Due North: The Iceland Discovery
Words: Ed Blomfield
Photos: Vernon Deck
We come from the land of the ice and snow,
From the midnight sun where the hot springs blow.
– Led Zeppelin
To many people, Iceland might seem familiar. It is the ‘Land of Fire and Ice’: the place with all the lava and the thermal baths, and those moody landscapes you see in Top Gear road tests. It’s where Bjork comes from. And of course, for several years it was the home of the Iceland Park Project or ‘IPP’. But the truth is that these snapshots barely scratch the surface. While pictures of the IPP’s wallrides and kickers flooded the snowboard media a few years back, the park itself occupied just a small strip of glacier in one corner of the country. And it’s a big country at that: Iceland is roughly the size England and Wales, but with a population of just 300,000 – of whom 200,000 live in the capital, Reykjavik. As far as the IPP goes, you might as well look at a few shots of the Avoriaz park and think you know what France has to offer. I wanted to discover more – and that’s exactly what I set out to do with the help of three UK riders: Gary Greenshields, Colum Mytton and Tom ‘Little T’ Guilmard.
Now this might sound dramatic, but there was something mysterious about getting on a flight to Iceland. How many times have you boarded a plane that isn’t heading south across the Channel but instead banks right out of Heathrow and sets a course due north towards the pole? And there was definitely something strange about the atmosphere onboard. The aisles of our Boeing were full of leather jackets, Liverpool shirts and serious white faces (the steward looked particularly blonde and serious, like Dolph Lundgren in Rocky IV). It was all kind of familiar yet… different, and as we began our night-time approach into Reykjavik even the landscape outside took on a surreal edge: an inky sea lay below, covered in a blanket of mist but lit up weirdly by the moon, and the patchy terrain appearing on the horizon looked like the surface of the moon. Throw in the knowledge that we were somewhere in the far North Atlantic – an area normally passed at 35,000 feet en route to the States – and it felt like we were crossing into another world.
We were awoken the next morning by a call from Geiri at Nikita clothing, who was to be our guide for the trip. We met him in the lobby of our hotel (the brilliantly Scandinavian ‘Hotel Borg’) and set off through the Reykjavik streets to pick up our rental van. Reykjavik is the most northerly northern capital in world, but feels more like a town than a city. Even the parliament – which is the oldest in the world – looks oddly like a small Yorkshire school. Graffiti by the likes of Banksy and The London Police could be seen on some of the newer buildings (apparently Reykjavik has a reputation for street art) while elsewhere people drank coffee in little cafés or jogged around an icy lake filled with swans. It was a quiet, civilized vibe; only the odd 4×4 with enormous bubble-like tyres betrayed a wilder side to the country.
As we ate lunch in an American sandwich franchise, Geiri explained that until the Second World War Iceland was practically a third world country. “People like my grandmother lived in grass huts, seriously,” he said. “Fishing was the rock of the economy, but in the past 50 years we’ve become really Americanised.” The Iceland of today is a strange mix of old and new. Cruising along Reykjavik’s highways you could be forgiven for thinking you’re in Colorado or Utah, but dotted amongst the familiar fast food chains are restaurants advertising sheep’s heads – a traditional Icelandic dish that’s found in every supermarket freezer. And while the Icelandic people enjoy an ultra modern standard of life thanks to cheap, geothermal energy and (until recently at least!) a rich banking system, they speak the same ancient language as the Vikings. “Plus, a lot of people still believe in trolls,” observed Geiri, poker faced.
Our plan was to drive north along the famous Highway 1, essentially a ring road that loops the entire country. If we continued in the same direction for about a week we would eventually find ourselves back in Reykjavik. Geiri had told us of a few small ski hills to check out along the way, but we were just as interested to see what we could find in the way of roadside hikes, jibs and kicker spots. Few of the snowboard crews to visit Iceland before had done much except ride the IPP glacier out on the west coast, and we wanted to break new ground.
Our first stop was to be the northern town of Akureyri. Within minutes of leaving the capital we found ourselves alone on an empty road, with silent hills and fjords stretching as far as the eye could see. Apparently Iceland was once 70% covered in trees, but over the course of a thousand years or so the Vikings cut them down, not realizing that the harsh climate meant they would be slow to grow back. Today there are barely any trees and Iceland is a vast tundra of shrubs, volcanic rock, heather and snow.
The Hyundai van bounced its way north for nearly five hours. Its suspension was shot and the turbo made a noise like a jet engine, but with a good head of steam it would make 100mph. We were close to the Arctic Circle, and even though it was only April the sun took forever to go down – it started sinking at 6.30pm and didn’t go dark until nearly 10. As darkness fell I continued to bolt along the winding road; then, up in the distance, we saw a lorry with hazards flashing. A horse was lying behind the truck, struggling to stand up on broken hind legs. Floodlights illuminated its mane, and its panicked breath steamed in the night air. In the dark space beneath the trailer lay the remains of a second horse that had clearly born the brunt of the collision. Skid marks and pieces of meat in the road told the rest of the story. Two truckers were struggling to help the injured animal to its feet, but there was nothing they could do. Geiri later told us that accidents like this are common on Iceland as large animals wander onto the remote roads. It was a lesson in the fact that although Iceland is an affluent European country, its landscape is untamed. We drove on, slower this time.
At Akureyri we began by checking out the local resort called Hlidarfjall, which consists of a chairlift and a couple of tows on the hill above town. You could buy single tickets, hour-long tickets or daylong ones. It was damned good value, and when we got to the top of the ball-breaking T-bar we found there was even a bit of windblown powder to be had. Since this is such a remote and sparsely populated area, the local residents have the place to themselves for much of the year; during our visit there were maybe two or three people cruising down the groomed runs. Stretching across the horizon was a beautiful low mountain range containing thousands of imaginary lines, and as the crisp northern light caught the faces of the surrounding peaks the snow looked incredible, like rippling silk.
We ended our first riding day with a session on the mellow handrail at the resort’s carpark, then retreated to our cabin – situated down a potholed track on the outskirts of town. In Iceland, water for buildings is cooled rather than heated because it comes straight from the hot springs, so like most of the locals we were able to enjoy a relaxing hot tub in our own little patch of wilderness. The only downside is that the sulphurous water smells of farts!
Having exhausted the potential of the tiny lift system, we spent the following afternoon scouting for urban spots. The 2007 shred flick Up In The Sky features a 10 kink ‘Rail of Death’ in Akureyri, which we managed to find but didn’t have the snow to try ourselves (check out the footage from Up In The Sky at whitelines.com/video). Eventually Colum – a graduate of the Halifax dryslope with an eye for all things sketchy – spotted an antique piste basher out near the small airport which he thought would be cool to jump over. There wasn’t much snow around so we had to shovel what we could into a small pile. As our hopeful little cheese wedge neared completion the guy from the house opposite wandered over. He’d been watching our progress with interest and thought he should point out that this fine example of a 1960s ‘Tucker Sno-Cat’ was on its way to a museum. What’s more it had belonged to his father before him and had a bit of a rusty roof, “but as long as you clear it I don’t mind,” he shrugged. What a cool guy!
The run-in consisted of broken sheets of ice on grass; the landing was a single vanload of snow scattered thinly on the other side. As for the speed, this was generated with the help of the vehicle and a length of rope borrowed from the ski resort. Unbelievably this sketchy-ass set-up worked and – save for an initial heart-stopping 50-50 over the roof – Colum cleared the thing perfectly. Soon we had a system down: start her in second, get the rope taught and then gun it passed the piste basher, while behind me Col sucked up his legs and Vern’s flash popped. As for the locals – they were either wandering by stony-faced or applauding from across the street.
So far the trip was going smoothly; we had a couple of shots in the can, and a Chicago Town pizza in the oven. As we unwound in the hot tub that evening things got even better with our first sighting of the legendary Northern Lights. It began with Gary saying he thought he’d seen something in the sky. This ‘something’ was pretty faint, and at first we weren’t sure if it was steam or clouds or just our imagination. Whatever it was it didn’t look too spectacular. Then all of a sudden the greyness turned into wispy strands of green, like smoke drifting across the black sky. It was eerie. The five of us were whooping and hollering, still dripping wet in our shorts and clambering around the edge of the hot tub for a better view. The haze would start off very pale, sometimes on the horizon, sometimes directly overhead; then it would surreptitiously grow into waving strips of light. Vernon scrambled for his camera and got a great shot of us all marvelling at them from the jacuzzi, guessing the exposure pretty well for a first time. Later on we were told that sightings of the aurora bring good luck, and are rare at this time of year. We certainly felt pretty privileged.
The next part of our trip was the most productive and exciting in terms of riding. We had studied the map and figured that if we drove out into the north-western fjordlands we would find some snowy peaks with ocean backdrops. And if we continued right on to a place called Siglufjordhur then there was even the chance we’d see the arctic sun set into the sea. Little did we know how good we would get it…
It was a pretty long drive, but along the way we passed some stunning scenery. Around the small village of Dalvik the landscape was especially spectacular: impressive mountains dropped down into the millpond-like water of the fjord, with the deep blue North Atlantic stretching out beyond. It was like stumbling across a miniature version of Alaska. Eventually we found a spot overlooking the sea in which to build a small gap jump, and Gary bagged a couple of nice sequences including a perfect front 7. On his third attempt things took a turn for the worse when he came up 90 degrees short on a nicely styled frontside 5. He caught his toe edge so badly he did a full-on scorpion onto his face, then bounced on down the landing screaming in agony. When he finally got his breath back he revealed he’d felt a rib pop and had tweaked his left knee pretty badly. He wouldn’t ride again for the rest of the season. Still, you can rely on Gary to keep a Scottish sense of reality: “At least my nan’ll be happy cos I get to come home early!” he smiled.
With Gary out of the picture it was down to Colum Mytton and the rookie rider, Little T, to step up to the plate. They didn’t let us down. As the light began to fade we found the perfect spot for a hip and dug like demons to get it shaped. Beyond the landing was the sea, where the sun was melting slowly into the horizon; behind us a full moon was already beginning to rise above the mountains. I’d never seen such a beautiful mix of colours in the sky. As you can see, both Little T and Colum got some fantastic shots, and we were so stoked on the spot that we came back the next night to perfect the run-in and hit it again. It was a magical atmosphere. Our photographer Vernon Deck is the most cynical Kiwi you’ll ever meet, yet for once he was all out of wisecracks. “F-ack me, this is sick!” he drawled. “No shit, American pros’ll fly across the world to get shots like these.”
On our last night in Akureyri we experienced one of Iceland’s stranger pastimes: traffic jamming. We were heading out of town when we found ourselves caught in a queue of vehicles – not very remarkable you might think, but when you consider this is one of the remotest towns on the planet it seemed a little odd. Having seen the same car crawl past in the opposite direction two or three times, we finally figured out that the traffic was doing a constant loop of the town centre, like American cars cruising the strip. A passer-by confirmed that this is the thing to do on a Friday night when you live 40 miles south of the Arctic Circle. “It’s kinda retarded, but there’s not much else to do!” he explained. Each of the cars was filled with two or three kids, and when they passed their friends in another car they would pull alongside at a designated spot and chat for five minutes, then rejoin the procession.
The rest of the trip was spent completing our loop of Highway 1, stopping to gawp at the weird volcanic landscape and incredible waterfalls. Apparently Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 crew visited Iceland in the 1960s to practice for the moon landing, and we could see why. At the massive geothermal area of Myvatn, smoke pours from cracks in the ground and spouts from mini volcanoes, and the ground is a marbled patchwork of mud and craters. It was like the set of a 50s Martian movie. Somehow though our photos didn’t do the place justice. Vernon reckoned that if you could capture the smell too then it would be a lot better, and he was probably right – it absolutely stunk of rotten eggs!
The further we drove into the empty expanses of the East, the more impressive the landscape became. I don’t want to keep banging on about the scenery but this is really what stood out about our trip. Iceland wasn’t about arguments, or personalities, or food or riding. It WAS the view. Around every corner another carpet of empty countryside would unroll itself, and as the sun went down we would be treated to an incredible panorama of virgin mountains lit up in pink and purple. There were literally endless first descents just waiting to be chalked off if only you had a heli or a sled. On one remote stretch of lava road we didn’t pass another vehicle for over an hour, and caught sight of arctic foxes and reindeer in the surrounding fields.
It’s worth remembering that all this took place on and around the island’s main ring road. Most of Iceland’s interior is uninhabited and inaccessible by car, so god knows what crazy snowboarding terrain is lurking in there. The interior is also home to Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajokull, which covers a mind-boggling expanse of over 3000 square miles. At ‘Glacier Lagoon’ in the south east, part of this massive river of ice meets the sea, and we pulled over to check out a group of seals gliding between bright blue ‘bergs. In the distance, some Americans were filming a credit card commercial. Shoots like this are common in Iceland since the landscape is so full of dramatic and unspoilt backdrops.
Eventually the rolling, winding road we’d been following for more than 800 miles became a civilised dual carriageway back into Reykjavik. According to Geiri, we were the first group of foreign snowboarders to have completed a circuit of Iceland. On the last night we embarked on our one and only night on the piss. It started with food and beer, continued with more beer (the local brew called ‘Gull’) and was interspersed with some crazy Icelandic firewater that was flavoured with something like Fishermen’s Friends mixed with salt. We talked a lot with Geiri about the snowboard scene here and abroad, about our experiences on our journey and Icelandic culture in general. We discovered that boys in Iceland are traditionally named after their father and grandfather, and that the ‘Eddaic poems’ are a legendary collection of ancient Norse verse. We also discovered the ‘wheel of fortune’ in one of Reykjavik’s many bars: it costs 1500 Krona to take a spin and you can win anything from a beer to 10 beers… or nothing! Geiri blew 3000 Krona (about 20 of your pre credit-crunch pounds) and won sod all, so we twisted Colum’s arm into giving it a go and he duly won eight beers, which we converted into six more shots of firewater and three half pints. Confused? So were we at the time…
Back above the Atlantic at 35,000 ft, bound for the less dramatic landscape of London, I reflected on this epic trip. In many ways Iceland gives you the New Zealand experience for a fraction of the cost and travelling time. There’s the same lack of traffic, the same sense of space and a similar volatile geology. Oh, and it rains a lot. Yet it would be too simplistic to say that Iceland is NZ on our doorstep. It lacks the lush greenery of down under, but makes up for it with its strange, otherworldly atmosphere. The best part is simply the feeling of being ‘out there’ – up in the far north, on a cold island normally skirted by transatlantic jets. I’d always wondered what the appeal of polar exploration was to the likes of Robert Peary and Ranulph Fiennes – it seemed a bit bleak and hostile to me – but having been to Iceland I think I understand it better. Once you’ve seen the sky turn green and the snow meet to the sea, you’ll feel the magnetic north drawing you back.
Iceland: How to Do Our Trip
Icelandair fly direct to Reykjavik from London Heathrow, Manchester and Glasgow.
Iceland Express are a newer airline flying out of London Stansted.
Expect to pay around £200 – £300 return.
You can book a vehicle with any of the usual suspects and pick it up from Reykjavik airport. Compare prices at travelsupermarket.com
Word of warning! Don’t use the local Budget franchise (a.k.a. Alp Car Rental). They gave us a shoddy van and then charged us over a thousand quid for alleged damage to the roof! It wasn’t us ‘guv.
Where to Stay
Try the Hotel Borg in downtown Reykjavik, which is right by the parliament building.
Our cabin in Akureyri was rented out by an old lady called Sofia and was an absolute bargain – it cost around £40 each for three nights.
www.akureyri.is/hlidarfjall (the only resort we rode at)
www.skidalvik.is (Another resort in the north)
www.skidasvaedi.is (This site contains info on Blafjoll resort, a.k.a. Blue Mountain. It’s the closest one to Reykjavik and the biggest ski area in Iceland)
www.kaldbaksferdir.com (cat boarding operation)
www.oddsskard.is (A small resort in the East of Iceland)