A place where trolls exist, where the land is magical and the people are hard as  F*$%… how could I say no?

In this edition of Therm-a-Rest Explore, photographer Robin O’Neil regales us with her tales of skiing and overlanding in the almost mythical Icelandic backcountry.

Iceland has been at the top of my dream destinations list for as long as I can remember. When I received a last minute invite to join a ski trip, I jumped at the chance. I mean, how could I not?

Fast forward two weeks and 1,000 miles of air travel, I’m sweaty, under-caffeinated and jet-lagged. Our hostel in Reykjavik was on the third floor and hauling skis, boots, bags, camera and camping gear became harder than should be. I contemplated why there wasn’t an elevator.

Outside the hostel, our crew was loading our transport for the week – a pair of Super Jeeps. These are 4×4 jeeps on steroids, equipped with super-sized tires and engine-mounted air compressors that can quickly adjust tire pressure to handle icy terrain.

We planned to base camp deep in the snow-sculpted peaks and ski our brains out for the following eight days. Our trip would take the human-powered approach, touring uphill to access the unknown territory, search for ski lines and explore new terrain. Skiing for eight days straight without the distractions of technology – I am in my happy place.

Palmi was our driver and the only Icelandic native on our trip. It’s hard to picture him without a lit cig hanging off his lip, navigating the icy tracks of the Highlands. Our base camp was near Landmannalaugar, Fjallabak, a popular summer destination for people seeking hot springs. It was 175 kilometers away, 50 kilometers of which was off-road.  He casually navigated terrain that looked impassable; thick snow, foreboding ice, talus and even through a river.  At some points, we would travel slower than walking pace, for fear of falling through the ice.  

Palmi pointed out various landmarks while pumping Icelandic hip-hop through the jeep’s speakers. We bobbed our heads, taking in the beautiful scenery as we worked our way deeper into the mountains.

The team included our expedition leader, three ski athletes, two cinematographers, Palmi, our cook and myself. I passed the drive time snapping photos and taking in the landscape. Some talked while one skier drew in his journal. He worked on an illustration of the inside of the jeep. It quickly became squiggly cartoons inked on paper. A steady hand was impossible in this paint-mixer. Aside from one of the skiers, none of us had ever winter camped before.   

One skier, KC Deane, had been here the previous fall on a mountain bike shoot. As an American transplant to Canada, KC doubles as a professional skier and mountain biker. He came prepared for Arctic temperatures with a down-filled expedition suit. One day, bummed out by warm temperatures, KC lightened the mood by strutting around camp in his down onesie—zipper open and ice axe in hand. When we got two days of storms and high winds, he poked his head out saying, “I’ve never seen it snow for two days straight and not get any snow.”  

Ahmet Dadali, a Colorado free skier, spends his days living a life of simplicity; skiing and studying conspiracy theories. I loved hearing his rich perspectives and diverse experiences. On the third day, Ahmet’s camp boots became saturated from warm, wet snow. He responded with an, “Ain’t no thing,” as our leader showed him how to use plastic bags as liners.

On this trip, we were constantly reminded how important every piece of gear is. It can be the difference between comfort or suffering, achieving ski goals or failure, rest or fatigue. On the trip, people were having trouble sleeping through the cold nights. Armed with earplugs, an Oberon 0 bags and NeoAir XTherm mattresses, Ahmet and I slept through the night, waking up rested and ready to charge.  

Sami Ortlieb is a young Swiss skier known for his creativity, ingenuity and surplus of stoke. This became even more obvious when the skiing was terrible. He spent one such day sculpting snow to create a quarter-pipe on an ice wall feature. I watched intently as he would drop in, building speed down the ice wall and pump hard off the pipe to achieve maximum air or perform a delicate grab. His approach was quiet and his execution was deliberate and calculated.

Palmi would wander camp, cigarettes replaced by a pipe, clothed in his Icelandic, grandma-knit sweater. He claimed that in Iceland they boil the wool three times, making their wool clothing the warmest you can find. He is infatuated with the YouTube personality Larry Enticer. He imitates him any chance he gets, parroting “I’m still gonna send it.” A passionate snowboarder, his riding comes to a halt on the fourth day when a drying tent burnt down. The fire melted the back half of his snowboard boots, converting them to rear-entry.

Landmannalaugar is a mountainous area, 500 meters above sea level, sculpted by volcanoes and geothermal activity. In the summer months, it’s a vivid and colorful landscape of auburn lava, silvery sands, and turquoise rivers and lakes. Come wintertime, it’s transformed into a blanket of white snow, rivers and ice. We were exposed. There was nowhere to hide from the weather.

Weather is the biggest challenge in any ski trip. It was raining when we got to camp and setting up in the rain is never a good start. It’s warm, with slushy and unstable skiing conditions, and if it cools, the snow will become ice. This melt-freeze is exactly what happened, resulting in bullet proof, un-skiable conditions.  

Our forecast made it strenuous to ski and camp for eight nights. Sometimes the weather was ambivalent. In a five-minute span, it would rain, sun, cloud and snow. Other days, it would storm continuously. These days were spent re-pegging tents and building snow walls to protect ourselves from piercing winds. There was no time for relaxation. Every second was spent eating, skiing or maintaining our camp from unpredictable weather systems. My only reprieve was crawling into my tent for a few hours each night. I would cocoon into my warm sleeping bag and fall asleep. Then, we would wake up and do it all over again. Recovering at night was what I needed to tackle another day.

Despite the crappy ski conditions, we were still keen to explore the area. We toured through Landmannalaugar’s lava fields and the surrounding landscape.  The environment was magical. Palmi’s stories of Icelandic trolls became a plausible reality.  After camping through challenging weather conditions and Mother Nature delivering us frozen ice instead of powdery snow, we were finally rewarded with beautiful sunlight illuminating the landscape. When the sun broke through the clouds with rays of divine light, I was in awe by the breathtaking combination of ice, snow, rock and earth.

On the fifth day, we decided to trek across an active volcanic system. The dark lava rock sharply contrasted the white snow as we hiked up a ridgeline on the volcano. Vibrant splotches of green moss that pepper the land add color to the mostly black and white landscape. The rocks take on such variety in shape and stature, unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Our bright ski clothing set us apart from the land, marking us as visitors in this mythical place. I breathe easy, taking in my new friends and my adventure in Iceland.