Snowboarding The Isle of Fire and Iceland
A small island lying far out in the North Atlantic’s icy clutch, Iceland is not the most obvious destination for a snow sports holiday. However, this country has more than just Sigur Rós and expensive beer to offer. Boasting snowy moonscapes, deep fjords, smoking volcanoes and a whole lotta untracked pow, Icelanders have been enjoying their mysterious mountains for decades. Icelandic local legend, known only as Geiri, introduces us to his isle of ice.
Iceland is often dubbed the island of fire and ice, and is renowned for being a land of many contrasts. The weather here is ever changing and we have a saying:
“If you don’t like the weather now, just wait a minute”.
So what of the snow and snowboarding? Well, if you are looking for glitzy resorts and technical terrain parks, then don’t come to Iceland, it’s just that simple. Although we have several lift serviced ski areas, compared to those in Europe and North America they don’t offer much in the way of size or vertical drop. There are about 12 ski areas in total, but in some cases we are just talking about a small hill with single tow lift.
The two biggest winter resorts in Iceland are Hlíðarfjall and Bláfjöll. They usually open in December and close in April, but this is far from being certain as you never know what the weather is going to do. The Hlíðarfjall resort is situated in north Iceland just behind Akureyri, a small town of about 17,000 inhabitants. Its highest point is at 800m and you will find one chair lift and five tow lifts there. Although they have put some effort into building a terrain park with a half pipe, there is still a long way to go yet. Despite this, the Hlíðarfjall mountain is one of my favourite places to ride in Iceland.
The Bláfjöll resort is situated about 30 minutes from Reykjavík, the cool capital of Iceland. Its highest point is around 600m and it offers three chair lifts and six surface tows. On a good sunny day you may spend 20 minutes queuing, yet it takes less than a minute to descend the resort’s longest slope. If that is what you are after by all means honour them with a visit but if you are after something a little bit different, exciting and fun then read on.
So where do I go when I want to escape from it all and enjoy a good day’s snowboarding? First, I want to mention that although the winter season up here runs from December through April, it’s possible, with a little creativity and determination, to practice winter sports all year round. By creative, I mean you have to find a good street rail, build your own jumps or hike a mountain to get the best out of Icelandic snowboarding. So with those facts out of the way, let me tell you about some of my favourite spots to ride...
We’ll start with the small fishing village of Ólafsfjörður situated in north Iceland around Iceland’s longest fjord - Eyjafjörður. Surrounded by mountains on all sides, the only escape routes are via a tunnel through the mountains to the south, leading to the neighbouring town of Dalvík or by the sea to the north leading to the vast north Atlantic.
Places like Ólafsfjörður are referred to in Iceland as ‘snow coffins’. This means the snow comes early and leaves late, lying on the ground for months. If you are into hiking and freeriding in mind-blowing scenery down snow packed mountains that slope directly into the icy depths of the sea then Ólafsfjörður is definitely somewhere you should visit at least once in your life.
Deciding when to go is a gamble. I have personally had my best days there in March and early April. January and February can be good powder-wise, but the weather is unpredictable during these months and days are short at only four to five hours of sunlight. Taking a chance on January and February can pay off, but March and early April are a safer bet. There are many different ways to get to Ólafsfjörður. The best, is by your own personal car or rental (4x4 is not necessary but will definitely give you a good advantage) via highway one north. It takes about five hours to get there by car from Reykjavík. Another option is via domestic flight from Reykjavík to Akureyri and then taking the bus or renting a car in Akureyri. Flying Reykjavík to Akureyri takes about 40 minutes and the drive from Akureyri to Ólafsfjörður takes about an hour.
I can’t write an article about snowboarding in Iceland and leave out the glaciers. If I did, the Icelandic tourist board would sue me for misrepresentation. Glaciers cover a vast 10% of Iceland’s surface. My two favourites are Vatnajökull glacier (Europe’s biggest) and Snæfellsjökull glacier (home of the Iceland Park Project). Jökull actually means glacier in Icelandic so I am repeating myself here.
Vatnajökull is huge and offers endless snowboarding opportunities. My favourite spots to ride on the glacier are down the slopes from Hvannadalshnjúkur (Iceland’s highest point at 2113m) and at a place called Jöklasel. The best way to access the slopes of Hvannadalshnjúkur is through the national park of Skaftafell situated in south Iceland. It takes about 6 hours to hike to the top. The view alone at the summit is worth the hike and though the ride down isn’t the most demanding, it’s certainly one of the most beautiful descents around, resembling a lunar landscape that’s trapped in a giant icebox.
If you are lazy and hiking is not for you, then Jöklasel is the place to head for. Situated an hours drive from the eastern town of Höfn, it’s right at the glacier’s roots and there is a “fun” road leading up to it. When I say fun, I mean 4X4 fun. I have driven up this road in a Renault Twingo but would definitely advise against it.
So why is the snowboarding so fun around Jöklasel? The answer is simple; you can enjoy everything the glacier has to offer and then sink a pint of cold Icelandic lager afterwards at the lodge. There are no lifts there but who needs them when you can rent a snowmobile and do the tourist thing? It’s a good place to visit if you want to absorb the whole package in a short time. I have had some brilliant moments there in good company; let’s just say one particular favourite involves Angelina Jolie, snowmobiles, and me being in charge of security.
The other glacier I mentioned is Snæfellsjökull, home of the now famous summer freestyle camp – The Iceland Park Project. It’s situated on the nose of the Snæfellsnes peninsula in western Iceland, just a three hour drive from Reykjavík. With views across the Atlantic looking out towards Greenland, the scenery is spectacular. It doesn’t matter how many times I go there, I am always in awe of its beauty. I know I’m starting to sound like a commercial for www.icelandisbrilliant.com but my words simply don’t do this place justice.
Snæfellsjökull is quite easily accessible and it only takes about three hours to hike to the top, or you can rent snowmobiles during tourist season. There is also some good surf spots in this area, so it’s definitely worth taking a look if you can brave the icy temperatures! Glaciers are in themselves a living thing; that is to say they are constantly on the move and changing. Be well prepared and check with the locals before embarking on a hike. You have been warned so you can’t sue me if you fall down a crevasse!
I have to tell you about one more place before I let you go. Well, actually it’s not exactly one place but a couple of places situated close to each other. I am going to take you back to north Iceland to the slopes of Hlíðarfjall resort, Akureyri and the Eyjafjord. This is probably the place I know best, Akureyri being my home town. The Hlíðarfjall resort itself is ok but it is the mountains surrounding it that make this place such a gem. The lifts at the resort stop at about 800m, after which it’s a 45 minute hike to the top. Once at the top the opportunities are endless: cliff drops, wind lips, and 70° slopes.
I have spent so many days at the Hlíðarfjall mountain that I am beginning to consider it a dear old friend. As with all good friends there have been many good and a few bad times here. My worst day was definitely when I broke my leg trying to gap jump a picnic table in zero visibility. The jump collapsed, I didn’t mange to ollie high enough and ended up hitting the table at full speed. I automatically went into a semi front flip, head butted the table and landed on my butt on the other side. That was the end of that season.
At the roots of Hlíðarfjall is the town of Akureyri, a great base for partying into the long winter nights and getting cosy with the locals. Just go to any bar and ask for Mummi or Johnny Fancy and you’ll be sorted. Eyjfjord, being the longest in Iceland, has plenty of mountains surrounding it. Check out the Kerling (Old Hag) and Kaldbakur mountains if you have a chance. I have had so many good times in this area that I can’t really name a time of year that is better than the other though January, February and March are the safest, snow wise.
Iceland is certainly a very different place to visit for snowboarding. You won’t find huge vertical, epic tree runs, or perfectly groomed super pipes, but you will definitely leave with a lasting impression of a distinctly different country, unique terrain, and mysterious mountains. I have travelled far and wide (Britain, France, Spain, Mexico) and I can say there’s nowhere like home. My home. So I hope to see you soon snowboarding in Iceland; just ask for Geiri when you land.
I bid you farewell with the immortal words of my Norse ancestors: Skál í botn!
He has been snowboarding for 15 years and is the director of Icelandic Snowboard Association (ISA).
He also runs the website bigjump.is, produces snowboard movies and works in sales and marketing for Oakley, Iceland.