Steamy days, steamy nights
Jill of all trades
Our host leant forward conspiratorially. "Have you seen the Reykjavik scriptures?" we heard him say. "Scriptures?" "With a pole," he added helpfully. We had visions of some ancient scroll covered in runes. "Very sexy," he added.
The conversation seemed to be developing rather like an Icelandic Saga. "There was a man called Bjarni Siggurdson. He was a great warrior and liked nothing better than to go a-Viking every spring. Every autumn he would return laden with loot. He had a great house near Sognefjord and kept many fighting men. This story is not about him."
Our host, the warden, no less, of the hut at Landmannalauga in which we were staying, could see that we needed more help. Landmannalauga is situated in the centre of an area of volcanic activity in southern Iceland. There is a natural warm pool nearby at the confluence of a hot and cold stream in which you can bathe. In April the general area is covered in snow and there is wonderful ski-touring to be had in the nearby mountains. This has nothing to do with this part of the story but then Iceland is like that.
"You know how everyone in Iceland has three jobs?" We all nodded. We didn't know but we did now and we believed him. He himself was clearly in charge of the national lottery and his third job must be story-teller for Iceland's answer to Jackanory. "It was the girl in McDonald's," he continued. "She was very pretty but had blisters on her hands. I asked about that." He paused dramatically and then delivered the punch line. "She said she was also a stripper. You know. In a strip-show. Dancing with a pole."
Our luck was in. The Glasgow and Heathrow flights landed within minutes of each other. The luggage was through quickly. Eight would-be skiers, who had booked through Waymark, met in the arrival hall of Keflavik airport and found their bus without difficulty. We made our acquaintances on the way to our guesthouse. A cold rain was falling and it was turning to snow. Our guide from Iceland Safari arrived and introduced himself as "Hjörli". He reassured us about the weather forecast. He made arrangements to meet us the next morning and recommended a restaurant. We were soon enjoying beer, soup and fish. Despite the fact that it was late on a Saturday evening, we were able to find a shop that sold maps and were soon discussing the possible route for Sunday.
Above Stora Brandsgill
On Skis to Landmannalauga
We had our lunch by the bus. The mist was swirling around but before we had finished lunch it had lifted and we were soon touring in brilliant sunshine. The conditions were ideal. There were about 2cms of fresh powder on a firm base. The air was cold but still and the skis were both gripping well and gliding well. We were heading for the mountains to our south and had 25km to cover before nightfall but with these conditions it was no problem.
Hjörli proved to be a most amiable and skilful guide. The stops were ordered at just the right intervals and we arrived at the hut at about 18:30 feeling both fresh and elated. The first thing to try was the pool. This turned out to be more of an ordeal than we expected. Once you were in, it was wonderful, but the distance to the hut was 200m. Getting in was painful. Getting out was excruciating but once back in the hut, consuming duty free and consuming Hjörli 's excellent cooking, a most pleasing glow developed.
Wind and steam
The next day we made our first venture into the mountains. The weather was still beautifully clear but the temperature had dropped to -12° C and there was a strong north wind. We set off along the route that leads to Posrmork, a very popular hiking expedition in the summer. We soon had our first evidence of the local geology. Clouds of steam rose out of the hillside as we ascended. Later, on the plateau, we were to see more.
At lunchtime we built a snow-shelter. Hjörli was both critical and demanding. The way we cut the blocks was just about adequate but he didn't think much of our stacking. Then the unpleasant part of the day started. What had been a tailwind became a headwind. We soon understood why Hjörli had insisted on turning around so early. Coming back across the plateau was a struggle but the views were magnificent and there was a fine, if brief, descent at the end and in any case, the cold we felt skiing was nothing compared to that getting out of the pool later.
In the valley of evil
Our days settled into a familiar pattern. Sleep till about 08:00. Then set off for the days tour at about 10:00. These could take in the mountains to the south, a fine crater lake to the north, various hot springs, including some very dramatic ones in Vondugil, "the valley of evil", to the west. Our finest day was one when we climbed up the ridge to the south via Stora Brandsgil and descended via Littla Brandsgill. The day involved some satisfying scrambling and complex route-finding and also cutting steps along a ridge on our ascent. The views at the top were stupendous and included all of Iceland's major glaciers bar one. We could see Hofsjokull to the north, Langjokull to the north-west and biggest of all, Vatnajokull to the north east. Only Myrdals Jokull, to the south, paradoxically the closest of the four, could not be seen for an intervening ridge.
Evening involved the usual hot pool ritual before supper. We never seemed to spend less than an hour bathing, partly because once you were in a terrible fear of getting out developed, and partly because Hjörli 's third job (after guide and cook) turned out to be student of philosophy. He spent his summers at university in Berlin. Discussing the value, if any, of French post-modernist philosophy, or Rene Descartes' mistake, in a hot natural pool after a day's skiing in the surrounding mountains was a surprisingly agreeable, if unexpected, experience.
Descending into Littla Brandsgill
All too soon it was Saturday again and time to leave. We were hoping that the wind would have moderated. On most of the days it had been fresh if not strong and always from the north. We did not fancy the 25kms back to the bus against a strong headwind.
What can I say about the last day? It started well but in the end it had to be endured. The snow had been blown away and all that remained was ice. Our wax did not grip well and although the wind was only moderate to start with it strengthened throughout the day. I don't known about the others, each was in his private hell, but I was swearing and cursing at the conditions by kilometre 17 at the latest. On the last and final decent the wind was so strong that I did not even dare to stop to take the skins off that I had put on to get over the last pass.
But the bus was reached safely by all and once in our high spirits returned. We all agreed that it had been an amazing holiday.
So here it was our last evening in Iceland. After a wonderful week's skiing we were back in Rekjavik. We met Hjörli for a drink in a local cafe. A dazzlingly beautiful waitress, blonde and voluptuous, served us beer and brenvit.
No doubt she was used to middle-aged men staring at her but I wonder if she realised that I was trying to catch a glimpse of her palms.
If you are interested in skiing in Iceland you should look atDieter Graser's pages. He has made some intrepid tours and has some most inspiring pictures.
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