Steep Lines in the Land of Fire and Ice

Iceland is a small country, but it has plenty to offer. It is really difficult to describe all the natural wealth the island possesses. There is something for skiers there, as well.

Testing, shuttle, airport, testing, flight, transfer, flight, testing, breathe in, breathe out ... “Hello Iceland, land of fire and ice.” It has been a long corona flight, but I am finally back on the island at the edge of the Arctic circle in the north Atlantic. Loaded with ice axes, touring skis and video gear I wait for my Icelandic friend Siggi and his camper van. We are meeting for a trip to discover new places in this magical land of volcanoes, wild rivers, geysers, white glaciers, vast green fields, and mighty waterfalls.

Iceland is a paradise for nature lovers and those who visit once, find it hard to resist coming back. So I came back again this year. I took advantage of a short loosening of safety measures and after a pile of permits, certificates and airplane tickets I finally landed at Keflavik airport near the Meradalir active volcano. Since erupting in March for the first time in 600 years, the volcano has become a new destination for photographers, locals, and tourists. Visiting Iceland amid a pandemic is a completely different experience since the country is devoid of tourists and offers a welcome respite from the events in Europe.

Icelandic Quarantine

Siggi and I immediately took off towards the north, stopping halfway through our trip at the area around Kirkjufell since I needed to spend my first five days after entering the country in quarantine. The Icelandic quarantine differs from its Slovenian counterpart, in that it allows spending time outdoors, in nature. Of course we made the best of the situation by warming up on the grassy slopes nearby. At ten in the morning, when the sun finally rose over the horizon, we took off across frozen waterfalls with ice axes in hand and skis on our backs. After a few hundred meters of altitude gain, we reached beautiful white slopes and a view of the sea. Weather on Iceland is notoriously unpredictable due to its northern latitude and proximity to the ocean. The skies were clear when we took off, but in just an hour the clouds rolled in, the horizon over the sea darkened and we were caught in a blizzard. Due to constant winds blowing across the island, the weather leaves just as fast as it arrives and we could soon enjoy blue skies, but by then the daylight was slowly fading away. Winter days in Iceland are very short. Day trips hardly ever start before eleven, partly due to the northern latitude and partly due to the laid back Icelandic lifestyle. At four in the afternoon, it is already time to reach into our backpacks and find headlamps. Snowflakes sparkle under our feet in the light of the lamps as the sky lights up in a fantastic display of the aurora borealis. The sight never fails to leave me breathless. Green lights dancing in the sky can only be seen in the far north or south, and they remind me of the unbridled beauty of Iceland. I cannot help but try to capture every second on video, even if it means staying up through the night(s). 

The Journey

After five days of quarantine, we were getting ready to continue our journey when a priceless opportunity landed in our lap. We were invited on a trip to the Westfjords on a sailboat for a few days. Of course we eagerly accepted the invitation and took off for the northwestern part of the island. The last thing to do before embarking, was to take the last mandatory test, and officially complete the quarantine. The road to the port at the Westfjords is long and we needed to detour to Reykjavík along the way to take care of the test. After getting a negative test we could finally be on our way. After ten hours of driving on endlessly long and twisting roads, the journey seemed to take forever. Our camper van broke down in the middle of the wilderness with the nearest town more than an hour away, but after all the trials and tribulations we finally made it to the port town of Ísafjörður late in the evening. We threw all our gear and skis on board, and we set off towards the Greenland Sea and the remote nature reserve of Hornstrandir. I woke up at anchor in a beautiful fjord, surrounded by a mist that accompanied us throughout the trip. Icelanders do not mind bad weather, they make the best of every moment of daylight. We spent our days on skis and nights on the sailboat.  The ski tours we did were a bit different than what I am used to.   Access to the fjords is only possible by boat and it is a special feeling to pack up the skis and backpack, drop them into a boat and cruise off towards the shore, then step into the sea with the ski boots before finally reaching snow. As for the conditions... Pure heaven for any skier, let alone a ski mountaineer - untouched powder snow, volcanic landscape, total peace and quiet, and amazing views. Siggi and I took advantage of the ideal conditions to film an instructional video about ski touring for the Icelandic mountaineering platform.

Ski Experience

The diverse Icelandic coastline and its thousands of fjords offer a ski experience unlike anywhere else in the world. The sea is a constant companion when going up and skiing down. Who could resist skiing on untouched snow with a view of the ocean? One such location is the Troll peninsula in the far north of Iceland. In my opinion this is an essential destination for any ski tourer intent on exploring Iceland. The mountains never reach above 1500 meters but all the tours start at sea level. Iceland’s highest mountain, the Hvannadalshnjúkur, is only 2110 meters above the sea. The tours are short and sweet, mostly undemanding but very special. The Troll peninsula was our home for the last week and we were rewarded by clear skies and sunshine throughout our stay, which hardly ever happens here. The eternal powder snow that keeps for a very long time in the cold climate provided us with priceless ascents and descents. After each ski tour we refueled with Iceland’s most popular meal - the hamburger, which the Icelanders have mastered to perfection. Our recovery routine included baths in thermal springs that are abundant in the area. The volcanic origin of the country means that hot water flows out of the ground just about everywhere. Our efforts were repaid several times over.

Always on Your Own Steam

Traveling by car is the right way to go about Iceland since public transportation is nonexistent. The country offers limitless possibilities, so it is best to pack as much gear as possible, for as many activities as you can, because the weather always has the last say. We visited in winter, but went sailing, ice climbing, hiking, ski touring, swimming ... and of course, viewed the northern lights. My working holidays were slowly coming to an end, so we turned our camper van back towards Reykjavik where the adventure started. I took my time admiring the landscape as we drove, taking in the mountains made for skiing, the waterfalls for ice climbing, and already planning my next trip to what I now consider my second home.  Iceland is a small country, but it has so much to offer. It is really difficult to describe all the natural wealth the island has. Goodbye, dear Iceland, I hope to see you again soon.