Emerald Isle: An Eastern Arctic Snowsurfing Saga
By: Jaime Van Lanen
Iceland may seem a distant land—but when you factor in one’s ability to travel across the Arctic Circle, it becomes much closer. With an invite from Icelandic splitboard legend Magnus Smarason to join a sea-accessed backcountry snowboarding expedition to a remote fjord, alongside a newly organized direct flight on Iceland Air from Anchorage, AK to Reykjavik, Iceland, it was doable.
Six hours on a plane and five hours by car to Akureyri, then a two hour boat ride—a tiresome all nighter—was rewarded upon arrival to Eyjafjordur, a majestic blue fjord surrounded on all sides by snow covered mountains holding sustained pitches dropping straight to the sea shore below. Fourteen hours after departing from Alaska I had set up my tent on a grassy knoll just above the shore of the Arctic Ocean and was already climbing a peak for some turns under the midnight sun. As the sky glowed orange we opened it up on perfect corn snow leading all the way to the precipice of a sixty meter waterfall draining directly into the sea below. A short hike back to camp and I was out cold.
The following morning Smarason tapped on my tent to let me know he was gonna start skinning within the hour. Jet lagged, but fully aware that the day would be stellar, I scrambled to gulp down some coffee and ready my pack. Soon I was following Smarason towards the largest peak in the vicinity of our camp. Each step further up the face of this high Icelandic peak brought me higher above the beautiful blue colored Arctic Ocean. Somewhere out there, several hundred miles to my left, was Greenland. To my right lay the vast desert-like volcanic expanse of interior Iceland, and beyond that, mainland Europe. With bluebird skies above, the pitch of snow below us beckoned for a ride. Standing on the summit strapping in there was full awareness that this would be a snowboard run of dreams. Soul surfing high above the waters of the Arctic Ocean, linking huge arching turns on velvety corn with the sea sparkling in the sun far below.
Smarason nailed a steep, exposed line on a hanging snowfield with a tight couloir exit, making it clear that Icelanders know how to handle themselves in the mountains. The turns would eventually end at our basecamp on the beach, where we would stay for the next four nights. Icelandic leg of lamb was cooked over a fire and savored by all. As we ate traditional local food and the Icelanders swilled down the local Viking Ale™ we shared stories about snowboarding and living in the north, making comparisons and contrasts between Iceland and my home, Alaska. As the waves crashed, seals, whales and thousands of different ducks and geese passed by our camp. In my tent I fell asleep reading Icelandic sagas describing the colonization of Iceland by Vikings some 1,000 years ago.
The boat camping trip proved to be an epic session, but my Icelandic splitboard saga did not end with our return to the road system. Through my exploration of Iceland’s mountains, I quickly came to realize that the fjords and valleys of Iceland are a splitboard adventurer’s heaven. Not only were the riding opportunities infinite, on most days, after riding, there was a geothermal hot pool for healing and a patch of green grass for a camp.
Smarason told me about a place where “the local people swim”, a hot pool inside of a cave. He told me it would be very hard for me to find, maybe impossible. The location was accessed through a small hole in the earth way off in the middle of a massive lava field and required a sketchy class 5 down-climb. On a storm day I went on a mission to find the secret cave. With diligence I found the steaming hole in the earth and as the wind blew the rain sideways out in the open above I swam in a crystal blue pool of steaming water five meters deep in an underground lava tube.
The next morning I awoke to a fresh blanket of spring snow and soloed my way towards the top of a steep powder filled couloir. The entrance was steep and tight, yet after negotiating my way through it I scored face shots flanked by gorgeous walls of green and black colored volcanic rock. Later, with a plan to climb and ride one of Iceland’s many volcanos I was forced to retreat because of high winds only to discover a geothermal fed hot river tumbling down the volcano’s thawing slopes. I of course salvaged the day by lying around in the water, surrounded by bellowing steam vents, soaking in the view of mountains, waterfalls, and green valleys around me. Finally the weather cleared and I headed to the East Fjords, where I climbed a beautiful peak 1,000 meters above Seydisfjordur and made another brilliant descent to the shore of a waterfall laden fjord, this time on the Norwegian Sea.
Every moment in Iceland I was blown away by the beauty of its landscape, its history, its mountains, its lakes, rivers, waterfalls, beaches, hot springs, volcanoes, and fjords. Moreover, Icelandic riders and Icelandic terrain are rightfully on the map in the world of snowboarding. Magnus and the Akureyri crew are madmen of pure Viking blood. They climb mountains as if they were taking a stroll down a city street, swim in the Arctic Ocean as if they live in the tropics, and rip big freeride lines and park laps with equal talent. Their ancestors colonized this land 1,000 years ago in order to escape tyrannical Scandinavian kings. They survived on fish, birds, seals, whales, and sheep, and lived in sod houses, which they often heated with dung. Their ancestors were also the first Europeans to arrive in North America, where they could not break down the Native American resistance to colonization and were thus forced to return to Iceland. In retrospect, they did not miss out on much because, in more ways than one, Iceland is a slice of paradise, especially if you want to live a relaxing, pressure-free life in the mountains as a snowboarder.
The future Icelandic Snowboarding Saga is now being written. If you’ve got some extra time one of these upcoming seasons, I highly recommend you take your Cold Smoke Voodoo splitboard over to the Emerald Isle for a tour.