Heli-Skiing In Iceland: A Truly Unique Adventure In WinterIf you’re intrigued by the idea of outdoor activities both extreme and unusual, Iceland is an excellent sporting destination for you. The Arctic island’s unearthly combination of plummeting sea cliffs, glacial lakes dotted with majestic icebergs, rugged volcanic mountain ranges, and glistening glacial plateaus is ideal for a range of outdoor adventures, including glacier hiking, horseback riding, ATV biking, ice caving, snorkeling, paragliding, whale watching, and much, much more. Iceland is particularly ideal for those interested in winter sports, such as snowmobiling, sledding, ice-skating, and, of course, skiing.
A term you’ll hear often applied to Iceland’s generous wilderness is “rugged,” and for good reason. The island’s topography is only flat and even in a rare few places, and the odd plateau is never too far away from a towering mountain range. Even Iceland’s bustling metropolitan capital of Reykjavík is only a stone’s throw from Mount Esja, part of which is estimated to be approximately 3.2 million years old.
Indeed, the island is a veritable goldmine of majestic mountains, bluffs, and foothills thanks to its positioning right over the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where tectonic activity is constantly building new formations out of rapidly solidifying magma. Skiing, snowboarding, and snowmobiling enthusiasts from around the world fiendishly covet the exhilarating experience of racing down the Icelandic slopes in a gush of speed and brisk Arctic air. In Iceland and in parts of Greenland as well, particularly adventurous skiers often enjoy a very unique Arctic sporting experience, which we will discuss in great detail in this article: Arctic Heli-skiing.
Generally, heli-skiing refers to off-trail skiing that commences via helicopter, as opposed your standard resort ski lift. Though fairly obscure as far as winter sports go, heli-skiing is not necessarily a new phenomenon; in the late twentieth century some very intrepid skiers would pursue remote areas via helicopter, but it was not really a common activity. It was not until Hans Gmoser, an Austrian-born Canadian pioneer of winter skiing and mountaineering, grew in renown that the idea of heli-skiing became more commercialized as a sport. That being said, it is still definitely part of a niche athletic community. Gmoser’s innovative winter sports business, Canadian Mountain Holidays, prospered rapidly and his organization is still the world’s leading and largest heli-skiing company, with eleven bases throughout the mountains of the North American continent.
A big appeal of helicopter skiing, or heli-skiing, outside of the sheer adrenaline rush is that the activity generally takes place on remote, largely untouched slopes, away from the groomed, well-traversed pistes of the typical ski resort. Heli-skiing allows adventurous winter athletes to quickly reach exhilarating heights and access parts of snow-peaked mountaintops that are otherwise challenging to access. Though this wintertime activity emerged out of the Canadian Rockies, it has become popularized in Alaska, New Zealand, Italy, Switzerland, and the Himalayas. And not surprisingly, over the last several years, skiers have begun to realize the extraordinary potential of the matchless and challenging Icelandic slopes for heli-skiing adventures.
The leading organization for heli-skiing in Iceland (and Greenland) is called Arctic Heli Skiing, operated by Bergmenn Mountain Guides in Northern Iceland. Both organizations are overseen by Jökull Bergmann, the first mountain guide in Iceland to be certified by the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations. This is no small feat, as the IFMGA is the highest standard of mountaineering and ski mountaineering professionalism in the world; to become fully certified, one must train for at least five to ten years. So, unsurprisingly, Iceland is home to one of the best heli-skiing professionals in the world, and Mr. Bergmann is not the only highly experienced expert on the island.
Viking Heliskiing is another specialized skiing organization in the northern part of Iceland. The founders, Jóhann H. Hafstein and Björgvin Björgvinsson, are both former Olympic ski racers. Essentially, what we’re trying to convey to you is that heli-skiing professionals in Iceland are exactly that – highly professional. Because of their small size, helicopters can be somewhat intimidating even to the most non-acrophobic individual, and plummeting towards the snow from one can seem similarly daunting. In Iceland, you can relax and enjoy the adrenaline rush knowing that your guides are likely to be extremely passionate, knowledgeable, and highly qualified athletes and teachers.
Ski safety is extremely important, whether you’re dropping from a standard ski lift or a hovering helicopter. The higher up you are, the faster you’ll go, and the greater the impact will be on your body as you rocket down the ski pistes. Before you venture out, you’ll most definitely need to be familiarized with the appropriate safety gear and attire and how to use it all. Any ski instructor worth his or her salt will brief you on these key items before you hit the mountain passes, but we’ll give you a quick run-down here just so you’ll know what to expect. Even if you’re a seasoned skier, a refresher course in what should be on your person is always recommended. Here’s what you’ll need:
Skis: This one’s pretty self-explanatory; the entire sport obviously depends upon this item! Just be sure that you have selected skis that are the right size for your build and level of expertise. Generally speaking, the bigger a ski is, the more speed it is able to gain and the more difficult it is to control. Having your skis fitted by a seasoned professional at a ski shop is usually your best bet in terms of comfort and security.
Bindings: Bindings essentially adjust your skis to your feet. Needless to say, that means these items are of utmost importance! Bindings must be fitted just right – they need to be able to release in case of a fall in order to prevent too much stress on the legs, but they must be tight enough to provide maximum security. Again, having bindings fitted by a trained professional is generally a wise idea.
Boots: For comfort and for safety, make sure you select skiing boots that will keep you warm and dry and that fit snugly – but not too tight – to your feet. If they’re too constricting, you may have difficulty feeling sensation in your feet and not sense the nuances of the ski movement, which can cause missteps and injury. Conversely, you don’t want your feet slipping and sliding inside your shoes. Make sure your ankles get the support they need!
Helmet: The helmet is extremely important – perhaps the most important – piece of equipment you’ll have in terms of safety. Make sure you have a real ski helmet as opposed to a bike helmet or other piece of protective attire – that way you’ll have a comfortable amount of space for your goggles. Plus, ski helmets are sturdy enough to prevent any serious injuries to the head while you’re plummeting from steep heights.
Goggles/sunglasses: If you’re skiing, odds are the altitude is pretty high. The higher up you are, the stronger the sun’s rays are, so as contradictory as it sounds to wear sunglasses in the winter, experienced skiers know that it is a necessity. However, if you’re skiing a course with a lot of low hanging branches or if the snowfall is heavy, you may want to opt for goggles, which have more protective cover.
Gloves: You certainly don’t want to lose sensation in your fingers while you’re steering yourself on a pair of high-speed skis! Mittens, however, are generally warmer than gloves, so if you’re particularly sensitive to cold, these are good options as well.
Thermal undergarments and socks: This may sound excessive, but remember how cold Iceland can get! But you don’t need to wear super-thick undergarments and/or socks to keep warm. Instead you can opt for wool or synthetic long underwear that will fit snugly against your skin, as well as socks that will keep your legs warm up to the knees.
Jacket: Many skiers like to use down jackets, which are well-insulated and designed to keep you warm in even the coldest of conditions. However, down jackets don’t perform well in excessively wet conditions. If your slope is very cold and dry, a down jacket is an excellent choice. However, if your ski range is a little damper or if there is more snow slush, make sure your jacket is water-resistant and/or snow proof.
Hat: You’d be surprised at how much you can end up losing through your head alone, so having a comfy hat under your helmet – making sure that it’s not too thick so as to avoid squeezing your temples – is essential to keeping the rest of your body warm.
Neck warmer/gaiter: If you’re particularly sensitive to cold or skiing on an especially frigid slope, you may want a thick warmer that covers your neck and can be pulled up to warm the bottom half of your face. Some even have hoods that can slide under your helmet.
Radio (walkie-talkies): A two-way radio isn’t an absolute necessity for skiing, but we highly recommend it. It’s a practical medium for communicating with friends, family, and ski instructors or guides when you’re far from one another on the slopes. Remember how fast you’ll be going – you can get separated from your party very quickly. Radios are also very important in terms of your safety – you don’t ever want to be stranded on the opposite side of the mountain with an injury and no way to ask for help. If you want to get super high-tech, some outfits even offer helmets with radios embedded in them!
First Aid Kit: Some mountaineering and skiing organizations ask that you keep a first aid kit handy, even for dealing with minor injuries such as blisters. First Aid Kits need not be metallic and clunky – you can opt for a plush, compact carrier that is easy to store in jacket pockets.
Now, for such a dynamic, high-altitude sport, the risk of ski-related fatalities is actually surprisingly low. According to GP and ski patrol doctor at CairnGorm Mountain in Scotland, the injury rate for skiers as of the year 2014 is 2.38 injuries per 1,000 skiers. So the truth is you’re more likely to get injured playing netball if you have observed the proper ski techniques and are wearing the appropriate safety equipment. We definitely want to keep these safety stats steady or improving, so we’ve provided some tips for ski etiquette here:
Right of way: Always remember that the skier in front of you has priority. It is your responsibility to make sure you leave plenty of space between you and other skiers, particularly those who cannot immediately see you. This includes overtaking; never ski too close when you’re passing another skier to avoid collision-related injuries.
Watch your speed: 10% of all injuries on the slopes come directly from collisions with other skiers or snowboarders, so it’s important that you maintain control over your speed. Professionals can reach up to eighty miles per hour on steep downhill courses and maintain control, but it is very important that you keep a speed appropriate for your ability and experience level.
Never ski under the influence: You can certainly enjoy a cup of tea or a hot chocolate before your hit the frigid slopes, but never, ever imbibe before you embark. Ski safety and alcohol do not mix well, given that alcohol slows your reaction time and removes inhibitions, provoking many skiers to plummet recklessly down the mountainsides.
Know the terrain: Obviously you can’t memorize the location of ever stone on the slopes, but be aware of which areas are rockier than others, and if you’re not sure, ask the professionals. It’s best to ski closer to the edges of the piste, or the ski run, which is comprised of hard, compacted snow. Towards the center, you’re more likely to run into slick, icy patches or rugged, stony structures.
The International Ski Federation
The International Ski Federation sets forth an official Code of Conduct on the slopes, which are as legally binding as traffic rules. It may seem pedantic, but we highly recommend that your familiarize yourself with these ten rules and regulations before you drop from that helicopter. You can consider these the ten commandments of the ski slopes, so to speak:
Respect for others
A cross-country skier must ski in such a manner that he does not endanger or prejudice others.
Respect for signs, direction and running style. Trail marking signs must be respected on any trail marked with an indicated direction. A skier shall proceed only in that indicated direction and ski in the indicated running style.
Choice of trails and tracks
On cross-country trails with more than one packed track, a skier should choose the right-hand track. Skiers in groups must keep in the right track behind each other. With free running style, skiers shall keep to their right-hand-side of the trail.
A skier is permitted to overtake and pass another skier to the left or right. A skier ahead is not obliged to give way to an overtaking skier, but should allow a faster skier to pass whenever this is possible.
Cross-country skiers meeting while skiing opposite directions shall keep to their right. A descending skier has priority.
A cross-country skier shall make the utmost effort to keep his poles close to his body whenever near another skier.
Control of speed
A cross-country skier, and especially going downhill, shall always adapt his speed to his personal ability and to the prevailing terrain and visibility and to the traffic on the course. Every skier should keep a safe distance from the skiers ahead. As a last resort, an intentional fall should be used to avoid collision.
Keeping trails and tracks clear
A skier who stops must leave the trail. In case of a fall, he shall clear the trail without delay.
In case of an accident, everyone should render assistance.
Everybody at an accident, whether witnesses, responsible parties or not, must establish their identity.
The Five Most Popular Types of Heli-skiing Helicopters
Inevitably, helicopters make some passengers nervous simply because the small size of the vessel tends to facilitate a bit of turbulence. However, you needn’t be overly anxious about flying as long as you’re with a highly trained professional and you follow all instructions given by your pilot. Furthermore, there are far more car accidents every year than there are flying accidents; flying is a surprisingly safe form of travel. Exercise appropriate caution, and you will be just fine. There are many different styles and manufacturers of helicopters, and a few in particular have been selected by heli-skiing experts as ideal for this outdoor activity on the slopes. The following are the five most popular helicopters used for heli-skiing:
Mil Mi-8: The Mil Mi-8 is a Russian model, often referred to as the “beast” of the skies in the heli-skiing circle. It is the most widely utilized in the world as of this year, and can transport up to twelve skiers and four guides, plus a pilot and an engineer. This is a powerful, hardy aircraft, capable of safely holding more passenger than your average vessel.
Bell 212: The Bell 212 is great for winter weather durability. It is extremely powerful, only marginally smaller than the Mil Mi-8 with a capacity to hold about ten or eleven skiers plus a few guides. This vessel is popularly used in Canada and on the South American slopes.
Bell 407: The Bell 407 is an American model, and it is extraordinarily high-performance. This vessel typically has a Rolls Royce 250-C47B turbine FADEC engine – in plain English, its engine is high-speed, intensely durable, and high-energy. Its massively powerful engine means that the Bell 407’s cabin is a little smaller, but it still has a pretty spacious fit for about five to seven passengers. Though its origins are North American, this aircraft is often used for challenging heli-skiing tours in the Himalayas. If you’re chiefly interested in speed, you might want to look into this particular model.
Eurocopter AS350 B2: The Eurocopter is a less intense model, quiet and lightweight with a single Arriel 1B turbine engine. It makes for a steady, peaceful ascent up the slopes, and is often used for heli-skiing in Iceland, Switzerland, and Alaska.
Eurocopter AS350 B3: This style of Eurocopter was built and certified in the United States. It is cost-effective yet highly performative and deftly maneuverable. It can accommodate five to six passengers plus a pilot, and it is known to deliver the best performance in its category. As far as rotary-wing aircrafts for heli-skiing tours go, this Eurocopter is the preferred one by many pilots.
Helicopter Safety Tips
Though we’ve already emphasized that flying is a remarkably safe form of travel, we still want to make sure you feel maximally secure on the air so you’re happy and relaxed as you drop down to the snowy slopes. For that reason, we’ll now brief you on some important helicopter safety tips, so you’ll have plenty of disaster management methods in your arsenal, just in case.
Always listen carefully to the pilot’s safety briefing.
It is very important to understand the pilot’s expectations of you before you launch. Your pilot is a trained professional, so he or she knows when it’s safe to enter and exit the helicopter, and when you must be seated or may roam around.
Observe the rotors.
Always wait for the pilot’s signal before you enter the aircraft. The safest way to approach is up a hill toward the front of the vessel; it’s not necessary, but it’s your safest bet. In general, you’ll want to crouch a bit as you load into the helicopter, just to make sure there is maximum distance between you and the spinning rotors.
Know your safety zones.
There are a few areas surrounding a typical helicopter that are a bit risky to stand or wander around. The very back of the vessel frankly isn’t the best place to be, because the pilot can’t see you. Your pilot will generally prefer that you approach the helicopter from the front left.
Secure your personal belongings.
You will probably have a few loose, light items that can rattle around the cabin and cause distractions, like phones, cameras, or small safety kits. You can get injured if you try to chase them around the helicopter, so try to keep everything on your person as much as possible.
Be careful when exiting.
This is a bit of a no-brainer, but conscientiousness is particularly important when you are exiting a helicopter. You may end up having to exit when the vessel is hovering just a bit above the ground, so be sure to wait for the pilot’s signal and disembark slowly.
Heli-Skiing on the Troll Peninsula
Now that we’ve gotten the big safety briefing out of the way, we can get to the fun stuff. Many if not all of Iceland’s heli-skiing tours take place in the country’s northernmost territories. North Iceland is a wonderland of lunar lava fields, cascading waterfalls, and, of course, lofty, snow-capped mountain peaks. Its mountain passes are filled with skiing opportunities that encompass the best of both worlds; they are exceptionally beautiful and steep, as well as under-populated and under-hyped.
The lively town of Akureyri, home to approximately 20,000 inhabitants, is known colloquially as Iceland’s “Capital of the North.” Akureyri is nestled above the inlets of the Borgarfjörður Eystri region, which is renowned for its surprisingly lush greenery, vibrantly colourful rhyolite mountains, and historical sites easily recognizable from any of the classic Viking Sagas. During the wintertime, this region is blanketed with feet upon feet of pristine snowfall, and Icelanders certainly know how to take advantage of the frozen slopes surrounding this region.
The North of Iceland is home to a particularly stunning area known as the Troll Peninsula, or Tröllaskagi, which is a truly exquisite geographical region that can be accessed out of Akureyri. This mountainous territory is incomparably popular among dedicated skiers who do their due diligence. After all, about ninety percent of the lofty peaks in this region are ski-worthy! This world-class skiing territory makes Iceland stand out from the rest in terms of winter activity destinations, but it is still a relatively hidden gem only truly recognized among very passionate winter sports enthusiasts.
Many of the peaks emerging from the Troll Peninsula reach over 1200 meters above sea level, the tallest being the mountain Kerling, which reaches an astounding 1538 meters. Outside of the Central Highlands, the Troll Peninsula boasts the highest regional elevation in Iceland. It also has an interesting story behind its name, as do many places in Iceland – legend states that the last troll in all of Iceland lived here many years ago. The story goes that the troll stole and ate one of a farmer’s beloved cows, prompting the farmer to pursue and kill the last troll in his cave in the year 1764. These days you won’t run into any Icelandic trolls on the peninsula, but you’ll definitely encounter some mammoth, majestic mountain slopes begging you to glide down them.
The Troll Peninsula may be lofty and high above sea level, but this doesn’t mean you’re ever particularly far from the Arctic Ocean. In fact, it’s right there next to you as you ski along the peninsular mountains! This results in some incredible opportunities to ski right down to the shoreline.
If you opt for a heli-skiing tour in the North, you’re likely to be staying in or around Akureyri. If not, your hosts will probably pick you up from the Akureyri airport – sometimes even via helicopter if you’re really eager to take to the skies. Heli-skiing is a very intensive sport, so you might want to grab a quick snack and a cup of hot tea or hot chocolate before you hit the slopes. Heli-skiing organizations aren’t that different from other skiing venues – there will most likely be a lodge associated with whichever skiing outfit you choose that allows participants to relax and enjoy the atmosphere and prepare for their impending adventure.
The lodge is also where your guides will brief you on avalanche safety, beacon training, helicopter safety, and equipment adjustment and use. Then you’ll be ready to speed down the mountainsides! On and around the Troll Peninsula are territories described by in-the-know heli-skiing experts as “secret cirques.” These secluded territories are known only by those who know the Troll Peninsula by heart, and many instructors and guides are happy to take their patrons there. If you’re lucky, you may get to ski down a slope that no one has ever skied before, as passionate skiers are always on the lookout for untouched ski runs.
Heli-skiing tours are multi-day operations. As a heads-up, down days are inevitable, which is why these tours tend to operate over a span of five to seven days. Conditions for heli-skiing have to be ideal in the skies as well as on the slopes, and the primary challenge lies in the skies. You don’t want bursts of powerful Arctic winds blowing you off course as you plummet from the helicopter lift to the snowy slopes. Fortunately, heli-skiing tour operators are well-prepared for these down days, and there is a ton of things to do on and around the Troll Peninsula aside from skiing.
On your days off, you can visit the charming seaside’s town of Dalvík, which is equipped with a geothermal swimming pool, a lively folk museum, and a golf course. If you’re looking for something a little more adventurous on your down day, Dalvík is also an excellent port from which to embark on a whale watching adventure. Iceland is home to over twenty species of whales, including the blue whale (which boasts the title of largest mammal to ever have lived), the humpback whale, and the orca. Sighting rates in Iceland rarely drop below ninety-five percent, so even if you’re going on your heli-skiing tour during the winter months, you can still catch a glimpse of these majestic mammals off the shores of Northern Iceland.
You can also take the ferry over to beautiful Grímsey Island, home to just one hundred people and approximately one million seabirds. Located just forty kilometers off of Iceland’s northern coast, Grímsey is known as a mysterious, largely uninhabited “pearl” of the maritime region. You can enjoy a guided tour through some spectacular bird watching locales on the island, given that literally one million puffins flock to this territory and nestle into the cliffs to make their nests. Here’s a fun fact about Grímsey – the Arctic Circle literally divides the island in the center, so you can actually straddle the line dividing the North from the South. If you’d like, you can even receive a certificate proving that you have done so!
Another option off the port of Dalvík is sea angling, or deep-sea fishing. These waters have very little commercial fishing pressure and therefore are virtually untouched, making for a unique and authentic fishing experience. If you consult the Internet for a few images related to the activity, you’ll note that the fish caught in this area tend to be pretty hefty. You’re very likely to catch a big one while sea angling in North Iceland.
Horseback riding in North Iceland is another exciting opportunity to pursue on your day off. First brought to Iceland by Viking settlers between 874 and 930, Icelandic horses are almost perfectly preserved purebred animals. They are adorable, stout, and hardy, with a friendly, even-tempered, and energetic disposition overall. In the fall, they often work hard to herd sheep in the North and carry eager riders through the mountains. There are numerous outfits that run horseback riding tours and even horse shows in and around the Troll Peninsula.
As you can imagine, the Troll Peninsula is also the location of some prime hiking locations. Tröllaskagi is the largest contiguous mountain area on the island, as well as an officially protected natural region. One of the most notable characteristics of the Troll Peninsula is its tremendous number of glacial masses. You’ll find anywhere between one hundred fifty to two hundred smaller glaciers on the Troll Peninsula’s mountaintops and even its valley plateaus. You can weave through the majestic, lush, snow-capped peaks and crystalline glaciers on any number of hiking routes, which can be enjoyed all year round.
Keep all these alternative options in mind, but don’t worry too much about an excessive amount of down days. Places like Alaska, for example, tend to experience a lot of down days simply because there are a lot of conditions under which helicopters can’t fly there. The alpine weather can get pretty extreme. However, in Iceland, it’s a bit less of a gamble. Some heli-skiing outfits boast a record of fewer than two down days per tour in a year!
When is the best time to go?
Over the course of the winter season alone, Iceland experiences a wide variety of snow and weather conditions. There is no one ideal time to go heli-skiing; it really depends on the abilities and preferences of the adventurers. While some skiers might prefer deep, dense snow and fast-paced, frigid conditions, others might covet a little sun and prefer a leisurely glide through light snow flurries. Generally speaking, if you like skiing on dense, compacted, deep snow, you’re likely to prefer heli-skiing in December, January, and probably February. If you would like it to be a little sunnier and more powdery on the slopes, late February, March, and April are your best bets.
Enjoy your adventure!
Heli-skiing can be a little on the expensive side, but if you’re an avid skier, the price is well worth it. These tours tend to be small, intensive, and run by the most enthusiastic and knowledgeable of ski instructors. Lodges are often quite private and luxuriously outfitted, well-equipped to make sure that you are rested and well-fed for your intensive skiing adventures over the next several days. If you’re adventurous and thrill-seeking, keen to explore untouched slopes, soar from the Arctic skies, and engage in a truly unique skiing experience, we highly recommend you explore heli-skiing in Iceland.