Flying high in Iceland: Fresh tracks are the norm when heliskiing on the Troll peninsula
There should be a clue in the name, yet this country of year-round snow and 5,000ft mountains remains off the radar of most skiers. As I stood atop an unpronounceable summit on northern Iceland's Troll peninsula and gazed across row upon row of anvil-topped mountains stretching towards the Arctic, the relative isolation and utter wildness of the area made it easy to understand why so many of these peaks have rarely, if ever, been scoured by ski tracks.
In fact, at the end of our first day of heliskiing, our laid-back guide Jokull Bergmann (or "JB" as he's called by most of his clients) informed us that nine of the 15 runs we'd done had been first descents.
Smug grins spread over the tops of our expensive Viking beers because, come on, it's not often you get to lay down the first ever tracks on a mountain.
"How many more first descents do you reckon there are on the peninsula?" asked Will, one of the members of our group. "Thousands..." came JB's laconic reply.
He set up Arctic Heli Skiing five years ago in order to allow keen skiers with deep pockets to explore the mountains that he grew up among. Klaengsholl, the family farm, is the centre of operations: an unpretentious and welcoming base that's a far cry from the glitzy lodges of most North American heliski operations.
Dinner is taken in the family kitchen where some of the finest food I've ever eaten was prepared by affable cooks Sonja and Pavle. We made our way through everything from Arctic char and catfish to ptarmigan, goose and lamb. It was all fresh local produce, unlike the putrefied shark's flesh which Will and I talked ourselves into trying on a quiet day when an early summer blizzard whipped past the lodge. Local it may have been, fresh it definitely was not: it tasted foul.
Klaengsholl is set at the head of Skidadalur, which means "Ski Valley", although it's named not after the current operation but after a Viking called Ski, who settled the area in around AD870. Above the dale stand an imposing array of dark, banded mountains over which is draped the brilliant white shroud of Gljufurarjokull glacier – which was where we'd be getting our first taste of Icelandic heliskiing.
JB's operation uses AS350 B2 Ecureuil AStar helicopters to carry four skiers plus guide and pilot up to the Arctic highlands above the lodge; the small size of the group means there's no waiting around on pick-ups or drop-offs which makes for a busy day of skiing. We did 40,000ft of vertical on our first day; you need to be in good shape.
That said, if you're a competent and confident skier you'll find that the skiing is delightfully easy on the whole. JB, who also works as a heliski and mountain guide in British Columbia and the Alps, pointed out that in late May, when I visited, the coastal snowpack of the Troll peninsula provides perfect spring "corn" snow. "Not deep and fluffy like powder but great fun and easy to ski. Skiers who may be put off by the need to have the deep powder skills required for most heliski operations can still come here and enjoy themselves."
That may sound less appealing to committed powder hounds, but there's another big bonus to taking on Iceland's corn snow – the maritime snowpack is very stable, making it possible to ski steeper and more exposed lines than is normal with, for example, Canadian heliski operations, where avalanches are more likely.
We got to put the steep skiing theory to the test pretty quickly. After some gently angled initial runs on the glacier we took on increasingly steeper descents until it became pretty standard practice to search out 40-45-degree chutes where your skis would slice through the butter-like snow. These provide confidence-building stability before eventually hurtling out at the bottom, followed by a quad-burning run out on gentler terrain back to the waiting helicopter.
Many drop-offs saw us clipping into our bindings on vast, plateau-like summits beneath which alternating strips of dense black rock strata and shining white snow bands stacked up over 3,000ft above valleys which snaked languidly down to the deep blue waters of the North Atlantic, or one of the fjords slicing inland.
Some runs, however, started from rather more exciting drop-off points – at the top of 3,600ft Karahnjukur our pilot Snorri had room to hover with only one skid on the ground while the other hung in space over a drop of several hundred feet above the swell-muscled waters of Eyjafjordur. At times like those, you wonder who is having the most fun, the pilot or the skiers.
Perhaps the most startling aspect of this sort of heliskiing is that as we were tucked just under the Arctic Circle, daylight never entirely faded. Time began to lose all meaning – on one day we were grounded by bad weather until 6.30pm but still managed to get out for six runs before what was to become an unseasonal four-day blizzard moved in for good.
For the two days before this, though, the sun shone between scudding cumulus clouds. The occasional snow shower would blow through to add yet more atmosphere to these vast and mysterious uplands, and we accumulated over 70,000ft of high-quality vertical, much of it down couloirs which had never before felt the ski tracks of man, woman – or Icelandic troll.
Over dinner one evening a member of our group remarked how the whole experience of unexplored mountains, endless daylight, inspirational views and sensational skiing was "just weird".
"No," replied Snorri the pilot. "It's not weird – it's Iceland."
Travel essentials: Heliskiing in Iceland
* Arctic Heliskiing (00 354 698 9870; arcticheliskiing.com) offers four-day guided heliski packages on the Troll peninsula from €4,850 including safety training, avalanche gear, full board at Klaengsholl Lodge and transfers to and from Akureyri airport, but not flights. Trips can also be booked via UK operator EA Heliskiing (020-3059 8787; eaheliskiing.com)
* Keflavik airport – 30 miles from Reykjavik – is served by Icelandair (0844 811 1190; icelandair.co.uk) from Heathrow, Manchester and Glasgow, and from Gatwick and Stansted by Iceland Express (0118 321 8384; icelandexpress.com). Air Iceland (00 354 570 3030; airiceland.is) flies from Reykjavik's city airport to Akureyri.
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