Winter in Iceland is ridiculously unpredictable. It can be beaten by wind and swell one minute and infused with silence and solitude the next. Drawn by the appeal of its wilderness, my partner and I dreamed of traveling there for a long time. Combining both of our passions for surfing and exploring, we decided to go self-supported, on skis, to the snowy valleys of the north in search of a unique experience.
Picking a special location
We need high reliefs that hold snow when winds blow strong but yet not too steep so we can pull our sleds uphill by skis equipped with sealskins. We look at the map, again and again. One valley seems to match our needs: mountainous, remote, approximately 20 miles long, not too steep of an approach, very snowy but possibly tricky due to many unfrozen rivers.
Hoping for local knowledge, we catch up with surfers, skiers and mountaineers around Reykjavik. As friendly as they are, they don’t like to give tips away about their spots. It’s fair enough. As we point to our chosen valley on the map, their eyes go surprisingly big and they say, “You will for sure be the first surfers up there, if you ever reach the place! Honestly, accessing it is tricky. Good luck!” Our motivation only grows from these words. We decide to take this itinerary.
Vincent makes the track following GPS points in perfect skiing conditions. Photo: © Léa Brassy
Preparation is half of the journey
Aware that a successful expedition requires carefully organized logistics and a bit of luck, we want to make sure we do our best. Packing 10 days worth of supplies in limited weight and space became our main concern. We brought our technical equipment from France and purchased the food in Iceland.
Up north, we stay in a guesthouse at some farmers’ place during a snowstorm. Blocked inside for a few days, we pack our rations of food. Breakfast is a fast cooking oat-based recipe in which we only add boiling water. Lunch is a daylong snack made of a mix of nuts, dried fruits, crackers and chocolate. Each ration of breakfast and lunch is packed separately in a Ziploc bag. Rooibos tea is our all-purpose drink. Dinner is dehydrated soup and a lyophilised main course.
We have three sleds loaded with food, tent and cookers, mattresses and sleeping bags, warm clothes, surfing gear and surfboard, cameras, etc. Vincent will be pulling two sleds that weigh about 65 pounds each while my single sled will be 90.
Around a delicious Icelandic lamb diner in Reykjavik, our friend Magni accepts our request to be in charge of weather reports. Twice a day for ten days, he will be texting us information about precipitation, wind and waves. In theory, we should have cell phone service, if not in the valley, once we reach the fjords. We take the risk to carry no satellite phone, mainly because we don’t own one.
Vincent was pulling a double sled to carry our gear. Photo: © Léa Brassy
A question of timing
A window of one month between mid-March and mid-April should be good enough to hope for several days of kind weather conditions. We will of course give priority to weather rather than swell. To be honest, the ski expedition requires calm conditions that most likely won’t coincide with swell. Iceland is so high in the Atlantic Ocean that swells often come quickly, with bad weather, and disappear fast. It would be very lucky to have both. Luckily for us, it’s also the best time of year to watch the Northern Lights.
When a quiet weather window shows up after two weeks of waiting, we are ready. Local farmers are aware of the trip we intend. Icelandic people are interesting characters, never intrusive nor curious. They don’t ask us any questions about our preparation, our knowledge or even the surfboard on top of my sled. And I feel that they expect just as much discretion from us. Only when we return will they express their pleasure in seeing us enjoy their beloved nature through activities they had never seen before.
Taking a break every hour and a half is important. Rooibos tea, nuts, dried fruits and sockeye salmon on the rock! Photo: © Léa Brassy
Our route is registered on both of our GPS devices. We are good to go. We depart from the farmhouse in the early morning. A horde of sheepdogs keeps us company until we reach the plateau. The first day is long and slow uphill skiing. My whole body feels stiff and doubts creep into my thoughts. Vincent is progressing well, putting distance between us, so I have to keep moving. I know he does that on purpose. At the moment I hate it, but really I love it. He knows my mind can play tricks on me even though my body is resourceful. As I go I think that’s what lovers are here for, to bring out the best in each other.
By midday, we are surrounded by an immensity of white. Old snow-scooter tracks seem to be leading the same way as our GPS route. The weather is calm and overcast; the wind is still. For a few hours we ski over the plateau, awaiting the sight of the sea. We take short breaks to chew on a few nuts and sip some tea every hour and half or two.
As we start going slowly down, trying to manage the downhill course of our sleds, we see blue in our snowy paradise, far away on the horizon. The scooter tracks finally lead to an old hut covered by snow. A narrow three-meter-high hole at the door allows us to snake in for the night. It’s good shelter.
The next day is hard work too, especially with a tricky river crossing, but the feeling is like nothing else. There are no tracks and it’s absolutely silent, except for the wild geese noisily making their way from the estuary. Vincent and I often turn to each other with a large satisfied smile. We pain to complete the last kilometer over the hill. The bay we discover at sunset is so beautiful that we quickly feel better.
Once the rhythm is found, Léa enjoys the view, and the sunshine. Photo: © Vincent Colliard
We turn the phone on to share the good news of our arrival after two days on skis. No service! It’s a big bummer but exhausted as we are, we sleep through the night like rocks.
Anxiety wakes us up early. First, if we can’t give news, people will start looking for us and eventually call for a rescue. Second, if we can’t get the weather report, we will not be safe. We have forecasts for a couple more days but changes occur so suddenly here that we can’t really rely on them. If we can’t find reception, we will have to turn back right away. Our only option is too climb as high as we can.
My sore body and worried mind make the climb long and painful. From up there, the lookout is absolutely stunning. Sun rays light the cotton-like valley we skied across. It’s absolutely silent. The air is divine: cold and fresh. We overlook the other bay and its steep mountains. Vincent and I stopped talking a while ago. We are both hoping we can stay here for as long as the weather is kind, but we need a report! At the summit, in a desperate move, Vincent climbs the summit cairn, his hand holding the phone towards the blue sky.
The phone miraculously buzzes and messages flow in.
The Lavvu is a traditional Scandinavian tent. It’s large and comfy, just perfect for surf trips. Photo: © Vincent Colliard
Northern Lights delicacy
I feel the floor moving. I am too warm and comfy to bother. I think I am turning around, maybe sliding. Never mind. His cold lips on my forehead and his singular smell in the frigid air feel amazing. “Open your eyes, Lilou,” Vincent murmurs. He had pulled me outside the Lavvu. As I lift my heavy eyelids white mountains shine in the glow of a rising moon. It’s so cold their contours are soft. Bright green dust infuses the sky, moving carefully as if the sky was breathing in and out.
Northern Lights night is a delightful present from Mother Earth. Photo: © Vincent Colliard
In search of waves
According to Magni’s report, despite a heavy rain during the day, weather should be relatively quiet for another few days. Although there is swell around, we can expect a peak in 48 hours. There are two bays to explore. They both look pretty flat but we can hope for something. Our bet was on the reefs but they appear to have random rocks in the way and poor swell concentration. There is a river going out in the middle of the bay with a high flow due to melting snow. It’s creating a sandbar that catches our eyes from up the hill. An offshore wind blows hard. It’s tiny and getting dark already.
Back the next day after a two-hour hike from camp, it is clearly looking bigger. There is a hell of a current bursting out of the river mouth and the tide is dropping. An old avalanche has thrown snow, 100 yards high, right on the beach. Well, it’s intimidating. I get dressed in my six-millimeter outfit using the shipwreck bow as shelter from the frigid offshore wind.
As I paddle out, a seal checks me out, then another one, and another one. That last one was rather big, wait, huge! Did I see okay? Suddenly, I get busy with the set of hollow left-handers coming my way. I freak out on the first wave, shallow on the sandbank, and catch a long racer on the second wave. I have frozen lips, burning insides and heavy heartbeats. There might even be steam coming out of my wetsuit. Seals keep coming closer and closer. Obviously, they are not familiar with sharing their hunting spot. They do mellow out as I keep surfing, fortunately.
Sets come in suddenly with many waves and a very short period in between. First and second are good then the following ones suffer from too much water over the sandbar. The almond shape of the tube is gorgeous but the ride is fast. It’s not only the wave but the wild energy of such a phenomenal landscape and the loneliness that make this spot so special. We have no idea if that wave breaks often or if it is only due to the large amount of snow melting down from the mountains.
From one bay to the other, the walk is long but rewarding. Photo: © Vincent Colliard
These surfing pictures were taken before the expedition at a closer location. We could not carry the large lenses with us and we did not have a way to charge our batteries. But the wave we surfed was just as good. Photo: © Vincent Colliard
Léa enjoys herself on surf trips that bring her into more demanding conditions. She loves the challenge and the commitment it requires. Photo: © Vincent Colliard
The wave we surfed during the expedition was formed by the heavy current coming out of this river mouth. Photo: © Vincent Colliard
Vincent takes off on a windy set of waves. Conditions in Iceland can be hectic, as you can see in the background. Windows of good swell and wind last for about four hours at a time, so you’d better make the most of the session. Photo: © Léa Brassy
For seven days, Vincent and I lived a very simple way: observing wilderness, listening to silence, witnessing little things that were miracles to our eyes and made us deeply satisfied. Our bodies felt good exercising as our lungs breathed the freshest air ever. Even our dry food tasted amazing. We were so balanced that we could have kept going for a long time. I did not want to go back to the made-up world. This was the real world to me. If this is what adventure tastes like, I am hungry for more.
Watch Being There: A self-supported ski journey to the waves, a film by Léa Brassy and Sarah Menzies (Let Media).