Compared to other European ski destinations, Iceland is a relative new arrival to the global ski scene. Geographically isolated from the rest of Europe, the local economy was based on fishing and whaling, which gathered little attention to the first traveling skiers of the early 20th century. However the economic boom experienced by Western Europe after WWII transformed this nation into not only one of the strongest democracies in Scandinavia—which is saying a lot—but also into a competitive global destination with tourism now as it’s main source of foreign income, particularly during the crisp and mild summer months. Thanks to its relatively late industrial development Iceland is still underneath its aura of cosmopolitanism, progressive politics, and Viking heritage, a cluster of villages straight out of a Tolkien novel, with the simple twist that they are happy to take as many dollars as you bring with you. One quick Google search of Iceland will have you begging for them to take your money.
Nonetheless, compared to the Alps, Dolomites, or even Norway, Iceland is still flying under the radar of many skiers. If you’re sharing a gondola car with a local and ask them what they know about Iceland, behind their mirrored goggles, their glassy eyes might light up and cough up an answer that would probably contain a variation of: trolls (not the internet kind), blue hot-springs, and you need an app to avoid making out with a cousin.
These are all true; there’s an Icelandic Elf School in the capital Reykjavik that teaches Icelandic folklore, and just as recent as 2013 major road construction was stopped after elf supporters protested the destruction of elves “natural habitat”. The famous Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa, is prominently featured in tourism ads, and also true is that due to its relatively small population (320,000), low immigration, and local surname practices, students at the University of Iceland developed a popular app to keep your late night hookups incest-free.
What perhaps your local ripper doesn’t know is that you can also get world-class backcountry skiing late into spring for a fraction of the cost of a ski trip into mainland Europe. To top that the best backcountry lines in the country are located, where else, but in the Troll Peninsula, where you can stay in a fishing village right by the ocean and ski major spring lines down to the beach and soak in one of many public hot springs.
Icelandair, the major national airline, has been pushing to make the local international airport a global hub for transatlantic flights. What this means for US skiers is that you can get a round trip ticket from Denver to Reykjavik for less than $500 (my upcoming May trip cost $480 to book); so for less than a weekend stay in Teton Village you can actually put your passport to good use. Some might discourage you with fearful tales of high prices once you arrive to the land of elves, and sure, beers will be more expensive than the last six pack of PBR you picked up with your bulk granola, but it’s also quite easy to embrace your inner dirtbag. Due to its many mountainous and pristine national parks Iceland has an extensive offering of cheap RV rentals, especially in prime ski mountaineering season, when low tourist season is in effect. For the price of a discounted Vail Resorts lift ticket you can actually rent a modified camper/van/RV to travel throughout the island while cooking and sleeping in the back.
Most backcountry skiing is located in the Northwest corner of the island, starting near the city of Akureyri, all the way to the Troll Peninsula, which contains a series of fjords cuddling small fishing villages surrounded by the most photogenic lines you have ever dreamed of ripping. If you can afford it, the best way to visit the area is on a sailboat, where you travel from one fjord to the other, disembark to ski all day and eat like a Viking at night.
If you’re a peak bagger and want to take a shot at the highest point in the country, you might need to do some driving, but it’s quite worth it. Hvannadalshnúkur is the highest summit on the island (elevation 6,920ft), and is located on the Southeast corner in Vatnajokull National Park. This heavily glaciated peak is by it self worth the trip, and considering all the trekking you can do around the National Park it’s a destination in it self.
When you consider that the capital is also known for it’s nightlife and music scene—after all, Bjork, the musician, is the country’s most famous cultural export—and that you can see northern lights pretty much eight months out of the year, the real question is not if you should visit, but, do you really want to be the last one in your Facebook feed to post pictures of sea-to-summit lines and beers in hot-springs with a Scandinavian crowd? The only correct answer is: cheers! Or as they say in Iceland skál!
When to visit: Ski season runs from November to May, best backcountry skiing goes from late March until early June. April and May is low-tourist season with best airfare prices. May might be too late most years to see Northern light though, if you want to get a good scope of this make sure to visit by April.
• Prices: Iceland has five major ski resorts. The 5×5 lift pass runs around $150usd and lets you ski all five resorts in five days. A six day guided trip in the Troll Peninsula costs about $3,000usd.
• Accommodations: Rooms in and around the Troll Peninsula coat between $100-200usd/night during low season, but you can rent a small van for two people for about $500-600usd for six nights with unlimited mileage.