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Iceland Spring 2023


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Well I've been here a long time and sometimes it feels like it's all massively long boards being euro-carved on perfectly groomed snow, so here's a summary of a trip I just got back from which is the opposite: a tiny board on back country snow in Iceland.


Iceland's pretty far north (between 66 and 67 degrees) so early season it's dark, but late season lasts a fair time as it's colder up there than other places. It's not a cheap place to visit, but it's got lots of interesting geology including active volcanos, and it's easy to get to from the UK at a mere 3 hour flight. If you want to go snowboarding in the northern hemisphere in June, it's pretty much the only option. 

They sell flying time, not "vertical", so like AK and not like BC. The reason is the relatively high "down day ratio", and you can expect to sit one day in four, or there abouts. Trip lengths are mostly 4 heli days... I've taken two back to back before now, but it gets old after a while and on balance I think 4 days is about right.

This season - 22/23 - was a poor snow year in Europe generally and specifically in Iceland too. The last few years I've been here at this time we rode to sea level from peaks at around 1,300m; this year the snow line was between 500m and 700m, a very different deal. However the snow higher up, on the right aspects, was pretty similar to usual, which means nothing like BC over-the-head powder, but spring snow of all types.

There are two main heli operators in Iceland, both of which I've visited several times. This one is Arctic, which flies two machines with a maximum of 16 guests, hence they have 16 radios here. You can see the location on the wall map below. The radios are not much used in anger (compared to BC) as you usually have line of sight.


Here's Arctic heli's lodge, which is at an old farm up a valley accessed by gravel road. Larger hire cars are available for those with longer snowboards or more friends.


One of these boards is perfect, the other should be hung on the wall and admired. Mine's the baby. The poles and the  monster board were a give-away to a guide from someone who learned the hard way what works best. The perfect board is my 1.44m Hometown Hero with F2 bindings. For the avoidance of doubt: I do not touch ski poles other than when picking them up for fallen skiers. 


I ride the HH in BC powder, and on hardpack, but it works great on spring snow too. 

They provide transceivers and shovel packs, and airbags for those who want them. You don't need an airbag here really; I leave mine at home. They do of course give full safety briefings and training in slide rescue etc.

Selfie time. That green stuff... last year this time that was all white, and you could ride back down to this location.


Let's look at that from above:


At the bottom centre of this is the lodge, where the previous shot was taken. Needless to say we used a bit more flying time to get to the snow this season. 


Because of the snow line, pickups were higher up the valley than usual, what with grass snowboarding not yet being a sport. 

If you go high enough, it's all white. I was actually the only snowboarder out of 16 guests, and possibly the second oldest... which may be a concern for the snowboarding demographic.


On the other hand I had most fun.


In Iceland hard boots are achingly fashionable again - last season and this I got a great deal of positive reaction from particularly guides, who all either already have the Backland set up, or are going to get it. As one guide pointed out, you really appreciate the responsiveness of hard boots on this snow pack. I don't know, haven't tried softies here and can't see the need to... but I would think no boarding impossible here, the snow's not that soft.


It's mostly kind of steep, but hard to show in images. These are all Insta 360x3 screen grabs.


Brown snow is a thing (see "tracks" thread), but it's pretty much the same as the white stuff, and you can leave funky white tracks in it. At nice 360 carve in brown snow would be fun. I nearly pulled off a few at the pick-ups... but never quite made it all the way around. The snow's typically slower at lower level is my excuse.


And here's what my Garmin watch thought of one day... Typically we'd be getting 13-15 runs a day, between when the snow softened up in the morning and when it became too sticky in the early evening. I've ridden at midnight here before - it doesn't go dark - it's all about the temperature and snow conditions. You can whale watch from the heli as it flies over the fijord.


The machines were pretty Austrian helis:


Here's a steep south facing run with isothermal snow. I could hear the snow sloughing even through my helicopter ear defenders (the electronic ones which allow speech through). It looked like some of the snow was moving uphill! In fact I think the base I was on was sloughing downhill fast, and some of the layers on top were moving at a slower speed than the base layer. It was weird to watch. On the original image you can see the guide plus 3 skiers right down the bottom there - it's a long way down and you don't want to fall on stuff like this as you'd go a long way. No one fell all week in this group, but we were likely stronger than the others who I noticed picked some more mellow lines.


Approaching a flat topped peak with a couloir on the right hand corner of it. That's where we were going. You can see the sides of the flat top are steepish.


I let the skiers hit the couloir first - I'm faster, and I can pick narrower lines than skiers with their poles and skis and all that. Plus I don't want someone barrelling down from behind me, on skis or tumbling. 

The guide slowly ripped the snow out of the centre of the couloir, making it less likely to slough on the guests. The other guests followed him, down the centre of the couloir which was quite wide. I'm not much for riding tracks, and I reckon I'm not phased by a bit of slough management.... so I took the skiers left hand line by the rocks, which was all fresh snow.

That started really well, but the video shows I kicked a small slough off pretty early on. I didn't stop, but there were rocks and it was as steep as you're likely to find... and over a few turns the video shows the slough slowly growing into a monster wave of wet snow. I could hear it, and see it moving down all around me. In this video still the snow to the rider's right is all flowing downhill at about the same speed I was. Until....


... it overtook me and swept me off my feet. 

The video shows I was toe side when it took me out. I rolled heel side (as above) ... then I considered my options, which were make a 180 turn and out, or try switch, or sit and wait. I didn't fancy switch, and the turn out seemed risky: if I'd lost it, I'd be rag-dolling over the rocks to my left. The slough sped up a bit, but the direction seemed safe enough, and I knew it would stop eventually. It started to slow, and as soon as I felt it safe to make the turn, cranked the board forward and right and rode out of it. It felt like a couple of minutes; the video shows it was a few seconds only. 

Anyway, a few seconds after the above, I flipped the board across the by then slowly moving slough and just rode out of it. 

Lessons learned: well, it was fun but potentially risky, not particularly because it would "go", but because if the flow had wanted to take me over the rocks it may have been uncomfortable. I knew in advance that the couloir was a terrain trap (the flow was going to end up down the middle), which is partly why I kept out of there. I couldn't see him do it from the top (it was steep), but the guide kicked a similar slough off down there, and he pulled out and waited for it to overtake him, then started out again. So with hindsight, I should have made that toe-side turn sooner and traversed into the middle of the couloir, waited for my slough to go past, then ridden the debris down. Well now I know. 

There were one or two half-pipe features to play on too.


I should say... I'd not particularly recommend the heli boarding here, in that it costs as much as over-the-head powder costs in BC, and this isn't remotely as good as that kind of snow. The reason to come here is that their season is long, and maybe to check out Iceland tourism too.


And here's the video.

Edited by philw
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