Forums Trip Reports corn in the land of fire and ice–two weeks in iceland
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    it’s been awhile since i’ve been on a trip. sure, i’ve done a few long drives and slept in my van at plenty of trailheads, but otherwise it’s been 3 years since my last trip turned into a 2 year mini-retirement. i’d been thinking all winter about a spring road trip pilgrimage to AK, but the sketchy snowpack up there (and the dubious engine in my van) had me open to alternatives.

    it was a rainy night in camp, somewhere on the north side of rainier (on a scouting mission for this trip) when kyle mentioned his plans for a nordic adventure (in a slightly more literal sense than the 16 miles of road we were looking forward to skinning the next day). i wasn’t sure i could swing the “month in norway” part of the trip due to work obligations, but the “bonus week in iceland” sounded like a great chance to climb some mountains in a new and novel part of the planet. and so the gears began to turn…

    plane ticket… check
    2 weeks off work… check
    climbing skins waxed… check

    the last step was using the freight scale at work to see just how many dehydrated meals i could carry for kyle.

    and next thing i knew i was stumbling groggily off an airplane in keflavik. the process of early morning foreign car rental was aided immensely by the presence of this perplexingly complex coffee machine in the lobby. while jason listened the the sales pitch on “ash storm insurance” we managed to try out pretty much every button. smiles were abound by the time we stepped outside to begin cramming gear into our truck.

    first stop was the city of reykjavik to purchase supplies and snap some obligatory photos.

    um, were we supposed to pay to come up here?

    turned out it wasn’t a dispensary after all.

    we quickly left behind the city where grocery stores are still closed at 10am on a weekday and headed north towards the snow. we were soon the only vehicle on the road, which made stopping for photos rather simple.

    we made up our plan as we drove towards the westfjords. i wanted to set up tents and camp, but through the magic of the internet, gabe knew of a woman who had just bought some icelandic property and was staying with the locals in a sleepy little fishing town on the north coast. turns out i had climbed some mountains with her in new zealand a few years back. so the tents stayed in the truck, and by nightfall we were setting up “camp” in a small house in Þingeyri (thingeyri).

    good weather greeted us the next morning, and with this view out the kitchen window, it was not hard to choose a first line.

    a couple of our new friends joined us for the morning’s climb, which proved helpful in communicating with the folks at the farm where we parked. however, no commands in english, icelandic, or polish could convince the farm dog to stay at his home.

    topping out with Þingeyri in the background.

    “try to look more like a viking!”

    first line of the trip! (credit for first descent goes to the farm dog)

    now where’d we park?

    we parted ways with our friends and set out to explore the area, take some photos, and find something else to ride.

    the northern landscape seems bleak and monochromatic at first. my eyes scan everywhere in a futile search for a tree to break up the skyline or contrast the color of the snow and rocks. but the detail here is more subtle–the shifting colors of the sky, changing textures in the intensely wind affected snow, and the juxtaposition of modern construction with pragmatic, time-weathered farm buildings.

    the challenge was not in _finding_ a line to ride but in choosing among the many roadside options. eventually, we chose a ridge with a scenic backdrop over the many rocky chutes.

    we gained the summit with a bit of daylight left and decided to wait for sunset before making our descent. yes, this was jason’s idea!

    nothing helps pass the time on a mountain top like some “delicious” icelandic beer.

    eventually, our patience paid off, and the sun began to peek below the cloud deck.

    we inched out to the ridge as jason moved into position below, waiting for the moment when the sun was completely visible between the clouds and the sea.

    totally worth the wait!!

    (photo of me credit: jason hummel)

    back in town, our new friends had been cooking all evening for a birthday party, and we were graciously invited.

    what better way to end an amazing first day of riding than swapping stories with local adventurers over a massive feast?

    the sky was pretty cloudy the next morning, so we decided to visit the folks we’d met the previous night while we waited for the snow to corn up. our hosts ran a small cafe that was closed up for the winter, but looks like a great place to stop in the summer.

    dropping by the local sailboat-based ski guide’s winter residence for breakfast.

    pot bellied wood stove in a yurt… what more do you need??

    no visit to iceland is complete without mingling with the friendly, hardy, icelandic horses.

    i thought this dog looked familiar, and yep, he turned out to be a close relative of the farm dog that led us down the mountain yesterday. it’s a small island!

    the snow was softening up, and it was time to go find something to ride. fortunately in the westfjords, this consists of driving around while looking up, and then parking right at the base your line. surely a far cry from the “bushwhacking through the dark” routine that starts so many ski days in the cascades.

    this looks promising…

    this small town, flateyri, was decimated by an avalanche about 20 years ago and has since constructed large earthen walls to deflect avi debris. so the slopes above seemed a logical place to find some good riding.

    the climb was a little sketchy in places, but we soon found ourselves traversing into a couloir that pretty much ran to the ocean!

    we had to ollie over a bit of road, but were quite happy about achieving our goal of riding to the “beach”.

    (photo credit: jason hummel)

    most nights on this trip involved a midnight wakeup in hopes of photographing northern lights. the aurora forecast was good for this evening, so we drove out to the countryside with the cameras.

    the clouds were too dense to see much sky, but jason still had fun getting some long exposure photos.

    kyle packs a mean lunch!

    iceland’s westfjord tunnel system is impressive in its length (over 9km), intimidating in its width (mostly one shared for bidirectional traffic), and unique in its complexity (don’t let the flash from the speed camera distract you from the signs for the subterranean intersection, lest you end up in the wrong valley with a speeding ticket!). we felt obligated to explore the other fork and so found ourselves climbing above the tiny fishing villiage of sudereyri near the western entrance to the tunnels.

    it was a great corn run on some pretty featureless snow… but i’ll show the picture anyway because jumping over that glide crack was pretty fun.

    our plan was to drive back through the tunnels to the town of isafjordur in search of some steep couloirs… but by the time we emerged from the bowels of the mountain, rain had started, rendering the already soggy snowpack a little unstable for our tastes. so we amused ourselves with a walk about town, shooting some photos and vowing to come back…

    we had heard from our new friends in Þingeyri that there was a fourth (and final) member of the westfjords ski touring community, and without ever having met him found ourselves invited to spend the night at his place here in isafjorður. through the internet grapevine, we’d also heard that some american skiers and photographers (including some representatives of the northwest) were sailing into town on the ski sailboat that evening. so what started as a disappointing rainy afternoon turned into a fun little dinner party. here jason starts things off with a soon-to-be-finished bottle of duty free vodka.

    the rest of the night was a bit of a blur, but i got to sleep in this super cool attic while listening to the rain attacking the sheet metal roof just above my head. after many stormy nights in my van, this has become one of my favorite sounds to sleep to. only a little bit of water got through…

    soon we were back on the road, using the stormy day to travel east towards the troll peninsula. the hundreds of roadside couloirs will have to wait for another trip. isafjorður, i’ll be back!

    i’d hoped to spend the day searching for (and soaking in) some sort of rustic, undeveloped hot spring, but the rest of the group was much more motivated to cover some ground and find somewhere to stay that night. so i made due with a quick stop at an old, deserted-looking hotel with this oceanside hot pool.

    the rest of the day was alternately spent lounging in the front seat or crushing in to the 1.5 seats worth of space that 2 of us shared in the back and alternating every time we parked in the middle of the deserted road to take pictures. it was one of the few road trips where everyone wants to drive.

    we passed through the north’s biggest city (town) of akureyri and headed north along the fjord before stopping in the town of dalvik. it was our first night of the trip paying for accommodations, but the hostel owner made it worth our while by opening up his cafe to pour us some beer. the first decent brew of the trip.

    the night was cold and clear, and as always, i went for a late night walk, staring at the sky…. and this time it paid off! (if only i had a tripod… or had succeeded in getting jason out of bed!)

    “then let’s get tons of fuel and go here!”

    the north tip of the troll peninsula features two more modern (ie 2 lane! and extra speed cameras!) tunnels that opened in 2010, connecting the towns of Ólafsfjörður and siglufjörður. for our last day of riding together, i had requested that we climb a peak by each town so that i could scope out the regions and decide where i wanted to be left when kyle and jason took off with the truck. our first run of the day climbed a southeast facing line near the east entrance to the tunnels.

    in the westfjords, we had practically doubled the ski touring population just by showing up with 4 people. every line we climbed left us wondering if we were the first feet on those rocks. things are a little different here. this is where tourists come to ride helis and ski lines. we knew right away that ours would not be the first tracks on this peak.

    looking down at Ólafsfjörður. the snow covered road was replaced with the múlagöng tunnel (visible where the 2nd road appears underneath the snowy one) in 1982.

    this trip was the first time i’d met gabe, but he proved to be a fun travel companion and a great snowboarder.

    as with most of our runs, the corn snow ranged from fun and firm at the top to fun and sloppy at the bottom. kyle ripped up all of it!

    jason shows us snowboarders how to do a proper hand drag.

    we had amassed a small group of village spectators by the time we made it to the bottom.

    that afternoon, we drove through the tunnels to siglufjörður and stopped in at a bar where gabe met the heli crew with whom he’d be spending the next couple weeks. as we sipped beer, we looked up and saw this peak.

    there’s something pretty rad about a place where you can spot a line from the bar at 5pm and get to the top with daylight to spare.

    as was our custom for this trip, we decided to hang out on the peak and wait for some good sunset light for jason to photograph our descent.

    we whiled away the minutes by jumping off this little cornice. thanks for the photo, gabe, and thanks for the mighty push, kyle!

    (yep, that’s jason under the cornice… maybe we’ll see his photo one of these days!)

    this is where i’ll be staying tonight…

    finally, we got our light and decided it was time to rip some corn… the last run for our group.

    …and that was that. the sun was going down, and kyle and jason had a 7am flight to norway from reykjavik on the other side of the country. we quickly separated our gear; gabe was off to the heli crew’s guesthouse and i was off to wake up a hostel owner. i did not envy kyle and jason’s drive through the night, although apparently they saw some awesome aurora…

    it had been great fun travelling with friends new and old, but i was looking forward to doing some exploring on my own. the loss of the truck presented a bit of a challenge, though. i’m certainly a car-oriented person, and ski touring is usually a pretty car-reliant sport. but fortunately i’d positioned myself well and had several fun-looking options within road-hiking or hitchhiking range.

    i opted to hike down the highway towards the local ski hill (opens at 4pm on weekdays, thanks to the late sunset!).

    as i skinned above the tiny ski field, i saw this gully across the valley and knew right away it would be my second run.

    i found a cool solar powered repeater tower at the summit, and settled in for lunch. the town that i’d hiked from is barely visible at the end of the fjord on the right. i’d thought about dropping down to the left and hiking the road back to town, but the snow on that westerly side had received little sun and was still rather icy.

    i had stopped by a bakery on my hike out of town, and ended up carrying a loaf of bread to the summit. i’m not sure exactly what type of cured meat “spægipylsa” is, but i sure ate a lot of it.

    (the lecherous-looking “bonus pig” is your friend in iceland!)

    an imposing storm begin to approach from the west as i enjoyed my sandwich. i decided it was time to get out of there while i could still see.

    looking back up from the “ski resort” at my run from the repeater tower. the rain had already started, but i decided to go ride the cool-looking gully anyway.

    it was still storming the next day, so i spent a little while hanging out with gabe’s heli crew at their posh guesthouse, but soon my feet began to itch.

    i loaded up my heavy bags of gear and caught a bus to akureyri. i figured if it was going to be cloudy and rainy, i might as well hang out in a “city”.

    well, the “city” didn’t hold my interest for long, so i rented a little econo-car, and set out to do some “sightseeing” in a gathering storm.

    it turned out to be quite an adventure of a day. my goal was to check out some of the geothermal attractions of the area, and hopefully find a hot spring in a cave. the wind increased, the snow began to fall (by which i mean “blow sideways”) and the road turned to a 100km skating rink. but i found the cave (and some good company!), saw some boiling mud pots and silica-colored water, rescued a local teenager who’d driven off the road, and still made the drive back to town before dark. i’ve spent a lifetime chasing winter storms (and grew up in the bitter north east), but i’ve never done any storm driving like this. negligible visibility, sheer ice on the road, and wind that will tear your car door right off!

    the road was still in “pretty good shape” at this point.

    goðafoss — “waterfall of the gods”

    a steaming fissure in the earth… there’s gotta be something cool around here…

    there is bushwhacking in iceland after all.

    i found the cave!

    (my camera couldn’t do this place justice, so i borrowed this picture from will wisman’s facebook wall–he and gabe were there earlier that day, apparently.)

    perfect temperature water, a rock ceiling to keep the howling wind and snow out… i didn’t expect to have the place to myself!

    i made it back to the city in time to spend a little money at the expensive akureyri bars.

    how do the roads and sidewalks stay clear during the vicious icelandic snowstorms? geothermal heating!

    the weather was supposed to clear “a little” the next day, and it was my last chance to get out on my board, so i hitch hiked to hlíðarfjall–the local ski resort. it seemed like the easiest route to the snow…

    after consulting with a ski patroller who confirmed my fears of slabby snow, i decided to check out the lower-angled slopes directly above the resort. as i climbed, the cloud level began to drop…

    until by the time i stopped for lunch “to see if the vis gets better” i could see nothing in any direction. i literally could not see my own skin track in the snow, so i used my gps to follow it through the white out back toward the resort.

    so complete was the lack of sensory perception, and so slow was my progress, that i began to entertain delusions that the entirety of civilization had disappeared into the all consuming fog. i must say i was a little relieved when the first resort structures appeared through the mist… and a little amazed to see people still out skiing.

    i hitched back to town in time to catch the cross-country bus back to reykjavik. it was saturday, and i wanted to see if they really do party all night in the capital city.

    suffice it to say… they do! those too young to enter the bars pack the streets into a party-sized traffic jam. there are huge lines to enter any place with music (and this was still the case when i retired at 4am), but there are no cover charges. i checked out several spots and found that the djs universally play dated, crappy american dance-pop, but i found a dark little venue with an icelandic metal band and had fun head-banging with some tough looking locals. a couple cell phone pics to prove it happened:

    with one last day to kill, i had one mission to accomplish. the girls i’d met in the hot spring cave had told me of a “hot creek” in the hills about an hour east of reykjavik. i figured with a whole day i could find my way there and back, so i rose after a couple hours’ sleep to start my mission. my hopes of utilizing public transit to get out of the city were soon dashed when i realized that i was quite literally the only person awake in the entire city on this fine morning.

    with no busses running, and almost no one driving the roads, i hiked through the city for a couple hours looking for a good hitch hiking spot.

    after another hour of waiting, and a couple short rides, i made it out of the city. it was easier than i’d feared catching a ride to my destination town, though my automotive benefactor declined to drive me to the trailhead, adding another hour of urban hiking to my mission. but by mid afternoon i found myself climbing through a beautiful valley, with promising tufts of steam rising in every direction.

    this town, hveragerði, is a “hotbed” of icelandic horticulture, which consists of growing tomatoes and peppers in geothermally heated greenhouses. every time there is an earthquake, the hot wells change, and the greenhouses must change location with them, leaving many abandoned and disused.

    the weather was pleasant, the hiking was enjoyable, and the geothermal activity increased as i climbed. eventually the trail was obscured by sulfur-smelling steam, and when i emerged from the other side, there it was!

    i spent an incredibly pleasant hour relaxing in the perfectly heated stream, where i eventually met a canadian family and their icelandic friends who generously offered me a ride back to the city.

    i was amused to find that after a week and a half of hiking, ski touring, and walking roadsides in ski boots, my feet had only, finally, developed blisters after this long afternoon of unladen walking. i gratefully accepted the ride, and joined them for the hike back down the valley.

    what’s left of the trip at this point? well, i had an evening and a morning to kill before my flight home, so i limped about the city, finding a small jazz club, and a few things to photograph.

    i had no burning desire to eat whale meat, i’d already tried the famous (or infamous?) fermented shark, but there where a few things left that i wanted to eat that had not yet made their way into my grocery store lunchmeat diet.

    (yes, there are horse steaks on that menu if you read the fine print)

    smoked trout, sheep head cheese, potatoes mashed with fish, turnips, and rye flatbread. my last meal in iceland was a good one!

    one last tourist photo, from inside the harpa–reykjavik’s famous and beautiful concert hall.

    this trip was an amazing experience in so many ways… seeing a new part of the world that is so full of contrasts with my home… meeting some amazing people… riding corn snow to the sea side… finding my new favorite hot springs…. but in the end, when i looked out the airplane window as the cascades came in to view, my heart filled with a sense of happy homecoming. how lucky am i to call this place home, where so much adventure and exploration waits just outside my doorstep!

    336 Posts


    675 Posts

    Thanks for sharing Ben, Iceland is for sure on my hit list for the future… you down to give up the beta on the hot river? 😆

    874 Posts

    WOW! :bow: Thanks for your time to share this AMAZING TR! :thumpsup: :thumpsup:

    165 Venture Divide/Spark Frankenburners/La Sportiva Spantiks
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    Kyle Miller
    510 Posts

    Thank you so much for being an awesome touring partner. I had a total blast!!!

    Iceland is such an amazing place and I highly recommend it to anyone who likes car side access in a stunning landscape. If the weather is good it is simply amazing but if the weather goes bad….your f**ked.

    Too bad I didn’t achieve my third goal to soak in a hot springs, looks like I will have to go back.

    1113 Posts

    Quite a trip Ben and Kyle! Super jealous! The sunset riding shots are killer.

    601 Posts

    Rad TR. Thanks for sharing.

    @bs. wrote:

    totally worth the wait!!

    (photo of me credit: jason hummel)

    Yes it was.

    p.s. spægipylsa = salami

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    330 Posts

    Awesome report Ben. Looks like you guys had a good time regardless of the conditions.

    Great photos

    Iceland’s got some rad graf artists

    351 Posts

    Nicely done!!!

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