"Wide open or steep couloir?" says Mike Barney, taking drink orders. We're standing on a mountaintop on Iceland's Troll Peninsula, a nudge south of the Arctic Circle. Nobody's in a particular hurry to the next run. The day is sunny and windless, the views too weird and too good. To the horizon, mountains with summits as smooth as snooker tables fall off into glacier-scooped valleys. Over the right shoulder, those valleys become fjords and drown themselves in the Norwegian Sea. I ask Barney to give name to the peaks. He responds with train-wrecks of consonants.
"'Bad Weather Peak,'" he says. "'The Diamond.' 'The Horse.'" Barney, the lead guide at Eleven Experience's Deplar Farm, points to a line down the face of the Horse that the guides call "Picture Perfect." "It's 3,054 feet to 54 feet. You end up with ducks quacking at you in the ocean."
What makes it worthwhile is the appealing weirdness of the place, so different than anywhere else--the treeless, volcano-born landscape that feels both raw and ancient at once. The queer, flat-topped mountains. The sod-roofed homes. The everywhere-moss.
But back to the question at hand: another couloir run, we answer. Barney leads us to an unnamed hourglass gulley that's more tilted than last run's gulley, and lined with corn that's been softened by early-spring daylight that at this latitude lingers for 10 more minutes every day. We swoop and whoop a few thousand feet downhill, where the others are already eating lunch in the shadow of the heli.
I've had the good luck to ski all over the world for work, from Korea to Sarajevo. Skiing on Iceland, that frosted island in the North Atlantic, ranks as one of the most memorable. It's not because the mountains are the tallest, or the powder the deepest, or every turn the rowdiest. What makes it worthwhile is the appealing weirdness of the place, so different than anywhere else--the treeless, volcano-born landscape that feels both raw and ancient at once. The queer, flat-topped mountains. The sod-roofed homes. The everywhere-moss. Spend even a few days skiing through this moody, mythic scenery and every cliché you know about Iceland suddenly makes sense--the thatched Viking beards, the thick sweaters, the thicker skyr, the elves that live in the rocks. Björk.
It's easy to understand why Eleven Experience, the high-end travel company, chose Iceland for a heli ski operation. True to its cheeky name (which comes from the amplifier volume knob in Spinal Tap), Eleven offers blowout experiences for the "adventure capitalist"--or for those who simply want to vacation like a One-Percenter on occasion. The company now has seven destinations, including its flagship Scarp Ridge Lodge at Crested Butte, with its snowcat-skiing operation; and Chalet Pelerin, a ski lodge in Le Miroir, France.
Deplar Farm is a former sheep ranch whose turf-roofed main house has been expanded, updated, and renovated into a swank 13-room lodge. It's got all the stuff you might expect in a heli lodge (big fireplace, big bar, foosball, spa, sauna, icy plunge pool). The most popular draw, though, is the outdoor heated pool fed by local thermal waters with a swim-up bar and a built-in bench, so you can submarine to your nose and watch the aurora borealis come out and dance. When the heli can't fly there's snowmobiling, whale watching, riding Icelandic horses.
But you came here to ski. Deplar sits in a lonesome valley on the Troll Peninsula, a thumb of land in the north-central part of the island that's home to Iceland's most mountainous terrain. (Most of its small ski areas, and its few heli ops, are here.) Guides have access to a million acres of peaks. After breakfast you pile into the waiting A-Star. The bird shakes. Gravity balks, then relents. Soon you're hammering over a world of flat-topped peaks laced with canted couloirs, with a bruised sea out the windshield.
If tree skiing is your jam, Iceland ain't for you. There's a bit of something here for almost everyone else, though, from steeper lines to wide-open boulevards for the folks who make up the bulk of heli clientele. Ski season here runs from early March through the first weeks of June. The turns here change throughout the season, so plan accordingly: Want a more traditional cold-smoke heli experience, and making turns to the ocean's hem? Come earlier. Later in the season has real appeal, too: endless days of some of the most consistent corn-skiing, anywhere, on runs like "Home Run," which drop skiers from a clean 3,000 feet from a mountaintop to the front door of the lodge.
Our first run one morning at the end of March was, well, audible. We scratched down a slope carefully and tried to hide our disappointment. On the hunt for better conditions, the guides wanted to head inland, where the peaks nudge up to about 5,000 feet and the snow grows more plentiful. Clouds thwarted us. Luckily, Deplar sits at the margin between the hinterlands and the sea, the latter of which usually has clearer skies. This provides more options.
As we hung near the coast, the spring sun began its work. Each run grew better than the last, until the day's corn cycle was in full swing. By afternoon, we were on some of the steeper open terrain I've skied from a helicopter. "It's typically a very stable snowpack," says Barney, who's guided at five operations from AK to Chile. "We ski way more aggressive runs than other heli companies, when it's appropriate for our guests."
And they are still exploring. "What was that run called?" I asked Barney after we exit a tilted couloir that was steep enough for him to preface it with a short lecture on slough management.
He shrugged. "Want to name it?"
Back at the lodge, and after yet another soak in the pool with cocktails in hand, everyone pools once more, this time at the long communal table for dinner. Wine flows, and stories. The only time anyone willingly jumps up between courses of spring lamb from the farm next door, and the dessert of blueberry skyr, is to see an early showing of the Northern Lights on the patio.
Four-day winter heli-skiing package is $11,200 per person; six-day is $16,800; Elevenexperience.com; All photos courtesy of Eleven Experience.