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Backcountry skiing in Iceland – in search of true wilderness

Original post: Another World Adventures

14/09/2015
4mins read

Backcountry skiing in Iceland…. on a sailboat???

I’d been itching to return to Iceland since visiting back in 2013. During that trip we’d been told by the locals about the magical wilderness of the West Fjords but bad weather had prevented us from making the drive north. So when I got the chance to go on a backcountry ski trip exploring this region I leapt at the chance – sweeping aside the fact that I wasn’t an experienced skier (or at that time particularly fit).

This is a backcountry skiing trip with a difference. Your moveable base is a sailboat allowing exploration of the mountains, sheltered fjords and bays of the West Fjords that are otherwise inaccessible. The 60ft yacht was built as part of the Challenger fleet for round the world racing but has been refurbished for expeditions and adventure sailing. Accommodation is simple and utilitarian, but offers adequate space for up to 10 on board and plenty of hot water and heaters to keep both skiers and their kit warm and dry. The saloon and galley make for a perfect place to hang out in the evenings telling stories over a glass of Icelandic spirit and a delicious meal cooked by the boat’s Skipper.

I joined the boat in Ísafjörður in the north of Iceland and met our Skipper, guide and 7 other guests of various ages and nationalities all excited about what lay in store for the week ahead. The operator is the type we love working with, a small, specialist outfit with guides who know the local area like the back of their hand and are hugely passionate about helping others experience it.

After a good first night’s sleep on board in the harbour we set sail for the beautiful Hornstrandir Nature Reserve where we would be spending most of the week. Only a few miles from the Arctic Circle, the reserve is a haven for wildlife with an abundance of bird, seal and whale species. I had hoped to to spot the dream-like Arctic Fox and on the second morning one was duly spotted. Not the ghostly white I had imagined but a beautiful chocolate brown, well camouflaged on the rocky beach of the fjord.

The reserve offers a diversity of slope grades and all backcountry skiing abilities are catered for on the trip (luckily for me). For the more experienced within the group , there were mountains and ridges that have never been skied before and our expert guide was always on the look out for nice first descents. This is true wilderness and we didn’t see a sole for 5 days. The snow was perfect, the slopes silent and the views of the white mountains, blue fjords and green bays absolutely stunning. We couldn’t take good enough photos to do it justice.

Of course getting to the top of the slopes was half the experience and it started on board the boat. After a hearty breakfast and loading up on sandwiches and snacks for the day we undertook the slightly bizarre process of getting ourselves plus ski equipment from the boat on to a little dingy from which our Skipper would drop us on the beach. Not many skiers can say they started the day wading through seaweed. Once on the beach with the snowy mountains in the background it was time to attach our climbing skins to our skis and start the ascent. There is nothing like a 2 hour hike to make you really appreciate a long ski run and the ups offered as many magical views as the downs as well as plenty of picture-perfect snack stops.

We generally spent 6-8 hours in the mountains each day with lunch on the go, but there was always the option for individuals to ski down to the anchored boat when they wanted a shorter day. A couple of us chose to spend an afternoon kayaking around the fjord taking photos and spotting wildlife (a couple of kayaks and paddleboards are generally carried on board). Our days were was varied as the Icelandic weather, sailing to a different fjord or bay each day. There is a saying in Iceland that “if you don’t like the weather wait 10 minutes” and this couldn’t have been more true. We took comfort in the fact that if it was blowing a blizzard in the morning by the afternoon we might have clear blue skies.

The ultimate icing on the cake? On the night of day 4 Charlotte had eagerly set her alarm for 1am in the hope of catching a glimpse of the Northern Lights. At 1:15 she shook the rest of the boat awake from deep sleep and told us to “get on the deck – NOW!”. Grabbing the warmest clothes I could find I arrived to see the sky illuminated with dancing green lights in a magical display that lasted over an hour.

We were watching the northern lights. On a sailboat. In a remote fjord with not a sole for miles. I forgot all about my aching limbs and boot blisters. It was one of the most incredible things I have ever experienced.

Get full details about how you can join this trip in 2016.

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