After a season skiing in the Three Valleys it feels like I’ve gone back in time when I next hit the slopes. It’s late April and I’m accessing the peaks with my various ski buddies via the ‘Hildur’, a 60-ft, two-masted oak schooner. What's more, once we arrive at the foot of the peaks we reach their summits the old fashioned way, by using skins on the bottom of our skis to walk up each and every turn.
But this is Iceland, and Iceland is not a country where you do things the normal way, skiing included. For instance, on the second day of our five-day ski and sail extravaganza along the country’s north coast there’s a slight mishap when hopping into the tender boats used to ferry us out to the ‘Hildur’ at the end of our day’s skiing. Result: ski boots full of seawater. I’ve had many problems with ski boots in the past, but this is the first time I’ve ever had to remove them to empty out a litre of the North Atlantic Ocean.
Things are no less tricky when it comes to discussing where you’re going to ski. No-one other than our local guide, Friðjón Þórleifsson, can even get close to pronouncing the names of the various mountains we’re playing on - on the same day as the ocean inundates my boots we ski a 1129-metre summit that goes by the name of Skálavíkurhnjúhur.
Getting to the top of Skálavíkurhnjúhur is even more challenging than trying to pronounce it, for although there’s no actual climbing involved, it’s still a long, hard slog of several hours on your skis. But Iceland lends itself well to a trip like this, where you use a boat as your base from which to ski. We're exploring the peaks of the Í Fjörðum region which we’re exploring are easily reached in just a few hours sailing from the busy whale watching centre of Húsavík on the north shore of the island.
I’d been attracted to try ski touring after a season of being ferried serenely uphill on the ski lifts of the Three Valleys. And I was also drawn to Iceland's very different alpine environment - after all, there are few places where you can stand on top of a mountain and look down on the deep, blue waters of the North Atlantic. From our vantage point at the top of Skálavíkurhnjúhur we could make out Flatey Island, a small dot just offshore, where the snow met the sea. And further north was the outline of Grímsey Island, which is bisected by the boundary of the Arctic Circle (we later sailed there, just to say we’d been to the Arctic). Beyond that there is nothing, until you hit the pack ice of the Arctic Ocean.
Our days followed a regular pattern. Rise to bright sunlight glinting on the still waters of whichever bay we’d anchored in for the night, down a huge breakfast and then start getting into our ski kit. In the relatively confined quarters of the ‘Hildur’ this was done in shifts, and once everyone was fully kitted up we lowered skis, poles and rucksacks into the Zodiac tender and headed ashore.
Once on land we'd hike up to the snowline, which thanks to a relatively mild winter at around 200 metres above sea level (most years the snow line will come down to sea level). Here we remove skis from packs, attach skins, clip into the bindings and then settle in for several hours of walking up to our chosen summit. The hard work was rewarded with tremendous views of glorious, elemental sub-Arctic landscapes – sky, snow, sea.
Most of the mountains that stand guard along this stretch of Iceland’s north coast top out at around 1000-metres, which means that when you finally remove your skins, fasten all loose clothing and set off to hurtle back downhill you’ve earned a descent as long as that in many ski resorts.
But unlike most ski resorts this descent will be with just a handful of friends on untracked spring snow, with no sign of humankind to be seen anywhere other than in the form of the ‘Hildur’, a tiny speck sitting on the placid of the Greenland Sea far below to eventually welcome us back to warmth and comfort after a long, grin-inducing descent which almost makes you ready to head back up and do it all again.
Bergmenn Mountain Guides (bergmenn.com) offer a five-day ‘Ski to the Sea’ schooner skiing adventure trip costing from €1490 including accommodation and all meals aboard the schooners ‘Hildur’ or ‘Haukur’, ski guiding, transportation Akureyri - Húsavík – Akureyri, use of emergency equipment and communications and rental of glacier travel gear (ropes, harness, crampons).
Easy Jet (easyjet.com) Edinburgh, Manchester and Luton to Keflavik International from £103.20 return (April). Reykjavik Domestic – Akureyri with Air Iceland (airiceland.info) from €150 return (April).
Iceland Tourist Board: visiticeland.com
When to go: early to late April