By Quinn Brasel
When you picture a luxurious Euro ski vacation, what comes to mind? A luxurious hut in the Swiss alps? The fabled Chamonix in France? What if I told you a secretly amazing backcountry ski destination is actually 1500 miles to the north on an island? I mean, if you’ve never soaked in a “hotpot” (a geothermal hot tub) after backcountry skiing, you’re not living life to the fullest. Iceland is a lesser known ski destination that rewards those who are willing to go a little rogue to earn their turns.
There are very few experiences that can compare to ski touring on a glacier above the Arctic Ocean. The trip was concocted on a whim. It was a dreary winter day with a forecast of unending Seattle gloom. A few months later we arrived in Reykjavik to freezing, sideways rain and cursing our rental car for not having a more intuitive GPS system. We hit the road for 10 days with an ambitious itinerary but a solid desire to seek out the best terrain and snow the country had to offer.
While the entire first day in Reykjavik poured on us, we hoped it would equate to snow further north at our first ski destination, Akureyri. We decided to take advantage of the situation and plotted possible mountains to scope out the following days, while devouring a dripping cinnamon roll from a local bakery. The next morning we packed up the car, enjoyed a quick trailrun up Mt. Esja, and drove 5 hours north to the small ski town of Akureyri. We chose this as our first homebase because of it’s proximity to the backcountry ski paradise of Tröllaskagi- The Troll Peninsula.
Our first morning we drove from Akureyri to Dalvik, a tiny fishing village 40 minutes away. After driving several confused loops around town we identified the best trailhead at the base of Mt. Baejarfjall, spotting some beautiful lines overlooking the freezing sea. We toured for about 3 hours and were pleasantly surprised to find some powder stashes on the way down that appeared out of nowhere. Afterwards, to truly soak in the local culture we devoured fish soup and beer bread at a tiny cafe with an easily pronounceable name “Gisli Eirikur Helgi Kaffihûs Bakkabrædra”, named after three brothers from an Icelandic folk tale. Feeling cozy and full of liquid, we returned to Akureyri eager to plot the next days adventure.
The second day brought clear, sunny skis and an unforgettable hike up with views of the Norwegian sea which were masked the previous day by fog. It had been an unusually sparse snow year in Iceland, but made for a consistently stable snowpack as we assessed on our way up. A handful of times we could hear the distant whir of a helicopter. This was the territory of Arctic Heli Skiing, where Iceland’s only UIAGM-IFMGA guide Jökull Bergmann runs his guiding operation.
Alas, we couldn’t stay in Akureyri forever. The next day we made the incredibly long and windy fjord journey to Ísafjörður, where I was convinced our farmstay awaited us. I will never know why I decided to opt out of plugging in the actual address of our farm stay, and simply put the city into Google Maps…therefore, we overshot Heydalur by 1.5 hours and were too tired to turn back. The evening was saved by finding a historic hotel and delightfully random Thai dinner in the heart of old town (in something akin to a strip mall). The Icelandic ski gods delivered the next morning, where we spent the first part of a brilliantly sunny day skinning up the resort of Tungudalur and skied a southern facing slope loaded with untouched pow.
We arrived at our (correct) destination later that afternoon, Heydalur Guesthouse where we were enthusiastically greeted by a robust golden retriever and a feisty shepherd. Bangsi (icelandic for “teddybear”) and Loki became our fast companions and were occasionally shadowed by a shy arctic fox named Thora who was a resident of the property. We enjoyed unrivaled dinners that took the term “farm fresh” to a new level. Trout from a nearby stream and roasted rosemary fingerling potatoes put our Reykjavik meals to shame.
The valley of Heydalur was vast and spotty with snow,making it necessary to hunt in order to string together a ski tour. In the end, we skinned up a frozen river canyon behind the farm. Bangsi sweetly ambled along behind us for most of it but decided to bail when the going got too steep. The descent involved questionably thin coverage, which invoked some Homer Simpson-esque “DOH” moments skiing over thinly veiled rocks. We soaked in the natural hotspring for the remainder of the afternoon, enjoyed traditional lamb stew for dinner and mentally prepared ourselves for the long journey back to Reykjavik the next day.
The highlight of our drive out of the West Fjords was a stop at SALTVERK – a hand-harvested sustainable sea salt company. Located in the remote West Fjords, visiting the factory and the allure of taste testing is a great reason to visit in person- not just buying off Amazon (Shh yes, technically you don’t have to travel to Iceland for this). We grabbed a few of the Arctic Thyme, Birch Smoked, Lava and Licorice and like any sane person, wondered how they would taste on ice cream.
In my mind, the more remote the better when it comes to travel- not just in a landscape sense but as a mindset to seek out the not-so-obvious and off the beaten path; the heart of a place. The satisfaction in discovering the underbelly of a new city, ducking through alleyways, asking a local for their favorite hike/cafe/etc is unparalleled. Using backcountry skiing as a catalyst, I drove to corners of a country I would never fathom, ate the best beer bread in a fisherman village that I STILL think about, and further affirmed how much you grow when you venture outside your comfort zone.