A Love Affair With Iceland

Icelandic horses, windswept crags, fermented shark meat, and midnight skiing—what's not to love?

WORDS: Leah Evans, as told to Katie Marti. PHOTOS: Agathe Bernard

I wish you could have been there.

Iceland was a full sensory experience. It was towering fjords shooting straight up from the ocean, spilling coastal snow from flattop peaks through craggy chutes and open bowls onto the rocky shore below. It was fishermen making their daily commute past postcard landscapes of wind-swept fields and colorful inlet villages. It was icebergs drifting and thermal hot springs flowing. Of all the remote and utterly pristine locations I’ve had the incredible fortune to explore—on skis or otherwise—this was the most raw, the most wild. It was love at first sight, smell, taste, and feel.

I made the trip in spring of 2014 with a handful of friends, a tagalong with no idea what to expect or what to pack. Invitations like this don’t come along every day, so when someone calls you up and asks if you want to go skiing in Iceland, you don’t waste time with questions. You throw some socks and underwear in a bag and you go.

So it was that I found myself heading north to the town of Ólafsfjorður for a date with Viking Heli Skiing. Jóhann, our guide, greeted us at the office and drove us up to their mountain lodge. He’s one of the owners and founders of the operation and, we would learn, a passionate ambassador for his homeland. As he dropped us off at our cabin, we were instructed to meet for breakfast in the morning not ready to ski, but ready to ride horses. This was a surprise.

Late-night turns after horseback riding, Iceland is for lovers. Photo: Agathe Bernard
Late-night turns after horseback riding, Iceland is for lovers. Photo: Agathe Bernard

Icelandic horses are kind of a big deal, as it turns out. They’re a small breed unique to the area and, according to Jóhann, a cultural experience not to be missed. It all sounded quite harmless. I mean, I huck cliffs. What’s a little pony ride?

My horse’s name should have been Karma. It was by far the most unruly and unpredictable of the bunch. I spent the entire morning whispering white-knuckled promises of carrots and sugar cubes if he didn’t buck me onto the rocky ground. Do horses even buck? I have no idea. And their ankles are like the size of my wrist. Every time he broke into a gallop I was sure they would twist and break, sending me flying into a career-ending heap.

Needless to say, when we finally trotted back to the lodge, I was more than happy to trade my horse for a helicopter. By early afternoon, we were gratefully bound for the snowy peaks we’d been gawking at all morning. Thanks to the seasonal long days and short nights, starting at 1 pm would still give us plenty of time and we were prepared to soak up every last second. The terrain was steep, with prolonged pitches stretching from mountaintop to valley floor. We skied fast and we skied lots, grinning and whooping and high-fiving each other like we couldn’t believe our luck.

One day down. Photo: Agathe Bernard
One day down. Photo: Agathe Bernard

One particular pick-up stands out as quintessentially Icelandic. We had just ripped down to a fishing shack where a haggard, friendly man was offering snacks. I was hungry and went for what looked like a chunk of cheese, thanking him and sliding it down the hatch. It wasn’t cheese, however, and it didn’t stay down the hatch. A piece of slimy, fermented shark meat bobbled at the top of my throat threatening to make a repeat appearance at my feet. My friends couldn’t stop laughing while our gracious host passed me a bottle of questionable liquid to help wash it down. Black Death, it was called, the pride of bootleggers during prohibition. I guess this is what happens when you ski with the Vikings. Local flavor, indeed.

If our heli ski adventure was the first date of my love affair with Iceland, our week of ski touring was the honeymoon.

It began with a boat ride, captained by Rúnar, owner and lead guide at Borea Adventures. He delivered us by zodiac to the century-old stone farmhouse in Westfjords that would serve as our home base for a week of exploring and first descents. It wasn’t long before we felt our usual kinetic energy slow to a crawl in tune with the natural rhythm of our stark, simple surroundings. Within the hour, we were curled up under handmade blankets, napping and reading and sipping tea. With no Internet connection and no cell phone reception, we had no choice but to slip blissfully into airplane mode.

I love you, Iceland. Photo: Agathe Bernard
With love, from Iceland. Photo: Agathe Bernard

For the next five days, we bathed from a creek. We ate mussels straight from the ocean and lamb roasted in a pit dug out of the ground. At night, we sat around the fire writing in our journals, a desperate attempt to capture the essence of this time and place.

And, of course, there was skiing. Several times a day, we’d pile in and out of the zodiac at the base of steep, jagged fjords. We’d gear up and strip down on shallow beaches, passing skis and boots and packs like a conveyor belt assembly line from ship to shore. We soaked up long afternoons that stretched into early evenings, riding corn snow and sturdy lines from top to bottom. Instead of the extreme wilderness skiing we so often seek, we found ourselves shredding with a bird’s eye view of narrow, winding highways and secluded little towns, never losing sight of the water. Our runs ended where the Arctic Ocean began.

When the time came to go separate ways, I lingered as long as I could, taking one last gulp of saltwater air, vowing to remember how it felt and tasted and smelled. Maybe someday we’ll rekindle the romance, but for now we’re just keeping it light: no expectations, no strings attached. I guess that means I’m back on the market. Does anyone know if Japan is single?