Have you ever considered a skiing or snowboarding trip in Iceland? Well, remove those goggles for a moment to read more and discover for yourself the true majesty and excitement waiting on the Icelandic slopes.
We have all seen the footage - a snowboarder, perched precariously on top the world, turning his shoulders, moving suddenly at great velocity down a vertical wall of white, a thick cloud of powder erupting from beneath him.
Gliding effortlessly, the snowboarder navigates past rocks and trees, other riders, steep obstacles. His instincts drive him, forcing through psychological barriers, forever pushing the limits of speed, capability and adventure. The mountain is his, and he is the mountain - a life on the edge, where only the greatest of natural challenges will suffice.
At first glance, one could be forgiven for believing that Iceland’s ski slopes and resorts lack the excitement of their international counterparts. After all, Iceland is a fairly small country, with only a handful of ski resorts limited to operating from November to May. In truth, however, the skiing and snowboarding culture in Iceland is very much alive and growing, with a fantastic reputation for backcountry carving and ski mountaineering.
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Where else, after all, can one carve the snow under the waving green elegance of the Auroras? Where else is it possible to ride from the mountain top to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, all in one run? Taking to the snow here could not be more unique and, given Iceland’s tourism boom, it is hardly surprising to find that this secret is now finally out.
Over the last decade, snowsport organisations such as the IWG (Iceland Winter Games), ISA (Icelandic Ski Association) and Blizzard-Ski have all come together to host numerous competitions and events, such as the AK Extreme Festival in Akureyri, further strengthening the island’s reputation as a hub for extreme sports.
Free riders have quickly gotten on board, travelling from far and wide solely to experience the wild majesty of Iceland’s backcountry. Professional riders such as Marcus Caston, McKenna Peterson, Chad Sayers, Forrest Coots, and countless more, have traversed the landscape in search of the perfect conditions, conquering mountains like Skessuhorn, “the Icelandic Matterhorn”, and bagging some gnarly footage in the process.
For the experienced ripper, shredder and mountain person, there is an old idiom when it comes to hitting the slopes for the first time; “skiing is easier to learn, but harder to master - snowboarding is harder to learn, but easier to master.” For beginners, it is the essential first question, their choice of answer defining their future escapades on the mountain.
Skiing is, by and large, considered the more popular and accessible path, the fundamentals of which can be mastered in a day or two. Skiers are positioned front facing, which means for an all round peripheral vision, and have a large degree of autonomy when it comes to moving their legs. Balance is also considerably easy to pick up, the ski poles acting as both a means to counterweight and propel.
New snowboarders, on the other hand, have to grasp an entirely different method for handling their equipment. In snowboarding, the feet are attached to the board, restricting movement entirely. To turn the board, snowboarders must learn the essentials of balancing on the edges of their feet; the toes and the heel.
They must also learn to instinctively use their shoulders for navigation. Turning the shoulders turns the hips, which turn the body and board. Though it might appear obvious, it's also worth noting that snowboarding requires the rider to be turned forever on their side.
This body position means that the peripheral vision is cut dramatically and the rider has less foreknowledge of what’s coming up ahead. This all takes a lot of getting used to and, to begin with, there will be a lot of falling down - don’t be surprised or hurt if a passing skier shouts out “butt-dragger” on their way down. Fear not, they were butt-draggers once too.
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Whatever decision one ultimately goes with, skiing and snowboarding instructors are forever on hand to teach the fundamentals of the sport, boost confidence and offer advice on the best way to overcome difficult technical challenges.
Many of the instructors here were born wearing a pair of skis (...painful, I’m sure) and know the terrain and sport like the back of their hand. They also understand how winter sports like skiing and snowboarding present a number of psychological barriers for the newbie. This is part of the natural learning process, and instructors are well adapted to taking each beginner as they come. They can also offer excellent advice on rental equipment and nearby accommodation.
Equipment is available and easy to rent at most of the major resorts in Iceland, be you skiing or snowboarding. That being said, it is highly recommended to at least have a basic awareness of the kit used on the mountain side.
As we’re talking winter sports here, thermal layers are crucial. A base layer of wool or synthetic, worn under a wind and waterproof, soft-shell ski jacket should suffice. Also consider a backpack (30-40 litres), thermos and lip cream (the conditions can be scathing!) Hats, gloves, sunglasses and waterproof trousers should all go without saying.
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If bringing your own equipment into the country, it is advised to keep your ski boots in your carry-on luggage. If you’re also planning to traverse the backcountry without local guides, it’s important to first get in possession of an avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel.
These in partnership with a first aid kit could be the difference between life and death on the mountain. As with riding anywhere on the planet, one should always be highly aware of the dangers, be it from the terrain, the conditions or the sport itself.
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Most visitors to Iceland will make the capital city, Reykjavík, their first port of call. Though skiing in the south-west is generally regarded as less thrilling than in the North, the Bláfjöll Ski Resort still offers plenty for the average skier and snowboarder.
Located in just a 30 minutes drive southeast from Reykjavik, this resort is where the city dwellers flock the moment snow begins to lay. Foreign visitors also consider Bláfjöll to be an excellent choice for an alternative holiday experience, given its ease of access and effortless runs.
The resort holds 16 lifts capable of transporting skiers and snowboarders to a wide array of runs, including off-piste tracks that venture further out into the landscape. Flood lighting keeps the slopes well illuminated throughout the season, meaning runs can be undertaken well into the dark, winter evenings, often admiring the Northern Lights from the mountaintops.
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As will all ski resorts in Iceland, opening days and times are highly dependent on the weather and snow conditions. Bláfjöll has, in the past, been known to open to the public as early as November.
When open, it's generally open from Monday to Friday from 14-21, and from 10-17 during weekends.
From January, riders can expect full days shredding on the mountain side. Just remember that old Icelandic saying… “If you don’t like the weather here, just wait for 5 minutes.” There’s no knowing what those Norse weather Gods are thinking!
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For those riders journeying further into the Icelandic heartland, Dalvík should be the next stop. Dalvík is the unofficial home of skiing and snowboarding in Iceland, with a large number of professional winter sports athletes coming out of this small, fishing town, approximately 40 minutes drive outside of Akureyri.
Former residents of Dalvík have gone on to compete across the world in such competitions as the Winter Olympics and the World Skiing Championships. It’s hardly surprising, given the rugged terrain of the North, and the rich snow that befalls it every year. This is territory where years of practice actually means something.
The landscapes around Dalvík - the neighbouring Grenivík and the Tröllaskagi peninsula - make it the perfect location for skiers and snowboarders alike. The surrounding mountains brim with opportunities to huck cliffs, ride long powder chutes and experience off-piste conditions like never before.
For those less willing or able to take to the wild, Dalvík Ski Resort will, weather permitting, often open a backcountry run right next to the resort itself, presenting the chance to experience the backcountry without straying too far from civilisation.
At the resort itself, there is plenty to occupy oneself in the meantime. The area boasts a wide variety of runs, more than enough to cover the skill spectrum, with the longest measuring up to 1200m. There are also snow production machines on site to ensure the best powder season round, and flood-lights that keep the resort well lit into the night.
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The names of local snowboarding professionals who, for decades, have made the Northern pow their stomping ground, ring out here like legends; Ásgeir Höskuldsson, Eiríkur Helgason, Halldór Helgason (the younger brother), Gulli Gudmundsson, Viktor Hjartson.
Back in the late nineties, snowboarding in Iceland was a truly tiny industry. With a population of just over 300,000, international sporting corporations tended to overlook the small, but growing, ski and snowboarding culture carving itself into the island’s national identity.
This, of course, changed over time when the skill and experience of local riders could no longer be constrained to the Northern slopes. Their early films as Team Devine - Noxious Dreaming, Why Not? - put Icelandic snowboarding on the map, and secured Team Devine’s legacy as the forebearers of the culture.
The ski resort in Ísafjörður is the perfect location for skiers and snowboarders already in the Westfjords. The resort can be found at Tungudalur, nestled between two gorgeous valleys. There are three chairlifts at the resort and numerous slopes suitable for a wide range of skill levels. The resort also boasts one of the longest and steepest runs in the whole of Iceland. The resort is situated from 115m to 487m elevation.
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There is also excellent backcountry skiing available from Isafjordur Ski Resort, with the Seljalandsdalur valley holding runs that range from 2km to 10km. Some operators, such as Aurora Arktika, offer Sailboat Skiing trips, where guests will spend up to 6 exciting days exploring the coastal fjords on the expedition yacht Aurora, always on the lookout for the best slopes.
Regardless of the backcountry or resort slopes, there are truly staggering vistas of the Westfjords from every angle.
Often referred to as "Iceland’s Eastern Fjord Alps", Oddsskarð is sheltered by mountains around the Oddsskarð pass and road tunnel, positioned bang in the middle between the villages of Eskifjörður and Norðfjörður.
Here, 9km of slope beckon riders of all skill sets, the largest run peaking at 840m. The resort has three tow lifts capable of transporting up to 2000 people an hour, and cross country runs to suit those looking to ride off the beaten track.
Amenities at Oddsskarð are limited to a single ski lodge, able to hold up to 40 people in sleeping bags, and a cafeteria for those moments of well-earned respite.
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Only a short drive away from Akureyri is Hlíðarfjall, Iceland’s premier ski slope, open from November to May. In 2015, Lonely Planet voted the slope as one of the top 12 exotic ski locations internationally. Locals, however, have always considered Hlíðarfjall the best location for resort skiing. It’s easy to see why.
Hlíðarfjall is situated amongst the breathtaking views of Eyjafjörður, a fjord extending all the way to a tabletop summit. Here, the snow is high quality - not too hard, not too deep - embellished by built-in snow blowers which help keep the resort covered season long in a blanket of white. The resort has three tow lifts, with the highest section offering truly death defying runs - only hit the top if you're an experienced rider!
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Hlíðarfjall is perfectly accessible to both beginners and experienced enthusiasts. Skiing and snowboarding instructors are on hand to help establish the basics of snow sports, with flatter slopes available for those who need the extra time to build up their confidence and skill level.
For the skiing and snowboarding culture in Iceland, Hlíðarfjall is an important location, hosting numerous events throughout the year. Grandest of all, perhaps, is the AK Extreme Festival, founded by local snowboarder, Sigurður Árni Jósefsson. For four days, Akureyri plays host to skiers and snowboarders from across the planet, engaging them in a range of friendly competitions.
The Eimskip Big Jump, for instance, sees fifteen shipping containers constructed in downtown Akureyri as part of a terrifying snow ramp. Competitors take turns dropping in and catching big air, all in front of 7000 live spectators, a television audience and a background fireworks display.
If such heights are too disorientating, there is also a specifically built snowpark close by as part of the Burn Jib Session. “Jibbing” is a term used in skiing and snowboarding for when the rider slides across a surface other than snow.
It should come as no surprise then that the snowpark is fitted with a series of rails and jumps. The Burn Jib Session is a fantastic opportunity to check out which riders have truly mastered the skills necessary for urban snow sports. It’s also the perfect time to soak up the lively atmosphere of Akureyri in festival season; expect music, flaming rails, parties and even some famous faces from the snowsports world.
Back in the slopes, the AK Extreme Festival presents the AK-X Downhill competition, what is essentially a classic race from Hlíðarfjall’s top to the bottom. There are, however, subtle differences that add a unique flavour to the event. Firstly, a number of randomly positioned poles litter the run. If a rider can snag one and bring it all the way down to the finish line, then they will enter a random lottery draw, regardless of their position in the race.
Secondly, all competitors must carry with them an opened can of Burn energy drink. Rules dictate that the cans will be measured for spillage at the end, adding extra time to the rider’s overall score.
The AK-X Downhill is split into three categories: Teenagers (Beginners/12-15 years old), women (open class) and men (16 years and older). Competitors from each branch have two runs down Hlíðarfjall, two opportunities to show the judges what they’re made of, before finally settling at the bottom for a well-earned BBQ and downtown party.
One cannot mention either skiing or snowboarding in Iceland without the mountainous Tröllaskagi Peninsula quickly cropping up. It is here, deep in the North, where backcountry and ski mountaineering truly comes alive.
Translated to “Troll Peninsula”, there is a long oral history in the region regarding trolls and elves - known in Iceland as ‘the Huldufólk’, or hidden people - a race of naturally interconnected beings who were to thought to habituate the area.
Icelandic MP and scholar, Ólína Þorvarðardóttir, writes of this belief, “The reason is of course perfectly clear. When one's life is conditioned by a landscape dominated by rocks twisted by volcanic action, wind and water into ferocious and alarming shapes... the imagination fastens on these natural phenomena.”
It is thought tales of the Huldufólk were originally spread, in part, to prevent children from wandering off into the raw Icelandic wilderness. Over time, however, they became a symbol of the purity and the wild character of Iceland's nature.
No wonder then that the Tröllaskagi Peninsula has such rich folklore - the natural landscapes are so unbelievably dramatic and beautiful, not even the threat of trolls can keep skiers and snowboarders from venturing into further into the mountains.
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Situated between the Eyjafjörður and Skagafjörður fjords, there is such an abundance of stunning vistas surrounding the peninsula that forgetting a camera should be considered a criminal offence.
The peninsula itself, formed in the last Ice Age by ancient glaciers, encompasses deep cut valleys, rivers and waterfalls, all of which make the perfect location for exploration, mountaineering and some challenging but highly memorable runs.
The Tröllaskagi Peninsula is, perhaps, best known for heli-skiing. If you were looking for an extreme winter sport experience in Iceland, this is your best bet by far, with thousands of slopes to explore, many of which run all the way down to the Atlantic Ocean!
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Tow lifts are traded in for an AS 350 B2 Ecureuil Astar helicopter - the workhorse of the heli-skiing industry - and flown by some of the most experienced and skilled pilots on the planet (they are, in fact, sought after internationally because of their experience and training in notorious Arctic conditions.)
With thousands of logged flights under their belt, it is easy to trust the safe and reliable journey to and from the interior of Tröllaskagi, leaving more head space to concentrate on shreddin’ that gnar (...snowboarding lingo, so I hear.)
With the tours often improvisational in nature, pilots taxi guests from the bottom of the slopes to the peaks, making for a simple and, in many ways, relaxing commute. The adventure doesn’t stop there, of course! Guides, well equipped and knowledgeable of the terrain, will lead their guests cross country in search of the perfect run.
Credit: Photo by Aurora Arktika
There is something truly unique, even magical, about viewing the peninsula from on board a helicopter. The sheer expanse of the region becomes immediately clear, with mountainscapes extending over the horizon and beyond. Because of Iceland’s position midway between Europe and North America, heli-skiing here makes for the perfect weekend getaway.
In truth, Iceland offers skiers and snowboarders an entirely new landscape to traverse. With such an incredible expanse of the wilderness yet to be conquered, it’s easy to forget that winter sport here is an exponentially growing and ambitious industry, with ever new challenges permeating the horizon.
Consequently, riders taking to the slopes here have almost endless opportunity to sharpen their skills and experience the country's nature from their own, insider perspective.