Soaring near the mountain tops of Iceland’s Troll Peninsula I ponder what I have seen already after only a few short days on this remote North Atlantic island perched in contented limbo between Europe and North America. Barren valleys dotted with remote sheep farms, herds of shaggy Icelandic horses grazing near a hot spring that bubbles next to the sea, and dormant volcanoes that betray the geological violence that has shaped this land, and in turn its proud and spirited people. If a pair of trolls suddenly appeared at my feet I would hardly be surprised. Few places are as evocative of something primordial and magical as Iceland appears to me at this moment.
Our guide Jökull Bergmann, or JB, steps out of the chopper, his unruly reddish blonde hair barely contained by an Arctic Heli Skiing toque. We’ve touched down atop a run known as The Horse on a glorious sunny day; nearly 4,000 vertical feet of corn snow lies between us and Klængshóll, headquarters for Arctic Heli Skiing, the red roofs of the old farmhouse and surrounding buildings visible in a golden grassy pasture near the valley bottom.
More than a month after I normally store ski gear and switch to other pursuits, I’m digging deep for a full week of late spring skiing beneath the far northern sun. The days are long in subarctic May. Light isn’t a limiting factor, so we lingered over a sprawling breakfast of pancakes, cold cuts, fruit, and muesli prepared in the galley-sized kitchen of Heimir Magni Hannesson, who in another life was a celebrity chef and restaurant owner in Santa Cruz, Bolivia (a long story, he says with a laugh). Afterward we strolled out to the helipad below the farmhouse for a lazy 9:30 a.m. start. Now it’s mid-afternoon and our last run of the day. It’s warm — a light shell and a long sleeve thermal up top, and the same on the lower half, succes. My ski mates include a young Frenchman called Marc-Antoine Merlet from Brest, France, and Terry Lander, a gregarious land developer from Leicester, England. Lander, on his first trip to Iceland, only discovered the sport of skiing in his late 30s but has since heli-skied around the world, and even has the coveted Canadian Mountain Holidays Arc’teryx ski suit attesting to a million vertical feet of powder.
I don’t know what it is, I just love it,” he told me last night about his heli-ski passion, while we sipped beers in the farmhouse lounge, its walls adorned with wooden ice axes and other vintage climbing paraphernalia.
I know what it is. The conditions are dreamy for spring skiing. Just a puff of wind to keep the air cool and the snow from deteriorating too quickly after the overnight recovery and freeze. And for JB, these are dreamy conditions for guiding. The sneaky instabilities of cold midwinter that keep guides awake at night, have settled into a bomb-proof spring snow pack. Translation: steep skiing is on.
Bergmann clicks his poles together and pushes off the summit. I follow. The skiing is fast on snow that’s perfectly corned up and takes an edge easily. We rip wide turns down the summit knob before regrouping on a at prominence on the ridge below. From there it’s 1,500 vertical feet of perfect planar 45-degree skiing down the throat of The Horse.
Three days ago, I traveled to the remote Troll Peninsula on Iceland’s north coast, touching down at the airport in Akureyri, a mere 70 miles from the Arctic Circle, and after Reykjavík, the second largest city in this sparsely populated country of 330,000 citizens. Soon after I was in a Volkswagen Touareg rental and headed north on the mostly deserted road 82, which meandered through rolling sheep farms. Solitary houses built in that modernist Scandinavian style of at roofs and large windows, sat on the windswept pastures as though they were plunked down on the landscape by a retreating glacier. To the east, a brisk wind rippled across Eyjaörður. After half an hour, I angled west on another road up a valley crowded in with mountains still blanketed in deep snow. Where the road crossed the braided Svarfaðardalsá River, I turned onto a gravel road signposted, Skiöadalur, “Ski Valley” in Icelandic. Following it felt like stepping through the secret doors in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
I rolled past more farms where spring snow reached down to the valley bottom in shaded ravines, like the bony white fingers of a skeleton. Creeks raged with spring freshet. Finally I passed an easy to miss small white sign, Arctic Heli Skiing, and at the end of the gravel road, rolled to a stop in front of the Bergmann family farm turned heli-skiing base. JB, the 40-year-old father of three, and founder of Arctic Heli Skiing, was there to greet me, and I soon learned that he is as rooted to this remote valley as trolls are to Icelandic folklore.
“My family has been in this area of Iceland for 1,000 years,” JB told me as we walked outside the old farmhouse, adding that he’s the 32nd direct descendant of the first settlers to arrive in Iceland.
JB’s grandparents raised sheep in this incredible valley. His mother, Anna Dóra Hermannsdóttir, was a gypsy spirited woman who traveled the world studying yoga and immersing herself in other cultures. The young JB spent much time on the farm helping tend a flock of 1,500 sheep and hanging out with his grandfather who was an avid outdoorsman. He loved exploring the Troll Peninsula where legend holds that the last of Iceland’s trolls was slain in a cave in 1764. The Bergmann patriarch once enlisted JB at the tender age of six to lead a Swiss visitor to the top of The Horse; an experience that laid the foundation for a mountain guiding life. Or perhaps it was simply destiny; after all, Bergmann literally means “mountain man.” The Horse would become one of JB’s go-to heli-skiing runs, a 4000-foot finisher that allows guests to ski to the farmhouse front door at the end of the day. But it took time for the dream to manifest.
“I brought my first group of clients to ski here 18 years ago. I realized pretty early on that this was the epicenter of backcountry skiing in Iceland, and that we had the terrain for heli-skiing,” JB explains.
Just as the Norwegian chieftain Ingólfr Arnarson led the first permanent settlers to Iceland so long ago, JB was about to pioneer heli-skiing in Iceland. Though Iceland is ruled by a common law that allows public access to private land, a commercial venture such as heli-skiing was new terrain for the surrounding farmers and absentee landlords. In 2008 Arctic Heli Skiing was born.
“We have 600 runs and 1,000 landowners,” JB says about the land use agreements needed to secure this skiing paradise on Iceland’s Troll Peninsula, which is neatly bounded geographically by Eyja örður and Skagaörður.
Needless to say, I would only experience a small sample of these riches. Later in the week, we plan for a heli drop on Karlsar all, an eye-catching peak above the seaside town of Dalvík, where the Svarfaðardalsá River spills into the fjord. I’m still trying to shake the memory of last night when we bade farewell to Marc-Antoine and partook in an Arctic Heli Skiing tradition for departing guests: downing a slice of fermented Greenland shark chased with Aquavit. It’s an acquired taste.
Though there is plenty of fun to be had in the mountains close to Klængshóll, JB has a few ace cards up his sleeve for clients wanting a private chopper and an off -the-charts Icelandic experience. He calls it the Grand Tour, a multi-day safari. Highlights include a ski descent into the caldera of the volcano Askju, followed by a dip in a 90 degree Fahrenheit emerald colored pool, bathing after a day of skiing in a 113 degree Fahrenheit stream that emits from a vent on the north side of Vatnajökull and a heli flight through Jökulsárgljúfur, the country’s answer to the Grand Canyon minus the mass tourism.
Today we’re more than satisfied to skin to the summit of Karlsár all and do some self-propelled alpine laps, taking advantage of Arctic Heli Skiing’s guided ski touring option. Today’s weather report, posted daily for guests outside the guide’s room at Klængshóll, was simple: “Beautiful weather”. From the top of Karlsár all we bag a few runs in a north facing bowl of more perfect corn snow that’s mere hours away from being schmoo and un-skiable. We pause before the nal descent to quench thirst and eat lunch. The view is breathtaking. Far below a lone ferryboat to Hrísey Island plies the choppy waters of Eyjaörður. Across the fjord we spot our tracks left a few days previous on a sprawling monolith known as Kaldbacher (Coldback).
Our guide starts down an entertaining ridge, like the prow of a ship, dropping on one side directly to the sea and on the other, into a massive alpine cirque; by far one of the most jaw dropping lines I have skied in years. We take our time, pausing for photos, wanting to absorb as much of the view as possible.
At day’s end, before heading to the public pool in Akureyri, we stop for a sample of Kaldi, a local craft brew, at a favorite Dalvík coffee house called Gísli, Eiríkur, Helgi. It’s near closing time but owner Bjarni Gunnarsson pours us Czech-style darks and brings a platter of minke whale carpaccio. I overcome my North American squeamishness about eating whale and, admittedly, it’s delicious (Iceland remains unabashedly a whaling nation.) With a small resort in its backyard, skiing is central to Dalvík’s sporting culture. However it’s a recent discovery for foreigners. “We’re getting lots of people from Europe and North America coming here to ski. Winter is our busy season now,” Gunnarsson tells me, as he flips the closed sign on the little cafe’s door.
Thirty minutes later we arrive in Akureyri, also with a community-owned ski hill as a city backdrop. Japan has its serene onsen, Iceland has its eclectic public hot pool — not a luxury, but rather a cultural necessity. It’s where Icelanders talk politics, broker deals, socialize, relax, and recover from a day on the slopes. The Sundlaug Akureyar is impressive, a testament to how seriously this country takes the hot spring experience. I start with a dip in the hot pool, but at a piping 110 degrees Fahrenheit, I last barely five minutes. After a core temperature regulating plunge in the glacial pool, I recover in the warm one, (102 degrees Fahrenheit), then take a rip down the spiral slide that spits you into a waist deep thermal pool. Finally, I relax in a shallow basin of tropical warm water shaped like a crescent beach with a headrest on the “shore”. It’s hard to extract ourselves from this luxuriant pool, but dinner calls.
We’re back at Klængshóll in time for a 7 p.m. supper, family style in the same small dining room where Bergmann’s grandparents and family once noshed after a day on the sheep farm. Tonight chef Hannesson has prepared a melt-in-your-mouth prime rib with béarnaise sauce, baked potatoes, and steamed carrots, followed by classic crème brûlée for dessert.
The property remains a family affair. JB’s mother now works with her son at Arctic Heli Skiing as a massage therapist, yoga instructor, and cook’s helper. She says it makes her happy to be back on the land working with her son and giving the old sheep farm new life.
“I always wondered what was beyond those mountains,” she says, looking out the dining room window.
After supper, I walk up a stone lined pathway to the gear room. The mountains of the Troll Peninsula are bathed in the eternal twilight of an Arctic spring. I find JB in the repair shop waxing a client’s skis, part of the minutia of a growing heli-ski business. He’s still a ski bum at heart, always searching for new terrain and unskied lines. And these days he’s in an expansionist mood.
“The fjords of East Iceland is the new frontier. That’s where I want to focus some of my attention now,” he says, as we step outside into the evening’s gentle chill. As if I need yet one more reason to return to Iceland’s Troll Peninsula with my skis.