Iceland – Part Three – A Ski Day in West Fjords
The opportunity to ski Iceland was hard to pass up. A hardy winter had loaded the mountains to the north with snow and West Fjords was a mystical place I read about in a ski magazine long ago. I was hoping to ski a day or two in Isajafjord and of course, see and hike as much of Iceland as possible in our two weeks. So yes, I got some skiing in while here, but first we had to get there.
While most visitors fly to Isafjord, Tabitha and I elected to drive. We left Olafsvik and drove many miles before encountering the renowned fjords of Isafjardardjup. Iceland obviously loves roads that lead to unimaginable places. One has to be amazed at how they thread through the country, paved and unpaved. So, once again we rocked through gale force winds in each of the fjords, watching sea spray blow off mounting seas.
This was one of the most challenging driving experiences of my life, complicated by a route around five fjords. The road was narrowly paved with one lane bridges as it traversed the non-stop steep glacial carved mountsides. We saw few vehicles and slow-poked looking for birds and arriving in Isafjord by late afternoon, sharing a large campground with only four tenters from Wisconsin.
The area is not volcanic and its unique terrain features were created by the coming and going of glaciers over the eons along with the erosive effects of pounding seas, rain, and avalanches as the mountains grew from the sea, much like the Chugach. The snows outline vertical and horizontal features across the landscapes, creating a mosaic of unique snow forms on steep mountain sides. Small sheep farms dotted the wicked landscape and we spotted a few clusters of net pens holding cod.
The weather was rainy our first full day, but the forecast for the next day looked good for skiing. The ski culture is solid with a strong core of nordic types, so we put on the rain gear and hiked above town and visited the nordic center, which still had enough snow to groom. Along with the nordic center Isafjord has a fairly well-developed ski-lift system near town. A few of the steep couloirs around the community showed recent ski activity, though as you can see from the pics, they were turning rotten. I counted 65 skiable couloirs on the mountains across the way, each running at 45-50 degrees for 2000’+.
The town fully embraces ski touring, and you can find guides and boats to take you to remote secret stashes that have you dropping to the ocean. I suspect the weather is much like Valdez, with clouds dominating and flat light common. They don’t get the snowfall amounts we do, but they make that up with fantastic touring terrain in most winter months and the well-developed nordic center placed high above town. And, every ski poster I saw in bars or bathrooms was of a telemark skier ripping turns above the ocean.
On our second day we were up early as blue holes popped in and out overhead. We promptly left the campsite and within minutes were parked at the ski area cluttered with worn-out ski groomers and a single snow making machine. The terrain ahead was perfect. Tabitha had brought her snow shoes and was game to follow me up as far as she wanted, knowing I would eventually dash out on my own to seek a good line.
(Checking the weather, getting local beta – Borea Cafe)
The snow was perfect. A few inches of fresh snow mixed with melting grauple over a bullet-proof snowpack created a snow surface unlike any I had skied in the Chugach. It was easy going as we meandered up gentle slopes that spread for miles into Iceland from the coast.
Ahead, the cumulus clouds boiled dark and moved fast over the low mountains and mesas. I had spotted my objective the day before from town and I could think of nothing more appealing than a challenging solo ski tour to the top of something – anything – in Iceland. As my pace quickened and Tabitha felt she had gone far enough with her ski-focused husband, we chatted briefly and I took off, nose to the wind, toward sleet squalls dappled with summer’s sun rays.
Vast snowfields to the west allow even more ski touring than I could shake a ski pole at. In summer, it looks like it would be incredible for hiking or backpacking. The mountains look much taller than measured, so the ski runs don’t compare to Valdez’s vertical relief. 2000 foot runs are perhaps the norm. They don’t get much powder and most snow contains sleet as I had learned following their avalanche forecasts this past winter. The snowpack turns hard often and heavy snowfalls are rare. Odd for a place this far north, in that it doesn’t get much below freezing due to its coastal climate and the fact that Iceland lays below the Arctic Circle. I suspect wind is the primary deterrent for skiing, followed by flat light. But like Valdez, I’m sure residency has its advantages, and good days do come.
At this point I had doubts about going any further. I dreaded getting lost or injured, making the local news as “Veteran Valdez Ski Guide Goes Amiss!”. But with years of solo experience, I didn’t balk, embracing the mental challenge of a new route problem to solve in a completely alien part of the world.
An intense sleet storm had brought me to a halt behind a rock where I nibbled on gorp and a Gu. I glanced through mist, fixing my attention on a distant rock toward which to head to next, then another. Then the clouds broke again and I was in the right place. This is what I wanted – to be solo in new terrain, making my own way, with none of the protection experience gives me in the Valdez mountains. I brought no map and my “compass” has always read either up or down. My cell phone ceased to operate in Iceland. We saw no one after leaving the trailhead and now I was alone in my element. The snow was stable as the clouds tempered any solar effect on the inch or two of soft snow on the surface. My pace steadied after my short break and the squall soon passed. Another squall was forming to the south but I thought I had enough time to keep moving up to the summit and began working my way through the snow with more pep.
Eventually I came to steeper traverses and kick turns. As the angles increased, my ski edges began failing on the ice-hard layer hidden an inch or so beneath the soft snow. It took little time to throw my skis on my pack and boot to the summit, which was a simple, broad, flat area decorated with an assortment of towers and wires attesting to man’s perceived dominance over the earth, but not its airwaves. There is great sense of open skies and wild lands here in this remote part of Iceland.
I took my time peeling my skins, putting my helmet on and tightening all my straps. As is frequently the case, my beacon seemed to be transmitting uselessly as I stood alone on top. Squalls hustled about, the wind came and went. The sun would warm me for minutes before being chased away. Looking around the endless terrain, both gentle and steep, had me wondering how neat it would be to live and ski here for a lifetime and to learn the whims of weather and where the good snows lay. The descent off the top was pretty straight forward. I checked my first few turns and then placed S-scars on untracked snow down the steepest section I could sense, dodging a rock or two with a slight smile, making “hero” turns in light corn.
I felt good cruising out on gentle rollers the rest of the run with nothing in the way. Down I went until eventually finishing by descending through the ski area right to the camper door in the country of Nice-land.
Next : Birding And The Greenland Sea