Bucket list adventure: backcountry skiing by boat in Iceland

Descending a metal boat ladder, catching a ride on an inflatable dinghy and sludging through seaweed in your ski boots isn’t how most backcountry skiers start their day, but that’s just what to expect when visiting the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve in the Westfjords region of Iceland.

Hornstrandir’s finger-like fjords extend into the Arctic Ocean and contain steep, snow-covered mountains that block the wind from the ocean below.

The combination of calm seas, smooth uphill skinning and epic ski descents are reasons enough to visit the area. Add in nightly views of Aurora Borealis, and a visit to one of the many hot springs and you’ve got a five-star vacation and bucket list adventure in the making.

Holly Blanchard backcountry skiing in Iceland. Photo by Vidar Kristinsson

Holly Blanchard backcountry skiing in Iceland. Photo: Courtesy of Emilie Drinkwater

Outfitters are limited in Hornstrandir but the ones that are here are exceptional.

These include Aurora Arktika and Boreas Adventures. Boreas offers kayak tours, hikes, sightseeing and more.

Aurora offers sailboat-based skiing which includes use of an onboard SUP and kayak to explore the protected harbors and view harbor seals and arctic foxes. The brave can even jump off the boat and into the icy waters for a rush that’s bracing.

7 a.m. wake-up calls and rides to shore

 Holly Blanchard and Erica Eng step around a cracked snow bridge while captian Sigurður Jónsson keeps an eye out. Photo by Emilie Drinkwater

Blanchard and Erica Engle step around a cracked snow bridge while Captian Sigurður Jónsson keeps an eye out. Photo: Courtesy of Emilie Drinkwater

The captain of Aurora Arktika’s boat Aurora, Sigurður Jónsson, gets up while it’s still dark to cook breakfast and brew java.

At around 7 a.m., the rich aroma of freshly brewed coffee fills the cabin.

Lying in bunk beds surrounded by ski gear in the 60-foot vessel, you awake to the sound of water lapping against the hull.

This gentle noise is accompanied by the boat’s rigging banging gently against the mast and lifelines.

Breakfast of meats, cheeses and bread, plus yogurt, muesli and fresh fruit is served before the captain retires for an hour to wait for the crew to get ready for skiing.

It takes a few days to develop sea legs but the since the water here is calm, the boat’s swaying is slight enough that it’s not a struggle to get your boots and outwear on.

The real trick is getting off the slippery metal ladder extending from the side of the boat to the raft below -- any movement in the water causes both vessels to bang into each other.

By 9 a.m., the crew, also acting as ski guides, motors the boat to shore. Gliding toward land, the boat’s hull chatters against the seas and lightly splashes skiers with salty water.

The fjords in Hornstrandir are beachless in places, meaning sometimes skiers must step out from the boat directly onto delicate snow bridges.

Other times the crew piggybacks skiers through seaweed and wet rocks to reach flat ground.

Skinning up and skiing Down

Picking the line. Photo by Emilie Drinkwater

Picking the line. Photo: Courtesy of Emilie Drinkwater

Cool early morning conditions means crunchy snow for the ascent, but soon the sun turns the snow to peel-away corn perfect for smooth, fast turns.

Myriad skiing options exist -- complete with face shots during the descent -- including a trip up an enticing couloir, or a traverse over to a sunny corn slope.

The vessel awaits you after your descent, having sailed around the peninsula after dropping you off in the morning.

Winding down and handpicked mussels

Holly Blanchard hitching a piggy-back ride from the Captain to waiting hands of the crew. Photo by Emilie Drinkwater

Blanchard hitching a piggyback ride from the captain to waiting hands of the crew. Photo: Courtesy of Emilie Drinkwater

Back at the boat, ski gear is stashed neatly into cubbies and closets. This keeps clutter down and walkways open.

Dinner is served down below, usually consisting of fresh fish, hearty-yet-healthful stews and soups, steamed mussels handpicked from the beach and vibrant salads.

This is followed by cold beers on the deck overlooking Aurora Borealis.

Getting there and taking the plunge

Cold drink? Blanchard and Engeld take the plunge. Photo by Emilie Drinkwater

Cold drink? Blanchard and Katerina Holeckova take the plunge. Photo by Emilie Drinkwater

To get to Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, first fly into Reykjavik before taking a short regional flight to Ísafjörður where Aurora Arktika harbors their boats.

Ísafjörður is considered the capitol of the region and offers countless amenities and exceptional bakeries.

Cold and hot

A visit to Iceland isn’t complete without a stop at one of the many hot springs in Reykjavik.

Try the geothermal Blue Lagoon hot springs, referred to as “One of the 25 wonders of the world.” Just make sure that you have a reservation before visiting because it gets busy.

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