Backcountry Skiing Iceland: Wild for Opportunities

You know who you are. From the car window, you wonder if those mountains in the distance are skiable. Is that couloir with spring snow worth the hike?

...You put ski boots on as many months out of the year as you can – continually surveying the mountains and seeking that perfect line. For those of you who experience any of these symptoms, then Iceland is the place for you! The terrain is seemingly endless, and the only limiting factor may be your stamina and some harsh weather. The mountains may not rival the Alps or the Rockies in elevation, but they make up for it with a respectable vertical that will have you in some cases skiing from the peak to the high tide line. There is a patchwork of glaciers and stable snowpack that will keep you skiing throughout the year. In Iceland, it seems as though skiing is never that far away. Having grown up on the East Coast of the U.S., I am still amazed that I can have my skis on and begin skinning up within a 25-minute drive from Reykjavík.

A skier in Móskarðshnjúkar, Iceland.Skinning up the icy spring snows of Móskarðshnjúkar. Travelade/Parker. 

Obviously there is no bad time of year to ski. However, April is the perfect time of year to get out and put your boards in Iceland. The light has returned, the weather is warming, and the snowpack is more stable with spring conditions. This is by no means the rule, as windblown pockets of Icelandic powder may occasionally be found on the northern sides of mountains and valleys. In the north, the regions of Tröllaskagi (Troll Peninsula) and the Westfjords provide some world-class skiing with a variety of opportunities to match your budget – from Russian oligarch style on through to ski bum.

There are heli-skiing offerings (more oligarch) such as the legendary ski trips from Jökull Bergmann in the Troll Peninsula, and the breathtaking sailboat skiing adventures in the most remote fjords of Iceland on the Aurora and Arktika sailing adventures. These companies will run trips well into June and take advantage of skiing under the midnight sun. These adventures make for some spectacular memories.

There are many guided opportunities for ski touring throughout Iceland with certified guides. Hiring a guide is highly recommended for those of you who want to ski on Iceland’s glaciers. Iceland Mountain Guides offer a range of backcountry trips in different regions of the country of varying lengths. While these trips may seem expensive, they can save a lot of frustration, as these folks know their territory and where to take clients for a great experience. Perhaps even more importantly, they know of alternative options if the weather is terrible in a particular location. For the ski bum, look for the cheap rental car - an inexpensive 4x4 is highly recommended - and go out there and explore. You will not have to drive far to see the possibilities.

When I first arrived in Iceland, I dreamed of steep descents and knee-deep powder. I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but Iceland is no Utah or Hokkaido. I have found the steep descents, but the knee-deep powder has been elusive. This is not to say it never happens, but it is rare. My conclusion is that most of Iceland's powder snow if it does fall, is blown out into the North Atlantic very quickly. This does lead me to a cautionary note; always ski in with a group and bring the right gear for avalanches.* (International skiers, please make sure your beacon works for Europe!) My observation is that the mix of Icelandic weather can lead to an unstable snowpack. It is common to have a hard, windblown, icy slab as a foundation with a layer of new snow on top that makes for a dangerous avalanche mix. I always pack for avalanches and whenever there is some uncertainty in the conditions I pack crampons, ice axe, and harness for good measure. This equipment is essential once you venture onto the glaciers and should only be attempted with guides or experienced ski mountaineers.

Perhaps the most critical aspect of enjoying skiing in Iceland is to be adaptable. I have been out on gorgeous sunny days where the wind gusts will blow you over. I have experienced perfect spring corn at the end of June on a steaming volcano. I have smiled down a teeth-chattering frozen hardpack on trails as wide as a king size mattress. I have fallen (and barely got up again) in sponge-like snow in disorienting whiteout conditions. In Iceland, you never know what you are going to get. It is all a matter of relativity - now when there is a light powder snowfall that my bindings disappear into, I am thrilled!  

Here are some backcountry destinations that are close enough to Reykjavík to make for a perfect day of skiing – weather permitting!
 

1. Esja

Mt. Esja and Reykjavik, Iceland.Esja is usually covered in snow during the winter months. Travelade/iStockphoto. 

This is the mountain on the outskirts of the city that you can see from many hotel rooms. Esja is a very popular hike all year round and is good for skiing to if the conditions are right. Still, be prepared, avalanches have occurred on Esja. If you are lucky, you can ski right back to the parking lot. (Approximately 25 minutes from downtown Reykjavik). 
 

2. Skálafell

A backcountry skier in the slopes of Skálafell, Iceland.Enjoying a little bit of powder on the backside of Skálafell a gorgeous day. Travelade/Parker. 

This is a small ski area off of Route 36 to Thingvellir. A few lifts are servicing the ski area, but frequently the mountain is closed due to the wind. Park close to the small huts/lodges and skin up to the radio towers and then down the backside. Of course, you will have to skin back up, but often the north side of the mountain will have some delightful snow that makes it all worthwhile. (Approximately 30 minutes from downtown Reykjavik)
 

3. Snæfellsjökull

A man in a red jacket, standing in front of a large snowbankOn the right day, Snæfellsjökull provides some glorious views. Travelade/Parker. 

On the right day, this is a stunning ski setting. Approach the mountain from 574 south. Right before Arnarstapi there is mountain road F570. Drive as far as you can to the snow line. Snæfellsjokul is capped by a glacier so proceed with caution.

Although the crater does not provide access to other worlds as Jules Verne describes it in “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” the views from this peak on the tip of the peninsula on a clear day are gorgeous. (Approximately 2.5-hour drive from Reykjavík).
 

4. Botnssúlur

Backcountry skiers on Botnsúlur mountains, completely covered in snow.On the peak of Botnsúlur after a steep climb. Travelade/Parker. 
 

Another beautiful mountain not far off of Route 36 to Thingvellir. I recommend getting a ride with a super jeep in as far as you can, or you will be walking in for too long. This is no place for a rental Toyota RAV4 either! If you can make it to the base, and the weather cooperates, you will be rewarded with fantastic views of Lake Thingvellir and seemingly endless peaks. The top quarter of the climb is crampon-steep and qualifies as a zone you do not want to fall on especially if the snow is hard.

Take Route 36 to Thingvellir and look for Route 52. You drive on 52 for approximately three kilometers. There is a dirt track on the left that takes you to hiking trails for the Botnssúlur and surrounding peaks. (Approximately one hour drive from downtown Reykjavik)
 

5. Hekla

A skier sking down the slopes of Mt. Hekla, Iceland.Late summer ski down Hekla. Travelade/Parker. 

This was a first for me in my ski book. Hekla is an impressive volcano on Iceland’s South Coast. It is the first time I have skinned up a mountain and once at the summit took off my skis to walk around on the bare rocks. I felt the ground, and it was hot to the touch. An eerie but fascinating feeling that makes you wonder “What if…?” a lot. I did glance over my shoulder a few times on my way down. I was lucky to be with a friend who had a good 4X4, and we were able to drive all the way up to the snow line in late June.

From Reykjavík, take the Ring Road 1 to Selfoss. Continue on 1 to Route 26. Drive on Route 26 until you see the signs and parking area for F225 to Landmannalaugar. (Reminder, this is an F road, and you are responsible for your actions. Insurance does not cover vehicles on these roads.) About five kilometers on F225 there is a sign for an even rougher dirt road to access Hekla. Drive as far as you can. (Approximately two-hour drive from downtown Reykjavik)


* Please ski smart! We all know that backcountry skiing is inherently dangerous. This article is by no means suggesting you, or anyone, just go out and “experiment” on the mountain. Learn to read the snow and how to use your gear. Learn the terrain with experienced skiers and better yet, an Icelandic guide. Ski safely!