On my right there’s a steep slope of ice-crusted snow. If I drop anything now it will be gone, taking a ride over the hardpack, never to be seen again.
I go through my own well-practised system firstly I pack my telescopic poles to the outside of my bag, then remove the skis and peal away the skins. Next the bindings are removed and replaced on their chocks, as the skis revert to a snowboard.
I’m ready now, ready for the thrill of the descent. But before setting off I unzip the trigger toggle of my avalanche airbag. Just as a base jumper practises the muscle recognition of reaching for the pull cord, I reach for the toggle on the left shoulder strap with my right hand two, three times. I’m ready. Raising an arm, I shout, ‘Dropping!’ and I’m in. Navigating the first icy pitch before rolling over a blind spot into a pristine couloir of deep powder, my speed increases and I’m flying over the landscape.
Eventually slashing a heel-side turn in the fresh powder, I’m forced to make an abrupt stop. It’s not that I’ve reached the end of a piste, or that the late spring-time powder has simply melted into a green alpine meadow – it’s far more serious than that. It’s the Arctic Ocean that’s blocking my progress, its crashing, almost inky black waters beating against the ruggedly beautiful shoreline I now stand high above. So rather than swimming, in its freezing waters, I stop and turn my snowboard back into a set of skis, before begining the long and slow process of skinning back up.
I’d always wanted to splitboard in Iceland, so when the offer came, from Bergmenn Mountain Guides, to join them on the Troll Peninsula in the far Northern of Iceland I immediately booked a flight. Akureyri, Iceland’s second city, is the closest airport to the Toll Peninsula, but due to bad weather all flights from Reykjavik were cancelled. So after hiring a car I left the civilisation of Reykjavik behind, and started the five hour drive around Iceland’s coast, passing vast areas of undulating ancient lava flow, the stark harshness of south western Iceland soon becomes apparent – a harshness broken only by isolated red farmhouses, constructed not to conquer or dominate the landscape, nor even fit in with it, but more simply, just to beg an allowance to stay.
Our base is the tiny fishing village of Ólafsfjörður, which sits at a narrowing of a fjord, Ólafsfjörður was built for the herring industry of the early 20th century – but it’s also surrounded by some of Iceland’s best ski touring.
It’s 5pm by the time we arrive at the hotel, but with a smile the staff greet us and rush off to the kitchen, returning with a hearty soup and fresh bread.
“Okay, grab some soup; dump your bags, and let’s get out there!” shouts our guide Owen.
As we exit the van to start our first tour of the trip, I glance at my watch. I smile when I see that it’s 6pm and yet its still as bright as midday. It’s wonderful not to be constrained by the hours of the sun, knowing that if your legs can still cope with the climbs, a lack of daylight won’t stop you.
We climb slowly and steadily above a snow filled gully, buffeted but not beaten by the still strong wind. It would have been nice to climb up through the sheltered gully but apparently this is a terrain trap, and even though the snow is well consolidated and the avalanche risk low, it’s still best not to push your luck.
Some two and a half hours later, after a series of false summits, we regroup just below a ridge line. There’s a small amount of spindrift whipping over the ridge towards us, indicating a strong wind, but it doesn’t look too bad, so we push on to the summit.
Once there my hat nearly leaves my head and my eyes start to water, even behind a pair of sunglasses, as the incredibly strong wind almost pushes me back down the mountainside. I stand firm, leaning into it, as I survey my surroundings. Far below the rough sea is pounding the shore on three sides, and on the fourth is an endless series of snow covered mountains, calling out to be ridden.
Dropping a short way back down the leeward side of the mountain to escape the worst of the wind, I struggle to convert my splitboard back into its snowboard form. I take off my main gloves, and wearing only a thin woollen inner, my hands soon start to lose all sensation as I fiddle to take the skins off and reattach my bindings. There is no room for a mistake, as the snow around me is firm and steep, the wind strong.
Putting my warm gloves back on, I clip my feet into my board and set off down the firm spring snow. The effort of the climb is rewarded with the thrill of speeding through a couple of steep, rock-sided chutes and onto a wide open powder face. I'm soon through the powder and onto windblown snow that holds an edge well and allows for some sweeping carves. Far too soon we’re climbing back into the van, and although I’m tempted to head back up, a check of my watch shows it’s 9.30pm, so we head back to the hotel for a very late dinner.
I sat back in the thermal waters, of my own personal hot tub, as the snow that fell towards me disappeared in the near boiling waters steam I thought on how Iceland has a stubborn and unforgiving landscape, yet over the next week I learnt that if you too are stubborn, and undaunted by the sometimes freezing winds, you will gain access to mile after mile of untracked fresh powder, from sky to sea.
Pete Coombs is an adventure journalist and founding member of 'The Grizzly Splitboard Club', a UK based club linking splitboarders with guides and proposed expeditions. Pete spends his winter season looking for new lines and alternative destinations, while his summers are spent dragging his young family on cycling adventures. This winter Pete, and The Grizzly Splitboard Club, plans some first descents in the Kackar Mountains of Turkey.
More Info: http://www.bergmenn.com/
The First Day of Summer, a film made by Zak Emerson, Pete Coombs and Jake Armstrong is the first in a trilogy of films exploring the personal and group rationalities of placing oneself at risk, while seeking adventure through the isolation of splitboarding expeditions. Shot in Iceland 'The First Day of Summer' is Pete Coombs personal reasoning.
Thanks Pete, for the great impressions, we would like to read and see more from you!