Off piste on the isle of white
Rupert Mellor tours the remote Westfjords by yacht for some hard-core ski-hiking — and basic crochet.
As the Aurora lurches through the darkness in rising winds and waves, I wriggle into heavy-duty waterproofs and life jacket and clamber on deck. Surreally, Bob Dylan's Everybody Must Get Stoned booms from the PA and our captain, Siggi Jonsson, smiles quietly at the invisible horizon as he guides the boat through the stormy void.
Clinging to the rigging as he perches on the lip of the cockpit, first mate Runar Karlsson flashes me a mad grin through the pounding horizontal snow. "Welcome to Mordor! Hahahahaaaaa!"
Ahead of me lies a journey into uninhabited wilderness just 24 kilometres shy of the Arctic Circle, where - travelling and sleeping on an 18-metre yacht with eight others - I'll spend four days hiking up snowbound peaks and then snowboarding down to the sea's edge.
It sounded like the ultimate off-piste adventure. Yet earlier that April afternoon, as the plane from Reykjavik began its descent between two flat-topped ridges of the mini-mountains distinctive to Iceland's Westfjords region, I'd wondered if I was up to it. It didn't help that Karlsson, a mountain guide who, with Jonsson, runs Borea Adventures, greeted me at Isafjordur's airport with: "Great news! The rest of your group are all qualified Icelandic adventure guides."
The global recession and Iceland's particular fiscal woes mean that these days many of Borea's guests are Icelanders holidaying at home, great for foreigners wanting to meet locals. In my case they are Sveinborg, a government geologist with her bag containing yarn to knit us each a beanie; Kari and Hosi, a Mighty Boosh-quoting double act; Fresi and Gaddi, two wiry survival machines with beards usually bristling with icicles; and the almost comically Bond girl-esque Stina, with her wickedly base sense of humour.
"Do you have drugs?" Stina deadpans as we load snowboards and snowshoes on to the yacht. "On the last trip we took with Karlsson and Jonsson, we sailed to Greenland and you couldn't move for people being sick. Today I took so many travel sickness pills I can't feel a thing."
Jonsson has more good news: "Right now we should have spring weather - that's why we start the skiing trips in April. But the forecast is very bad. It's been a long time since we had conditions so severe at this time of year. Anyway, on to ship's rules. Number one, don't fall in ..."
We motor north past Isafjordur's rust-stained trawlers, fish factories and cute clapboard houses beneath the glacier-smoothed slopes of Tungudalur, whose handful of low-altitude pistes add up to the most extensive of Iceland's five ski areas. The bitter wind off the North Atlantic drives me below deck. When I join the rest of the group in the compact galley, they switch effortlessly into excellent English. "Do you know crochet?" Fresi asks enthusiastically. "Sveinborg is going to teach us."
"It's really very cool," says Stina, who is knitting a headband. "All the snowboarders are doing it in Reykjavik. Want to try?"
Next morning, I wake in one of the 12 narrow bunks lining the Aurora's hull at anchor in Veidileysufjordur ("fiord with no fish", so named for fishermen's consistent lack of luck here). This is one of the five fiords of Hornstrandir, a nature reserve encompassing the ragged peninsula at Iceland's north-westerly tip. It's also the untamed playground where Karlsson and Jonsson grew up sailing, camping, hiking and skiing.
Not that we can see it. Although the fiord's sheltered waters are calm, mist and low cloud refuse to unwrap the landscape. We pass a couple of hours looking at photos on the Borea laptop of previous trips blessed with better weather - the scoured curves of the mountains (just tens of metres from where we're sitting) against blue skies, the pond-skimming antics of guests who tried to ski across the water to the boat, breakfast on deck in the sunshine.
Then a sudden all-clear from Karlsson triggers a frenzy of layering - thermals, avalanche beacons, ski wear, lifejackets and backpacks. Ferried by dinghy to a narrow strand of black-and-purple seaweed exposed by the low tide, the skiers apply gripping skins to their skis, the snowboarders strap on snowshoes and our first ascent begins.
There are whiteouts - and there are whiteouts. As we march single-file up a shallow lower slope, cloud seeps down the mountain. Just about able to make out the person in front, we keep together as we trace broad zigzags up the steepening climb with regular yelling and in the case of the freakishly hale Kari and Sveinborg, karaoke renditions of their favourite Prince songs.
If anyone but me is feeling the strain of the deep, shifting snow, minus-15 wind-chill and spinnaker action of a pack-mounted snowboard, they don't show it. But regular breaks help me catch my breath. In the end, it's the biting cold rather than the (substantial but not extreme) level of fitness required that bothers me most.
And then, as we near the ridge that will lead us to the 750-metre peak that is our goal, a miracle. The cloud peels away and under a luminous sky, a vast, crazy, 360-degree jigsaw of perfect white tabletops, badger-striped cliffs and tongues of blue-black water rolls out to the horizon.
Many hours from the nearest road or human habitation, the scene's raw, elemental might is mesmeric and for minutes we stand in silence. The humpback whale that had waved a fin at us an hour out of Isafjordur harbour was always going to be a hard wildlife act to follow. But the lone arctic fox that peers at us as it picks its way across an avalanche scar brings home the unimaginable challenge of survival here.
Cresting the ridge, we can see the white speck of the Aurora against the inky Lonafjordur ("lagoon fiord"), where Jonsson had sailed ahead. Then we choose the lines down to the water for the few minutes of skiing that will reward our four-hour climb. Karlsson recommends a 45 per cent drop between jutting columns of rock and in three minutes flat Sveinborg, Fresi, Kari and Gaddi have bombed the descent and are hiking towards the boat. The rest of us ride down a gentler basin, a pillowy expanse of bumps and dips.
The next day, conditions are so bad we stay boat-bound. "This is very unusual," Karlsson says. "Last year we lost only two of 60 skiing days on these trips. The previous year only one." Cabin fever is kept in check, though, by the crochet circle and a dice game called farkle.
On day three, the weather improves enough for a few runs of a 450-metre-high bowl just across the fiord - any higher and we'd need crampons. And on day four we tackle a precipitous couloir whose powder-choked pitch has been goading the expert skiers since we anchored.
This is tough. A layer of ice renders my snowshoes useless and I have to edge up and across a 50-degree incline, punching one then another fist into the snow, then ditto with my boots, while doing my best not to think about the rocky outcrops 30 metres below.
In minutes, Karlsson is at my side. And while his stated preference for "helmet-essential" sports isn't entirely reassuring, his expertise as a mountain guide and one of Iceland's leading avalanche authorities is, and he leads me to a more forgiving route. At the top of the couloir, we have tea and chocolate before the final run, a glorious, looping sprint down a perfect plane of virgin snow - exactly the ecstatic sign-off I'd hoped for.
Borea runs 10 ski-hiking adventures each season but only the first ends with a day at what is fast becoming the highlight of Isafjordur's cultural calendar. Aldrei For Eg Sudur - which translates as "I never went south", a reference to Isafjordur's resistance to the lure of Reykjavik's bright lights that have drained young people from countless other towns - is a free two-day music festival with an utter lack of pretension.
First staged in 2004, it now draws artists from all over the country, as well as a sprinkling of cool-spotters from Europe and the US, who help to almost double the town's population of 3000 for the weekend. Rock, electro, folk, hip-hop, lounge and punk share the stage before a crowd ranging from children to grandparents, which goes nuts for everyone from lone troubadours to theatrical thrash-metal outfits.
From our corner of the crowd, the biggest cheer of the night comes when 1950s Icelandic pop revivalists Kraftlyfting take to the stage, featuring on guitar one Runar Karlsson.
Icelandair flies within Europe and Iceland. From Paris, for example, Icelandair flies to Reykjavik for about $483 return including taxes. Air Iceland flies from Reykjavik to Isafjordur from about ISK5000 ($45) one way including tax.
Borea Adventures has five-day backcountry skiing trips on the Aurora from €1520 ($2380) excluding flights. See boreaadventures.com. The Aldrei For Eg Sudur music festival is held on April 2-3 in Idsafjorur; see aldrei.is. See also westfjords.is, visiticeland.com, icelandmusic.is.
- The Guardian