The northern heights: ski touring in Iceland

Photo : ft


Even peering from the window of our small turboprop plane, it is clear we are a long way from the Alps. Rather than the pointed peaks and neatly farmed valleys that are the usual background to our ski tours, we glimpse empty, mesa-like plateaus, a frozen version of the American west, the starkly beautiful slopes ending in the slate grey of the Greenland Sea.

We are flying into Akureyri, Iceland’s second city (though it has fewer than 19,000 people), to begin a six-day tour of the Troll Peninsula, a wild, mountainous and sparsely inhabited lump of land jutting out to the north. Barely known internationally a decade ago, the peninsula has been put on the map by heli-skiing — the country’s first heli-ski operation set up here in 2009 and has been followed by two more. Now, though, ski tourers are beginning to be drawn here too, climbing the mountains under their own steam and using remote mountain huts as bases to explore the area’s dramatic topography. For some, it’s a chance to extend their winter — the latitude means the season here is only getting under way in March and continues until the start of June.

Having journeyed a few miles inland by car, we set off into a series of gently undulating hills, fixing skins to our skis to allow us to walk uphill. Across such mellow terrain, “skinning up” has an almost hypnotic effect, and we fall quickly into a natural rhythm.

Our all-British group — five men and one woman — have come together through the Eagle Ski Club, a venerable amateur organisation established in 1925. We are led by Owen Day, a Canadian guide of huge enthusiasm and vast reserves of energy, some of which was expended in his preparations — a complex exercise requiring supplies to be left in advance at the unmanned huts where we are to stay for four nights.

After a few hours under a leaden sky, we arrive at our first stop, the well-appointed Derrir hut. It has an oil-fired heater, kitchen and — not always a given for such huts — a toilet. In the absence of running water, we fill a large cooking pot with fresh snow and melt it on the stove. After dinner, we climb a steep ladder to a dormitory under the eaves, our beds warmed by the rising heat from the stove. The night is surprisingly cosy, even when the wind gets up and enormous gusts begin to shake the structure.

Skiers can find deep powder here, but the next morning Day leads us to wide slopes of the peninsula’s speciality, known as “spring snow” in Europe and “corn” in the US — a sugary layer an inch or two thick that, after a few hours in the sun, flatters my patchy off-piste technique. On one slope of immense length, we each execute about 40 glorious, sweeping turns before coming to a graceful halt. It feels strange to be skiing on slopes so close to the sea — occasionally, we see fishing boats at the foot of the mountain.

Like most tourers, we put a premium on seeking out the best snow, but here we’re hunting a second goal too, the aurora borealis. Only when we reach our second mountain refuge, the Heljuskali hut, deep within the peninsula and far from the lights of the coast, does the night sky fully reveal its treasures. Just as we are drifting off to sleep, Day climbs the ladder to the dormitory and rouses us to come outside. As we emerge, the heavens are rippling with bright skeins of green and purple, twisting and shimmering from the southern horizon all the way over our heads to the north. It is a moment of unadulterated magic.

We grow to relish the rawness and remoteness that the Alps can sometimes lack. During the entire trip, we do not encounter a single other tourer. We grow used to the weather too; surrounded by open ocean, conditions can change dramatically several times a day.

Before our week draws to a close, one final distinction reveals itself. Back in Akureyri, we visit the municipal baths — a phrase that hardly does justice to this magnificent complex of geothermally heated pools. Attracting every part of the community, from mothers with infants and groups of teenagers to office workers and the elderly, it proves remarkably revitalising for tired skiers too. For the first time after any ski tour I can remember, I climb aboard the plane the next day without a hint of aching legs.

Membership of the Eagle Ski Club ( costs £25 a year; James Pickford’s trip cost IKr190,000 (£1,284). Owen Day’s next Troll trip is due to start April 29 ( Bergmenn Mountain Guides ( and Snoworks ( also offer ski touring trips in the area

Main image: Skinning above Olafsfjordur on the Troll Peninsula. Photograph by Bruce Goodlad

More ski touring

Tajikistan For those seeking something seriously off-piste, Silk Road Adventures is running a pioneering 10-day trip to the Zarafshan range in February. Expect first descents of 4,000m peaks. £3,400;

Italy For the more epicurean skier, Kaluma offers a five-night “ski safari” in the Dolomites, using lifts rather than leg-power to explore the area’s 12 interconnected resorts. Guests will enjoy gourmet meals and stay at a mix of luxury hotels and mountain refuges (with their luggage transferred for them). From €2,900;

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