Iceland, wielding a Tupperware filled with cubes of fermented shark. “He owed me a favor,” assured Tómas.
We were told that this young kid’s grandfather was the only one left in this small corner of Iceland using the exact same technique of preparation as the early Viking inhabitants did many generations before. Several months of burying, drying, hanging, and fermentation makes this once-toxic meat finally digestible to humans. The process, another testament to the survivorship of Icelanders come and gone, was a way to keep fish edible during long, dark, and treacherously cold times of the year. The taste was surprisingly palatable; the smell, a pungent reminder of the process in which it was made.
Since we were all a handful of Gulls (Icelandic Lager) deep, we didn’t stop at shark. Another phone call, and another delicacy arrived via delivery vehicle; Swedish Herring, also known as Surströmming. Tómas couldn’t even handle this. Once the can was cracked, the entire pub’s deck was evacuated. The pungent smell was one of the worst one could ever imagine. Watching from afar, a crowd witnessed Tómas choke down one snot-shaped dollup of this fish. Bar employees promptly broke up the party angrily, claiming that the scene was scaring their patrons. Happily, our bizarre night ended early.
Spring corn skiing peaked during our time in the Troll Peninsula. The tallest continuous non-volcanic range in Iceland provided us 3000’ corn runs until early afternoon for several days in a row. No day in Dalvik was complete without local food and beer at the local Kaffihaus, turned pub for après ski purposes. Bjarne, our local hostel owner host, and his wife, ran the Kaffihaus and used fish caught by their friends to prepare a daily “fish soup.” Everyday in Dalvik ended the same, in the most perfect of ways. Conversations in numerous European dialects filled the Kaffihaus, telling stories of perfect spring snow even if it had been mediocre at best. It didn’t matter, as skiing had brought all of these people to this one place in the North Atlantic, just like it had brought Steve, myself, and our new friend from Telluride, Ben. The excitement of good corn skiing, and the aesthetics skiing above the bluest of oceans made everybody feel like they had found the greatest skiing on the planet, topped off with the greatest fish soup known to man. The stoke was high, as the kids say.
A few last futile attempts to keep our utopic stint in Dalvik alive were thwarted by the severe lack of a refreeze for a couple nights in a row. By 10am on our last morning on the Troll Peninsula, Steve and I were “submarining” in the isothermal mank, experiencing yet another first for Steve. It was time to move on. Forecasts and high clouds signaled change as we began our drive west.
Ísafjörður is tucked into a beautiful, symmetrical fjord on nearly the furthest northwest tip of Iceland. Dirt roads and heinous snow-covered mountain passes led us here and it was immediately apparent that deteriorating weather could potentially keep us here if Mother Nature so desired. With no safe ground from avalanches in this compact fjord, Ísafjörður was built out into the water on a natrual spit. The hillsides on all sides of town were made for skiing. A classic pencil couloir highlighted the backdrop, a ski run, surprisingly, not having been skied until recent years.
Numerous neighboring fjords provided us the last of the sunny spring skiing. Tunnels provided easy access by car to sparsely inhabited fjords. Most skiers in Ísafjörður seemed to be fixated on leaving this piece of paradise via guided boat tours to the north. In our minds, there was no need other than the novelty of skiing via boat. “You’ve got to check out Flateyri,” we coaxed a few other American skiers in the Kaffihaus one evening. Flateyri and its fjord, Onundarfjord, had more skiable gullies and couloirs than residents, 227 to be precise. It was quiet. We had the fjord to ourselves. We could ski to the ocean. We were in heaven.
Among all of our new experiences, I quickly learned how to drive a manual transmission with ski boots on. Like a ski company slogan might read; Drive, Climb, Ski, Repeat became our story. We’d drive until we found something that looked like fun skiing, ski it, and then drive down the road until we spotted something else. At the end of each day, our slogan would read; Drink, Eat Fish, Sleep, Repeat. Steve and I had found our paradise.
At last, the famous blustery snowstorms of coastal Iceland began to materialize as flow shifted to the north; a direct hit of moisture off the Greenland Sea. Having already familiarized ourselves with all of the terrain around Flateyri, when road conditions would allow, we’d head back again and again. Iceland didn’t seem to believe in active snow-plowing. Just like Icelanders for generations, we had to implement some patience and resiliency as ebbs and flows of severe weather moved over the island.
As the snow continued to hammer, our only choice for making turns one particular day was to head to the local ski hill. “How much would it cost to ski today,” Steve asked the teenage girl at the counter. “Today, nothing,” she said. “It should be some great powder snow.” No kidding. Our bewildered smirks surely said it all as she cracked us a smile. So like all of our ski touring had been over the last two weeks, we had the singular POMA lift to ourselves as the snow continued to pile up. The local ski hill reminded me of those that I skied as a kid in Northern Michigan. One lift and a hillside, we made lap after lap, laughing at our luck. The lift towers and occasional bush gave us just enough definition to continue linking turns on yet another treeless slope. We were joined by a few others later that afternoon, all feeling as lucky as we did to be able to ski powder run after powder run until we had our fill. A few American skiers eventually joined in on the fun, all of us brought together in this crazy corner of the world by skiing.
With over a foot of fresh snow, one particular moment of brief visibility gave us the crown jewel of our trip; a 3000’ steep couloir barely visible from the road, choked full of dry Arctic fluff, that ran all the way to the ocean. The brief blotchy light was that of a photographer’s dream. The ski run, once in a lifetime. Lucky for Steve, the run of a lifetime came so soon after learning how to ski for the first time. I watched Steve take that run to ocean, linking turns like he’d been skiing since he was a kid.
Full blown winter had returned to Iceland. Knowing what was required of us to get out of the Westfjords, we had no choice but to start the journey home a day early. The roads were not plowed but lucky for us, the wind was blowing hard enough to keep the coastal road a clean sheen of ice. Our trusty Rav4 blasted through the occasional drift with ease. Road sign warnings in Icelandic gave us no insight, but the urgency of the messages made it clear, our two-lane pass allowing us to return to Reyjkavik was closed. “Don’t worry, it’s just a suggestion,” mentioned a lodge employee as we stopped ahead of the pass. “Just drive until you can’t, and the plows will eventually come and lead you over.” Resiliency. We did what we thought an Icelander would do, forge ahead and leave the black-and-white rules of obediency we’ve had engrained in us behind.
Icelanders are trusted to make their own decisions on roads using their best discretion, and now so were we. Winds picked up as we climbed and the icy roads soon became a blown-in series of snowdrifts and a blinding white-out. Eventually, our car started getting faceshots as we’d had the days before skiing powder. White-knuckled and terrified, we swerved and blasted through the drifts trying our best to stay between the sporadic yellow road markers barely sticking above the snow. Quickly, the road became impassable, and just when we needed it, we found a few cars waiting out the storm, and waiting on a plow. An hour passed, and finally, in the blasting snowstorm, what we thought was the world’s biggest snow blower came into view. Blasting through snowdrifts higher than our car, our savior plow led us the remaining hour over the pass, and back onto the blown-clean icy road along the coast.
Little did we know that the wildest adventure on our trip would be behind the wheel. The best parts of skiing are often ‘everything else’ that happens when we try to go ski somewhere wild. Sure, skiing steep powder to the ocean like we did outside of Flateyri was memorable, but the actual act of making a turn is ephemeral. I can guarantee I won’t forget Bjarne, his fish soup, and the Dalvik Kaffihaus euphoria as long as I live. I will always remember blasting that beater Rav4 through snowdrifts. Surely, Steve would never have eaten fermented shark if he had never left South Boston, or had never fallen in love with skiing in the first place. Skiing will always be our excuse to travel to exotic places, and we’ll continue planning trips in the future for the sake of skiing, but I guarantee we’ll always come home with more memories than just faceshots.