Backcountry Skiing and Sailing in Iceland’s Remote Westfjords

Our staff member Holly recently returned from a sailboat-based backcountry skiing trip in the remote Westfjords region of northern Iceland. She traveled with Emilie Drinkwater of Cloudsplitter Mountain Guides (formerly based in Keene Valley; now located in Salt Lake City, Utah) and Erica Engle of Jackson Hole Mountain Guides. Through a twist of fate and with some luck thrown in for good measure, what was originally planned to be a land-based exploratory backcountry skiing trip turned into a week-long skiing expedition aboard the 60-ft sailboat Aurora Arktika. On their trip, the Aurora sailed through the remote Hornstrandir – Iceland’s northernmost peninsula – which is also a nature preserve (see the maps below). A brief summary of her trip is below.

The Mountaineer is excited to announce that, in partnership with Cloudsplitter Mountain Guides, we will be offering this same trip to a limited number of skiers in 2017! Details are in the works. The combination of affordable travel costs and outstanding, easily accessible skiing for all abilities in the untouched Arctic make this a trip that cannot be missed! You can visit the website of the Aurora Arktika for more details about life aboard the sailboat. However, if we are lucky, next year’s trip will be aboard a newer, larger addition to the fleet. The new ship was in the process of being commissioned during her visit.

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The Westfjords (Vestfirdfir) Region of Iceland occupies the far northwestern corner of the country.

Travel to Iceland from the U.S. is remarkably easy and affordable. A five-hour direct flight from Boston Logan International Airport brings you to Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital (Icelandic airline WOW offers flights as low as $99 one-way). A 45-minute flight later aboard Air Iceland (Icelandic: Flugfélag Íslands), and you arrive in the unofficial capital of the Westfjords region, Ísafjörður. Opting to fly avoids what would otherwise be a treacherous 6-8 hour drive on a snowy, wind-scoured narrow highway. This small fishing village of 2,600 (whose name means “ice fjord”) is a great launching place for the trip, and offers several modern lodging options and a variety of restaurants (the two bakeries downtown are a must-visit).

Hornstrandir

Detail of the Westfjords region, with the Hornstrandir peninsula protruding into the Arctic Ocean.

The sailing portion of the trip begins and ends at Ísafjörður’s harbor. Once aboard, a three-hour sail (may be longer, depending on conditions) through the Arctic Ocean brings you to the remote fjords of the Hornstrandir, where your adventure truly begins. All meals are provided on-board, prepared fresh each day by the ship’s captain, Siggi-an accomplished ski mountaineer in his own right. A traditional Icelandic breakfast typically consists of coffee/tea and juice, yogurt with muesli, a variety of breads with fruit jam, and sliced cheeses and meats paired with cucumber and tomato. Lunch is brown-bag style: make a few sandwiches, grab some cookies and Icelandic chocolates, a bag of Gifflar cinnamon rolls, fill your thermos and water bottle and it’s time to ski!

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The Hornstrandir peninsula in remote northern Iceland–an isolated, unspoiled arctic landscape where the mountains rise directly out of the ocean. [Photo] Holly Blanchard

After a long day of skiing, it is a real treat to return back to the cozy confines of the Aurora. Here you can enjoy the last few hours of daylight on the deck, or curl up below with a good book after a hot meal. The Aurora also offers up kayaks and stand-up paddleboards for up-close exploration of Hornstrandir’s calm, interior waters: expect close encounters with harbor seals! Dinners were outstanding and prepared with fresh ingredients daily. We looked forward to enjoying fresh (not frozen) fish at almost every meal, hearty-yet-healthful stews and soups, steamed mussels handpicked from the beach at low tide, and vibrant salads. Each morning we awoke feeling sated and energized for another day of skiing.

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The ultimate exploratory backcountry skiing experience in the remote, undisturbed Arctic. [Photo] Emilie Drinkwater

The Aurora deploys a Zodiac to ferry skiers to and from the shoreline. Skis are loaded into the Zodiac and you must climb up and over the Aurora’s gunwale on a metal ladder to access the Zodiac–one misstep and into the Arctic Ocean you go! Luckily, no one fell in during our trip (although some of us did take the plunge voluntarily at the end of a long day of skiing). At times the Zodiac couldn’t quite reach the shoreline, and Captain Siggi graciously offered up piggy-back rides to avoid plunging our ski boots into the water (which was inevitable-ski boots are surprisingly watertight).

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Our home for the week, the 60-ft expeditionary sailboat Aurora Arktika. [Photo] Holly Blanchard

We were on the snow for approximately 8 hours each day (itineraries can vary based on a group’s ability). Each day’s ski involved skinning up and over a fjord (approximately 4,000 ft of elevation gain). The Aurora awaits you after your descent, having sailed around the peninsula after dropping us off in the morning. There were options for several additional runs throughout each day – a trip up an enticing couloir, a traverse over to a sunny corn slope, another run on a steep powder shot. If it looks good and it’s safe, go ski it! On the other hand, if you want to bail, you can always just ski down to the shore (a several-thousand foot run, nothing to sneeze at!), where the Zodiac awaits.

Given the amount of time spent on skis over the week, lighter-weight touring equipment is recommended for energy savings. I brought my trusty Dynafit Huascarans, paired with my Dynafit TLT-6 touring boot and Black Diamond Ascension Pure Mohair skins. More important than lightweight gear is familiarity and comfort with your equipment.

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Harbor seals curiously circled our Zodiac, their whiskered faces barely cresting the water’s surface. [Photo] Emilie Drinkwater

You can expect weather of all types during a ski trip in Iceland–we experienced sunny, bluebird skies, driving rain and snow, whiteout fog, and gale-force winds. Yet, we managed to ski every day! The weather changes quickly in Iceland. The ship’s crew has modern forecasting tools available to predict the best window for skiing weather. During the little bit of downtime we experienced, we watched movies, ate delicious food, caught up on our reading, shared our photos and enjoyed the camaraderie of our new international friends.

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Endless first descents await backcountry skiers in the Hornstrandir, where the elusive arctic fox scampers along the shorelines and snowy-plumed ptarmigan sit camouflaged among the barren landscape. [Photo] Emilie Drinkwater

Nothing beats the experience of gazing up at the Arctic Circle’s inky-black sky and watching the northern lights (Icelandic: Norður ljós) dance in the sky. Unfortunately, with my amateur photography skills, I was unable to capture them in a picture. A quick google search gives you a general idea of their appearance, but rest assured it is nothing like seeing them swirl through the sky in person — with harbor seals barking in the background as we cheer for the lights like you would at a fireworks display.

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Sunset from a protected harbor in the Hornstrandir. [Photo] Holly Blanchard