“I’m going to ski ahead a bit and scope out the decent.” Emilie said before she took off for the edge.
We were standing in the vast winter landscape that made up the Hornstrandir Nature Preserve in the Westfjords of Iceland, a mere 2 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Even with my sunglasses on, I found myself squinting at the miles of white snow that blanketed the ridges and summits almost uninterrupted. There were no trees, only black cliff bands that tucked themselves into the mountains. Emilie made sure we weren’t headed for one of those.
I was grateful for my friends and guides, Emilie and Jesse of CloudSplitter Guides who more than once had to set off first into a white-out. I had been a last minute addition to the trip, quickly purchasing the ski gear I needed just a couple of weeks prior to landing in Ísafjörður. I have been a ‘downhill’ skier since high school, getting carted to the top of a ski resort by a lift. Ascending a mountain by skis in the backcountry required a different set of skills and gear. I had three months to prepare and get myself into skiing shape. I was joined by seven others, besides my guides, whom I got to know during our time carving turns day after day.
The only way to reach the pristine slopes is by boat, and we had the unique opportunity to sail with Aurora-Arktika, owned by Captain Sigurdur “Siggi” Jonsson. If you want to reach these magnificent fjords, Siggi is your guy. Besides sailing our floating accommodations, he also cooked gourmet meals for us every night using all local and fresh ingredients. Very local. The mussels were picked right on the shores that day. Siggi grew up in Ísafjörður and has been hiking, skiing, climbing and kayaking in the mountains and the oceans all his life. He was our guide of guides.
We had the whole range of Icelandic weather during the week and I was hesitant to bring my camera equipment on the days it was snowing and sleeting, but I’m glad I did. I used the Lowe Pro top loader with a chest harness so I could keep the camera in front of me and accessible but also protected from the weather. I brought my Nikon D750 with a 24-70mm/f2.8 lens. There were times that I wish I had a longer zoom, especially when we encountered seals, dolphins, arctic foxes and the huge variety of ducks that reside in the fjords. The times I was glad I had a wide angle for the landscape, however, was much more frequent.
On the first day of sailing, we stopped in Hesteyri and hiked along the shore. Generations of families lived there on the edge of civilization without any modern conveniences until the late 1940s when the people made a joint decision to move away. In 1952, the village stood abandoned.
These days, Hesteyri is a popular place for visitors to start their summer hiking trips through the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve. Residents left the fjords over 70 years ago, but they return to keep their homes in good condition for the hikers that arrive during the short season. In the winter, everything is hauntingly empty. Especially as we approached the ruins of an old whaling station.
Of course the highlight of the trip was the five days of skiing that followed. Each day started with a ride on the zodiac to take us to the shore. The itinerary was appealing. Long traverses from one fjord to the next. We would spend hours skinning up and over mountain passes, hitting the flat plateau summits, and then threading our way down exhilarating ravines. The descents were short and fast, but they were some of the best runs I’ve ever had.
To top it off, we had two clear evenings lit up by the aurora borealis. The color was magnificent and it was other-worldly to see. The boat was always in motion, even when at anchor, but I managed to get a few shots while keeping my shutter open for a few seconds.