When skiing is believing
As I scrabble out of a tiny six-seater helicopter and onto the summit of 1,100-metre Mount Kerahnjukur on Iceland's Troll Peninsula, I wonder just who's having more fun here - the skiers or the pilot.
The laconic man at the controls of our craft, Snorri Steingrimsson, has been displaying his masterly flying skills. He hovers with only one skid on the ground, while the other hangs in space over a drop of several hundred metres above vertiginous crags. When we all tumble out of the dragonfly-like craft onto a summit little bigger than the average living room, he takes off in a blizzard of rotor-driven snow before plummeting down towards the sea.
Three other skiers and I are guided down and around northern Iceland's wild and pristine mountains by Jokull Bergmann of Arctic Heli Skiing - or 'JB', as he's known around here. Bergmann grew up on this very peninsula and is Iceland's only internationally qualified mountain guide.
He and his family know the Troll Peninsula as well as any humans could - their Viking forebears rolled ashore here in their longboats in the 9th century, took one look at the snowy 1,500-metre peaks thrusting up from the North Atlantic and decided that this was for them.
Over a millennium later, Bergmann set up his unique heli-ski operation at the Klaengsholl Lodge, the family farm in the wild, windswept and appropriately translated as Ski Valley, just a few kilometres from the ocean. It lies in the shadow of the mighty walls of rock and snow that make up the region and can be accessed in minutes by helicopter.
It was from here that we'd flown around mid-morning after a leisurely breakfast of magnificent local meats and fish. There's no rush to get up into the mountains. Unlike most heli-ski destinations, which operate around the short daylight hours of winter, here you can enjoy the sport from April to June. As we are located just 50 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle, we enjoy about 22 hours of sunlight each day.
Another big advantage of the lateness of the season is that the snow is butter-smooth 'corn snow'. This is much easier to ski than powder. Once we are clipped into our skis after watching Steingrimsson's aerobatic departure, we have 1,100 completely empty vertical metres of this perfect snow on which to carve our signatures.
The top pitches of many runs are often down wide 40- to 45-degree couloirs, an angle that is regarded with suspicion on most heli-ski operations because soft, light powder is likely to avalanche at such angles. But this doesn't happen with Iceland's heavier, more stable maritime snow pack, which results in scores of exciting steep runs.
These descents can often take you all the way to sea level. You may find yourself skidding to a halt above a black sand beach. So although Iceland's mountains are relatively modest in height, the fact that you can ski from summit to sea means your quadriceps will be screaming for mercy by the time you complete each run.
Bergmann's choice of descents, along with some deft helicopter flying by Steingrimsson, means that each day's skiing is a seamless flow of one epic run after another. These are interspersed with exciting pick-ups and drop-offs in the helicopter and short breaks before each descent to take in the giant, fantastic landscapes around us.
After our first day's skiing we've clocked up close to 12,000 metres of downhill, and Bergmann tells us that nine of the 14 runs we've done today have been first descents. A smug grin can be seen spreading across our faces as we realise we are the first people ever to ski these slopes.
Later in the day, while we're relaxing in the hot tub with a cold beer, we ask Bergmann how many first descents he thinks there are on the Troll Peninsula.
'Thousands,' he replies with a grin. 'You could be making first descents here for years. We've only skied a fraction of the available terrain so far.'
Making a first descent, even when there are so many to choose from, is not a boast that many recreational skiers ever get to make. This is in itself a good enough reason to go to Iceland. But there's more to this country than just snow and mountains.
Hot springs, lava fields, volcanoes, earthquakes, polar bears swimming over from Greenland and a language that makes Welsh seem easy to pronounce - try pronouncing 'We're going to ski down Gljufurarjokull' - make this a fascinating part of the world.
Add to that the enormous black-and-white banded crags and anvil-flat peaks of the Troll Peninsula lording over the Atlantic coastline, and you get an environment that sears into your subconscious.
Iceland also proves to be a memorable place in which to chill out when, inevitably at this latitude, a full-blown blizzard comes roaring in from the North Atlantic on our third day. Our base at Klaengsholl (Raven's Hill) Lodge is like staying at a friend's house for the weekend: wander into the lounge, crack open a beer, put your feet up and flop down in front of the widescreen ski films, one of which was partially filmed here.
Dinners are unmissable. They consist of superb menus of local lamb, Arctic char, catfish and goose that became par for the course. The only experience you may want to leave out is the local culinary delicacy of putrefied shark's flesh, which is as awful as it sounds. Consisting of the remains of a shark that has been buried in the earth for six months, the only way I can describe the taste was that it felt like someone had punched me in the throat.
Thank the Lord for the Brennivin, which I hastily poured after it. Another Icelandic speciality, this is a form of schnapps, made from fermented mashed potatoes combined with caraway seeds and known locally as 'Black Death'.
Shark and Brennivin traditionally go together as a dining experience. That's not surprising considering that one helps to wash down the taste of the other. The cuisine may be memorable but it is the skiing that is the most unforgettable aspect of this trip. That, and the knowledge that if I ever get back to Iceland, there will still be countless first descents waiting to be skied.
How to get there
International connecting flights to Reykjavik from several European hubs, then a connecting flight to Akureyri.
Arctic Heli Skiing (arcticheliskiing.com) operates from March to June with prices starting at Euro4,850 (HK$49,500) per person for four days all-inclusive heli-skiing plus transfers to and from the lodge.
Available to many destinations - not just Iceland - through Elemental Adventure (eaheliskiing.com)
Go to visiticeland.com