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Iceland on Edge

By Andrew McLean - June 15th, 2006

Legend has it that Eric the Red gave Greenland its name to entice settlers to move there despite the fact it is almost completely covered in ice. Iceland on the other hand is green, but a more fitting name for it might be Ski-land as it is home to amazing mountains and unlimited ski-mountaineering potential. In late April of 2006, our group of six Americans flew from various parts of the US and rendezvoused at the Reykjavik International Airport to begin searching the peaks, couloirs and valleys of northern Iceland for skiable terrain.

Three of us were from the Salt Lake City, Utah area: Matt Turley, Dylan Freed and me. Coincidently, High Ground Productions out of New York City (a subsidiary of Peter Jennings Productions and ABC) were in the process of producing a film on ski mountaineering and thought this trip might be a good candidate to illustrate expedition style skiing. To facilitate that, we added John Armstrong from Malibu as the lead cameraman, Rob Raker from Boulder as the soundman and John Griber from Jackson as the safety coordinator and small camera operator. Off we went, having no idea what to expect.

The first thing we noticed after a few days in Iceland is how urbane, clean and clearly Scandinavian the place is. The second thing you notice is that it is gobsmackingly expensive. A round of coffee and muffins for six people will cost more than $100, so you get the idea. Gas, rental cars and dining out are all outrageously expensive, but such is the price you pay for having an adventure in an interesting place like Iceland. On the positive side, there are ways you can get around the high prices. Iceland's traditional industry is fishing, so seafood is reasonable and incredibly tasty.

The major car travel arterial in Iceland is a ring road that circumnavigates the island. Driven straight through, a round trip journey takes about twenty-four hours. From Reykjavik, (the island's capital), which is at roughly the nine o'clock position, we drove six hours northeast to reach the town of Akureyri which equates to the twelve o'clock position at the top, dead center of the island. After spending two days here driving around the Trollaskagi Peninsula looking for peaks, we relocated out to one of the northern-most towns, Olafsfjordur, to meet up with Birgir Gudnason, who is more appropriately known as "Biggi." A direct Viking descendant, Biggi would have looked right at home wielding a broad sword, although snowmobiles were now more his speed. We enlisted Biggi and his friend Tomas, who serve as volunteers on the local search and rescue team, to help us shuttle loads of Pelican cases and tons of other filmmaking gear out to a remote corner of a drainage whose name translated into "Cripple Knee."

After finding a nice flat perch with some skiable nearby peaks, we set up camp and said goodbye to Biggi and Tomas. Between all of the gear and the six of us, we erected four tents, two for sleeping, one dedicated to the camera gear and one Mountain Hardwear Kiva as a cook tent. Now that we were dug in with plenty of food and cooking fuel, all we had to do was the fun part: climbing and skiing.

Or so it would seem. Being right on the Greenland Ocean, northern Iceland is famous for some of the world's worst weather. There are colder, windier and snowier places on earth, but Iceland combines all of these attributes with great regularity and caps it off with amazingly flat light that makes for some entertaining skiing by Braille. All of that we were ready for, but what we got was even weirder conditions. After six days of attempting to get out and make some turns, we had only skied a handful of small couloirs and spun a few laps on the aprons behind our tent. Talk about frustrating...

On the few days we were able to ski, the snow was a mixed bag of ice, glop, corn and dust-on-crust. Expedition skiing is more about the location and exploration than good snow, and that's exactly what we got on this first trip to Iceland. If there was any powder snow around, it stayed well hidden.

Our seventh day brought the worst conditions yet, as the temperatures shot up to well above freezing and the winds kicked in with a fury. These two elements combined to wreak havoc in our camp by first melting out the tent anchors and then blowing the tents over, and breaking their poles. After a night of misery, we had a morning of mayhem while we tried to get the camp sufficiently back together to cook breakfast, and then turn to the task of trying to re-pitch the tents, a task that proved largely futile in the melting snow.

So after a week skiing in the Cripple Knee drainage, we decided we needed to search out bigger game. Many of the largest peaks on the Trollaskagi Peninsula top out at about 4,000 feet regardless of whether they were right next to the ocean or in the middle of the range. While the summits are the same height, the skiable vertical drop is much greater on peaks that plunge straight into the ocean rather than into a high alpine valley. In need of larger descents and better living accommodations, we packed up camp and placed an Iridium satellite call to Biggi and Tomas who reappeared on their snowmobiles a day later to help us shuttle all of our gear back down to the valley floor.

When planning our trip, Matt found a series of 1942 topographic maps from the Brigham Young University library. While the mountains hadn't changed since 1942, the population certainly had. Areas on the map that looked good for remote couloirs sixty years ago, still had the couloirs, but now also had villages and people as well. The fact that there were now roads and villages at the base of these magnificent ski descents was a blessing in disguise as it allowed us to stay in a small cabin in the town of Olfsfjordur with all of the necessities of a film crew--such as electricity and a dry place to work on the gear.

Touring right from our front door, we set out on April 29th for a beautiful peak with a long shark-fin arte leading up to the top. The name of the peak was pronounced "kira nuker" but we referred to it as The Birthday Peak since Dylan was turning twenty that day. The 4,000 foot summit commanded a spectacular 360-degree view of the entire inland mountain ranges to the south, Eyjafjordur to the east, the town of Olfsfjordur below us to the west, and the vast Greenland Sea to the north. As icing on Dylan's birthday present peak, it turned out to be a clear, sunny day on which we found two powder filled couloirs streaming off the north summit.

Selecting the westerly couloir, Dylan stitched first tracks down 1,500 feet of prime skiing before waiting in the cirque below. Following one at a time to lessen our exposure to avalanche danger, we followed suit, then skied out the huge glacially cut drainage which eventually ended right at the sea. A short walk back through town completed our tour and what was the best days of skiing on the trip.

The next day, however, the weather had regressed to its usual mix of drifting clouds and flat light as we headed out to a couloir we had spied on our first day in Olfsfjordur. Starting out all together, we divided into two groups at the base of a ridge, with the skiers heading to the left to climb up the couloir and the camera crew booting up a ridge to the right to get in place above us to film. Two hours later, Matt, Dylan and I had climbed 750 feet up the couloir and were perched on a small ridge, while the camera crew was about 400 feet above us waiting to capture our final ascent of the chute. When everything was set, the camera crew radioed down to us and we began booting up a slight ridgeline towards the summit with our skis strapped to our backpacks.

I was third in our line of three climbers, and after taking ten steps, I suddenly found myself face down and being swept backwards. I had a microsecond to think, AVALANCHE! I hadn't heard or felt a thing, but was acutely aware that I was immersed in a sea of large blocks of snow that were about to pull me over a huge cliff. Swimming to stay on top, while also trying to dig into the bed surface below. As I struggled, the avalanche gods decided my fate by stopping me inches from the cliff and then tormented me by flushing Dylan, who was a few feet to my left, right over them. The last I saw of him, he was face down and fighting hard as he was swept from my view.

Taking stock, I realized I was basically uninjured, so I jumped up and looked over the edge, where I expected to glimpse Dylan's body. Much to my incredible relief, I saw that Dylan had been caught up in some rocks about 100' below me and was alright. Matt, who was out of my sight and further to the climber's right, had almost been swept down the couloir, but had also miraculously stopped just on the other side of our faint ridge. Stumbling upward, Matt started yelling my name, then yelling Dylan's after he saw me standing. We regrouped on our small perch to wait as the adrenaline rush dissipated, and reassure ourselves we were in fact intact. Matt was unscathed, I had lost a pair of Whippet self arrest ski poles and broken my sunglasses, while Dylan had a self described "paper cut" on his thigh.

Matt and Dylan donned crampons and went up to inspect the avalanche crown line to see how deep it was and to get an idea of how it how it had occurred. We had been skiing in the area for two weeks without seeing any sort of avalanche activity aside from wet point releases, so triggering a major slab avalanche had caught us all by surprise. In retrospect, it appeared that our subtle ridge was actually a wind drift that had iced over (the bed surface) and then had received a secondary deposit of snow on top of that (the slab). With the warm weather, the upper slab may have started to melt, which percolated water down onto the bed surface, which in turn lubricated it enough that it was primed for a trigger, which was us. All told, the crown line was roughly 150 feet wide, up to 2 feet deep, ran 750 feet and deposited three separate debris piles which were up to five feet in depth after it shot over the cliffs. It was a moderate size avalanche with the potentially fatal consequences, and we all felt fortunate to have survived it.

For the remaining week, the weather dictated our skiing plans. With short periods of good visibility, we made it out one more time to ski the summit couloir off of The Birthday Peak and then a short micro couloir off to the side for filming purposes. Our last turns brought us into the lichen covered rocks and exposed grass, which seemed like a good note to end the 2005/06 ski season on.

After spending three weeks on Iceland, we had barely scratched the surface of its backcountry skiing potential. The valleys surrounding Olfsfjordur contain not only the deepest snowpack on the entire island, but also an unlimited amount of huge, striking couloirs that plunge from the peaks all the way down to the ocean. As is often the case with exploratory ski mountaineering, the people you meet and the adventures you have along the way can at times be more interesting than the actual turns. We left Iceland as we arrived on it - alive, still friends and with a huge amount of skiing potential yet to be discovered. We can't wait to go back.


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