The Snow Report
THE HORSES IN ICELAND are notoriously small, but if you call them ponies you will catch a scolding or hear an unprintable translation of the phrase truntupussustrimlar; they can cover vast tracts of ground at a tölt (a brisk lateral gait) or a flugskeio (“flying pace”). Iceland’s mountains, too: they may seem small, but no one who has hiked or skied in them would dare call them hills. The alpine terrain is limitless and sublime, whether you explore it at a flugskeio or a tölt.
In the northwest of Iceland, more than five hours by car from Reykjavík, is a mountainous paw-shaped jut of land called the Troll Peninsula. Legend holds that Iceland’s last troll was killed in a cave there in 1764 by a farmer who was angry that the troll had stolen (and eaten) his cow. The peninsula’s highest peak is just over 5,000 feet above sea level, but the sea itself is right there at your feet; even into May you can often ski down to the shoreline. The maritime moisture content and the long, dark winters (the Arctic Circle is a few miles north) make for a stable, stubborn spring snowpack. Sometimes you get fresh powder, but in April and May—the heart of the Troll ski-touring season—you are more likely to find corn of the rare kind that doesn’t quickly turn to slop. It holds up all day as you follow the sun on its long, high arc. In May, a touch of twilight persists until midnight; you can head out for a day of skiing at cocktail hour.
“OK, boys, time to suit up,” our guide, Fridjon (pronounced free-on), said on the first afternoon. We’d pulled in an hour before, after a long drive around the barren western coast of Iceland, where we’d encountered more speed traps than trees. My brother and I were sitting out in the sun, acquainting ourselves with a few vessels of Viking Lager.
“Now?” my brother said. “It’s, like, five.”
“Sun is shining,” Fridjon said. “You may not see it again.”
We put down our beers and put on our boots. Within minutes a helicopter had deposited my brother, two friends, and me atop a peak called, of all things, the Horse, which overlooked, on one side, the snowless valley we’d just come from and, on the other, the fjord to the north. You could smell the sea. Fridjon said something that might have been in English and then pushed over a cornice and swooped 2,000 vertical feet without stopping or looking back. His turns were syncopated and unpretentious—casual.
“I guess that means we can go anywhere.”
“Except over that cliff.”
“Is that a cliff?”
The four of us fanned out across the cirque, each choosing a particular spar—a private variation on the fall line. The cliff, past a little spine of rocks, was in fact a silky steep pitch. This was better than beer. Over the course of the next 90 minutes we banged out six runs, yo-yoing our way north along the ridge in the direction of the coastal town of Dalvik and the Greenland Sea. The corn came in many varieties, some of it frosty and dry like panko, some of it thick and creamy like yogurt. The angular amber light hardly waned, as though the day had got stuck. It remained that way later on when we rejoined our Vikings and began to get a sense of where we’d landed.
WE WERE IN THE COMPANY and care of Jökull Bergmann, a Troll native and Iceland’s only internationally certified mountain guide. Bergmann pioneered skiing on the Troll. The first non-Icelander he took there on a ski tour, in 2000, was a longtime close friend of my family’s, a Swiss–Greek skiing fanatic my brother and I call Frog. Over the years, Bergmann and Frog spent many weeks skinning up the peaks surrounding Jökull’s family’s old farmhouse, in a remote valley called the Skidadalur. The name (dalur means “valley”) owes its origins not to the pastime that has sprung up there in the past decade, thanks in large part to the exertions of Jökull, but to the name of a Norwegian who settled there centuries ago. (As it happens, Jökull Bergmann means “glacier mountain man.” He wasn’t fated to fish for herring.) Frog likes to make short films of his trips; his Iceland vids, arriving in our inboxes in late spring, had become a perennial provocation. This time he’d invited us along. He’d arranged for a group of eight, including my father, my brother, a Swiss mountain-guide friend, and three friends from the States, to try out Bergmann’s fledgling operation, Arctic Heli Skiing, which he ran out of his farmhouse.
Jökull’s family has been farming in the valley since his forebears arrived there from Norway in the year 850. That’s right, 850. (Icelanders can trace their ancestry way, way back, thanks both to the Sagas—the Icelandic family histories written in the 13th and 14th centuries—and to peerlessly uncorrupted genealogical records.) When Jökull was born, in 1976, the farm belonged to his maternal grandparents. His mother was 19; his father was a short fling, never to be seen again. As a boy, Jökull spent a lot of time with his grandfather Hermann, a sheep farmer and nature buff who taught Jökull the names of flowers and rocks and took him scrambling up into the high country, which the valley farmers had traditionally stayed away from, owing to the caprices of the weather and the trolls. The two of them often took travelers on hikes into the mountains. At the age of seven, Jökull guided some tourists up the Horse, the peak that loomed over the house.
When Jökull was 16, he spent the summer climbing in Chamonix and the Dolomites. This was his first encounter with real mountain guides. He saw these weathered and hard-looking Alpine men with their official badges and decided he wanted to be one of them. A few years later, he returned to Chamonix to begin the long and arduous certification process, but after his grandmother died in 1999, he went back to Iceland to be with his grandfather, who was living in a nursing home in the village of Dalvik. (Jökull’s uncle had lost the farm to the bank.) That year he sprung his grandfather from the nursing home, and Hermann shuttled Jökull and Frog in a motorized skiff across the fjord to ski-tour in an isolated range called the Hidden Land. Jökull also took Frog to see the vacant and now dilapidated farmhouse and vowed that he’d one day get it back and turn it into a touring lodge.
His grandfather died on New Year’s Eve 2001. After the funeral, Jökull went ice climbing on a waterfall near the farm. He got caught in an avalanche and was swept over a cliff. He tumbled nearly 2,000 feet down the mountain, breaking three vertebrae in his neck and 13 other bones. He spent three months on his back, in the care of the nurse who’d looked after his grandfather in the nursing home, a woman named Sunna. He and Sunna wound up falling in love and having children together. They moved to British Columbia, where over the next several years Jökull finished his training, working winters as a heli-ski guide near Revelstoke and returning each spring to lead skinning trips on the Troll Peninsula. Before long, Jökull and his mother had borrowed and scrounged up enough money to buy the farm back from the bank. In 2008, he and Sunna returned to Iceland. He got ahold of a helicopter and opened for business. It was possible now to explore the mountains at a flugskeio.
AS SPRING COMES, the mountainsides in the Skidadalur begin to look like a piano keyboard: vertical strips of black volcanic rock separating snowy couloirs at regular intervals—first descents by the octave. One cirque looked like the inside of an old Olivetti, the bare ridgelines fanning out like typebars. It was an alphabet of chutes. When we arrived, the valley was snowless; it had been an exceptionally dry winter, yet there still appeared to be a dozen springs’ worth of skiing to do.
The farmhouse was the last building along the road. It was flanked by two corrugated-metal barns, a small wooden cabin—built the year before by Jökull and a friend—containing a sauna and a massage room, and an armada of eccentric vehicles: a 1990 Citroën, a 1968 Lada, a souped-up Econoline van with giant tires, and, of course, the helicopter—a black AStar, which Jökull leases for two months a year. (The two pilots when we were there, seven-dwarfishly named Snorri and Sigi, rotate every couple of days.) The farmhouse can snugly sleep 19. The decor is rustic and clean. Jökull’s mother, Anna, and her companion, Öddi, keep house. For breakfast and dinner, everyone gathers around a big wooden table in the kitchen, where Sonja Eyglóardóttir, the chef, manages to turn out three outstanding meals a day for 19 people using a six-burner range and a single oven. She does her own baking and relies for the most part on local ingredients. When I asked her where she learned to cook, she said, “I didn’t. I’m a graphic designer.” That may be, but I’d never tasted better ptarmigan soup (Jökull shoots the game), lumpfish roe, whale sushi, or homemade dandelion wine. She holds her own amid a farmhouse full of mainland men. Our group was a noisy one, prone to argument and declamation, and one day Sonja remarked, “It is like you all swallowed radios.”
Jökull, who is 35, has the lanky, loose-limbed bearing of a marionette. He has long, curly blond hair and sleepy eyes that bulge and roll according to some Icelandic pulsation of dry humor and extreme forbearance. He often has a napkin in hand, to dab at the corners of his nose; he is a regular user of tobacco snuff. You get the sense that the helicopter embarrasses him a little, but he says he loves the logistics of it, and unlike in some parts of the world (the Wasatch, the Swiss Alps), where helicopters are considered to be a scourge, the locals love the chopper, going so far as to request that he buzz their homes. Much as he prefers touring, he saw how the arrival of heli-skiing operations on the east coast of Greenland put the local skin-and-dog-team touring operators out of business. “It was a matter of time here,” he said. “I was building up a nice touring business, and I knew it would be ruined. To be the first with the chopper, I could control how it would evolve in Iceland.”
THE SECOND MORNING found us tickling the ivories off the Almenningsfjall—one steep gully after another. Some were hourglasses that narrowed into 45-degree stems requiring great tact; others were wider and gentler, and you could carry speed onto the apron. All of them spilled onto the gigantic ballroom of the glacier. Then we worked the other side, the corn still silky, ending on a tawny ramp that petered out in a birch moss meadow along a creek. We lay about the spongy ground, taking in the arctic sun and gorging on Sonja’s smoked-lamb sandwiches, before embarking on a reach west across the range, from valley to valley, toward the other side of the peninsula and back again. The accumulation of thousands of turns, and the arrival of clouds and flat light, induced a kind of delirium. The rain and fog rolled in, and we spent the following day hiking to some waterfalls and then trucking into Dalvik for a soak in the town’s communal thermal baths and to watch a Champions League soccer match at a local pub. (Other nearby Troll attractions include Siglufjördur, the old herring capital of the world; the ski jump in Ólafsfjördur; and the world-famous point break called Ollie’s Point.) One afternoon we opted for a walk to a neighboring farm for a glimpse of some newborn spring lambs. A pair of pigtailed farm girls looked on with bemusement as the radios we’d swallowed broadcast an argument about the difference between mutton and lamb, a station meant for city boys.
Another drizzly morning, despondency settled in with the fog. And then, suddenly, we were in our ski gear and heading down the valley in the armada of funny cars. The sky cleared. From a lot near Dalvik, the helicopter flew us across the fjord to the peaks of what Jökull called the Gold Coast, behind which lay the barren snowfields and burbling brooks of the Hidden Land. We spent the first part of the morning working our way inland, half expecting to see hobbits, before veering back toward the coast. The capper, before lunch, was a direct drop over a hump into the fjord, the ocean shimmering at our ski tips, frozen corn crystals tinkling down alongside us like diamonds. For several steep turns, it felt like skydiving into the sea. I found myself scanning the surface of the water for whales. Vermont this was not. We wound up on a mossy scarp at the edge of a cliff, gazing across the water at the Troll Peninsula, mumbling superlatives.
“Gentlemen, how much skiing do you have left in you?” Jökull asked finally.
“How much you got?” my father said.
“I don’t think you want to go there,” Jökull said.
But we did. Four hours later, we were still in the Hidden Land, dropping off ridges into gullies and bowls that funneled toward deserted beaches and bays. One friend, a Swiss mountain guide named Norbi Julen, was struck not only by the absence of crevasses and avalanche risk but also by the way the corn held up into the evening, regardless of the sun, unlike in the Alps, where direct sunlight can turn it from ice to mush in an hour. “I think I would like to be a guide here,” he said.
Being a guest was fine, too. A four-and-a-half-day trip gave us the equivalent of three days of skiing—a very respectable yield. On our last day, we stayed closer to the farm. “Wanna go on an adventure?” Jökull asked. We landed on the crown of a mesa-like ridge called the Stafnstungnafjall and traversed out to a narrow north-facing couloir, with a cornice overhanging, that opened 1,800 feet below into a field of ice boulders. We descended one at a time, inelegantly. “That was a first descent,” Jökull announced when we were done. “How do you feel about the name Paumgarten Couloir?” Not very keen. Happily Snorri, watching from the air, had already named it after a randy but now despised ex-wife.
After a couple more runs a thick fog rolled in, and Snorri poked through it to fetch us. We got in, warily. The helicopter, only feet off the ground, inched down along the course of a torrential creek, the fog beading up on the windshield. We were sated, and also mindful, as the lumpy and snowless volcanic earth rolled by beneath the skids, that a walk out would have been a very long one, even at a tölt.