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The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world.

- Alexander von Humboldt

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Adventure Travel

Jul 04, 2017

Kvíar: Skiing the Forgotten Fjords of Iceland’s Northwest Peninsula

An island nation in the North Atlantic, Iceland is in the midst of a transition from its fishing and agrarian roots.

WRITTEN BY

Mary McIntyre

Its rocky, sparsely vegetated landscapes are scattered with wind-battered homesteads once inhabited by hardy sheep farmers whose Viking ancestors settled the land 1,000 years ago. In the country’s isolated northwestern reaches, a group of skiers travel to a restored farmhouse in the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve to explore places left behind by communities that were intimately connected with their natural environment.

We depart the bustling port of Ísafjörður on a small motorboat; eight skiers bound for an old farmstead in Hornstrandir, the remote, uninhabited northern tip of Iceland’s West Fjords.  The brightly colored houses of town fade into the distance, and after a choppy, hour-long channel crossing, we slip into the protected waters of the fjords. Kvíar, a three-story cement farmhouse, is the only structure for miles around, and its red roof stands out like a beacon against a backdrop of rock and snow. We unload boxes of food and ski gear onto a beach of polished boulders and the boat pulls away, leaving us alone in silence.

A three-story cement farmhouse is the only structure for miles around, and its red roof stands out like a beacon against a backdrop of rock and snow.

Wild rhubarb sprouts, the first signs of plant life after a long, harsh winter, line the stone path to the awkwardly tall, crumbling house. Perched atop a hill in the stark, tundra-like landscape with nothing to break the wind or weather, the big dark eyes of its windows look out to sea. A green door opens into a dim, narrow hallway. I step inside and immediately feel the energy of residents from a past era. The cracked walls, the creak of worn floorboards, and the polished wooden railing leading upstairs breathe history.

Runar Karlsson, our guide and the owner of local adventure company Borea, shows us into a cozy wallpapered living room. “Written records indicate that this area has been inhabited since the 14th century. But this house was built by two families much more recently, in the 1900s. Twenty-seven people lived here at one point, one family downstairs and one family upstairs. When I started working on the house, a lot of their stuff was still here: those wooden skis in the corner, farming equipment. They abandoned the farm in 1948,” he explains.

In 1921, Jón Jakobsson and his family built what is still the largest house in Hornstrandir, bringing cement and building supplies by rowboat across the channel from the town of Bolungarvík. They crossed the mountains to the north coast to collect wood that had drifted over from Siberia to use for house beams and boat construction. The farm and boat-building business prospered, but after just over 25 years in the new house, they left their remote hilltop home in favor of life in town.

Less than one degree south of the Arctic Circle, Hornstrandir juts out from Iceland into the Strait of Denmark. North Atlantic winds sweep across the high peninsula while the fjords, fingers of ocean reaching inland, remain sheltered. Along the walls of the fjords, tiers of jet-black basalt cliffs cut by deep snow-filled couloirs alternate with smooth, open bowls that descend in one sustained drop from the broad upper plateau to turquoise lagoons far below. Down at the rocky shoreline, the occasional call of a black and white Guillemot, gliding above the water, beckons us to explore this stark landscape with our skis.

The aging farmhouse is getting a second chance at life thanks to a new roof, fresh paint, and an influx of active, enthusiastic inhabitants.

While the rest of the world hurdles into the future, Hornstrandir is retreating into the past. Instead of following the global trend of increasing habitation and land use, this region that was once widely populated is now nearly abandoned. In the early 1900s, almost 500 people lived in small communities scattered across the peninsula. Lacking access roads, inhabitants traveled the long distances between settlements by boat, horse, or foot

 Surviving in these remote farmsteads and towns demanded an intimate understanding of the land and sea. For hundreds of years, families lived off the natural bounty.

They gathered berries, edible plants, and mussels; fished; hunted birds and seals; and collected bird eggs from massive sea cliffs where six million seabirds still nest annually. Agricultural opportunities were limited, but inhabitants raised sheep and horses and took advantage of the short summer growing season to bolster their food supplies with crops of potatoes, turnips, and carrots. Life was tough and isolated, even by Icelandic standards.

Families began to leave Hornstrandir during World War II as job opportunities multiplied in larger coastal settlements. Fishing boats became motorized and grew in size, requiring bigger harbors and more laborers. This motivated the people from remote settlements to relocate in search of a better life. The last farmstead in Hornstrandir was abandoned in 1954. Twenty-one year later, the local landowners came together to establish the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, protecting the isolated, windswept region against grazing and motorized travel while returning the land to its wild state.

Kvíar sat unkempt and unused for 64 years until Runar approached the Jakobsson family with the idea of turning the house into lodging for hikers and skiers. The structure stood strong despite years of neglect, a testament to the skills and craftsmanship that went into its construction. After a substantial remodel, the house has indoor plumbing, radiators, solar electricity, and a new roof. Having endured decades of isolation, Kvíar is getting a second chance at life.

I help prepare dinner in the basement kitchen, chopping potatoes, carrots, and onions for lamb stew while imagining that Kvíar’s first residents might have once done the same.

Spice racks and pots and pans hang on the exposed cement walls and an antique stove in the corner provides heat and constant hot water for tea, as well as a drying area for jackets, ski skins, and boots. Golden evening light filters through a small window facing the ocean. Keree Smith and Camilla Edwards, my co-chefs and friends, are very much at home in the kitchen, having both worked for a season at Kvíar as guides and cooks.

Teddy Laycock checks on dinner in Kvíar’s basement kitchen.

While we’re using the house for a similar purpose as Kvíar’s previous inhabitants—shelter from the elements—we’re here to use the landscape in an entirely different way. We’re here to ski. It’s spring, so we’re not in search of powder. Instead, we seek “corn,” a snow surface created by multiple melt-freeze cycles, transforming snow crystals into small, uniform, kernels. Perfect corn is hero snow: fast, consistent, and fun to ski. But it’s also fleeting: too little sun and it remains solid ice, too much sun and it becomes soupy mush.

After our group discusses tomorrow’s ski options over dinner, I drift upstairs to bed, listening to waves rushing against the rocks and wondering about the people who slept in this room decades ago.

Were they lonely here? Or just alone? Even now, the isolation, especially during the long winter months, could be both intensely crushing and immensely enjoyable.

I fantasise about spending a month here in the thick darkness of an arctic winter, battered by snowstorms, embracing the solitude and filling the long winter nights writing and reading by a crackling fire.

Keree Smith finds her perfect line high above the North Atlantic.

The following morning, we stack our skis on a motorised Zodiac raft and set off deeper into the fjords. Passing towering dark cliffs bright with green moss, the boat skims smoothly across the calm morning water. Lounging on rocks, seals look up and plop into the water at our approach. Runar drops anchor in a small bay and after getting out of the boat, we begin a long traversing climb towards a pass, our skis scraping loudly against the still-firm snow. As we gain the saddle, two farmsteads become visible far below, tucked away in a bay protected from the open ocean that stretches north towards Greenland. We scramble up the narrow, rock-lined ridge to a prominent outlook where Runar grins as if he’s about to share a secret with us. “The Italian Face,” he announces, pointing down a steep, sweeping bowl basking in the afternoon sunlight. After we transition to ski mode by taking off our skins and locking down our heels, we drop into the bowl one at a time, carving long, swift turns in the corn as the slope funnels down towards the bay.

Guide Runar Karlsson leads the way to the top.

Back at Kvíar, we prepare local Arctic char for dinner, throwing food scraps in the front yard for wild Arctic foxes. Runar strums old Icelandic ballads on his guitar, the lyrics meaningless to us but the tune making us tap our feet and nod our heads. He plays song after song and it’s easy to lose track of time; as the days grow longer, the sun no longer functions as a reference.  

Borea guide and owner Runar Karlsson prepares local fish for dinner.

Though it’s nearly 10pm, sunset is just beginning. After the jam session, I walk down to the beach and watch two scruffy, burnt orange Arctic foxes scour the shoreline for dinner. As I wander between tide pools and seaweed-covered boulders, I hear an unfamiliar whooshing sound. Staring into the fading light, I see three whales swimming close to shore, the mist from their blowholes illuminated by the last light of day. Whale breaths sigh across the water, and I stand still, listening to their giant exhales and watching them glide across the fjord.

The next day, we prepare to ski a mountain known as Einbuii – ‘The Hermit’.  We’ve eyed its central couloir from the raft in passing, and with sunny skies and calm winds we ascend a valley curving around the backside of the mountain to gain the top of the plateau. Keree leads us to the chute’s narrow entrance and we edge our skis over the drop, testing the consistency of the snow and examining the clean shot running straight to the azure blue lagoon 1,500 feet below.  After making a few cautious turns between the high walls, I realize that we’ve hit the snow in ideal conditions once again. The ski down to the ocean is pure bliss and I hear the others hooting in delight as they make their way down to join me.

Guide Runar Karlsson leads the way to the top.

The week is a blur of incredible skiing, though the snow is melting fast. As we come to our last day, I think about past generations who skied across this landscape to trade with neighboring communities. Large cairns mark their routes, stacks of black volcanic boulders five feet high that can still be followed when the area’s famously thick fog descends and blocks out all visibility. We don’t follow them, as we’re seeking steep runs and interesting couloirs rather than the most direct routes between farmsteads. But these relics remind me of the dynamic state of the environment and its people.

An arctic fox scours the beach for dinner.

Motoring away in a modern boat, I can’t help but think that occasional leisure habitation; skiing, hiking, and kayaking, are the best uses for such a wild, remote area. Eking out a living here would be tough, and the landowners’ decision to designate the entire region as a protected Nature Reserve means that we’ll be able to enjoy its unique, austere beauty for generations to come. We return to the shops, restaurants, and roads of Ísafjörður, but its nice to know that Kvíar is waiting for our return—peaceful, isolated, and with untold numbers of ski runs to explore.

Feeling inspired? Head to The Outdoor Voyage to book your own Icelandic experience.

This article is featured in the 13th edition of The Outdoor Journal print magazine. Story and images by Mary McIntyre.

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Travel

Apr 03, 2019

Climbing Stories: Yabadabadoo!

An Indian climber and a foreigner hitchhike their way to hillside boulders in Avathi, and set up camp in a leopard's den, to scout Bangalore's best lines.

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WRITTEN BY

Aravind Selvam

The Seed

The usual laws of physics don’t work at Avathi. The boulders keep getting smaller and their angle gets more slabby as you get closer. There have been many times when I get psyched looking at a crack line and run up to it, only to find a pathetic five-foot slab with a crack on it! So when I saw this face, which seemed to maintain its size as I hiked up toward it, I was intrigued. It was a massive boulder with a bunch of cracks running up it, and a huge cave right underneath! As soon as I spotted this line, I knew it was going to consume me, and I needed to get back with my rope and rack.

Stan the man

A few friends had told me about this climber from the UK who spotted and projected a hard trad line at Mahabs, my home crag. I got in touch with him and asked him if he was keen on projecting the line at Avathi with me and I told him that we might have to camp out in a cave. He was instantly psyched and told me that he had dirt-bagged out of caves in the famous forest of Font, and many other crags in the UK. So, I was expecting to meet this grumpy, old, hard trad-man, probably with a fake leg and a bunch of whipper stories and epics; constantly yapping about how awesome the E grading system is; a typical grit, and here, I meet this goofy, grinning, brown-haired kid, who’s just uber-psyched to be traveling and climbing. He did fit in the E grades stereotype though and always had interesting stories.

After surviving a series of epics in Bhongir (another time, another piece), we drove back to Bangalore, got dropped off at Avathi in the middle of the night, and we started hiking up in a random direction with our massive packs. We reached the cave at around two in the morning, stashed our bags and decided to crash in a plateau higher up.

The Routine

  • Wake up as the sun hits us.
  • Play some good music.
  • Get to the cave and eat the leftover cookies and drink some cold chai.
  • Start trading burns on the project.
  • Stan tries to convert me to the E-grading system.
  • Climb till we can barely feel our fingers.
  • Then tape them up and climb some more.
  • Roll up and cry.
  • Early noon, hike down and walk 3 km to refill water and grab some Idlis (a type of savoury rice cake), pack chaklis, biscuits and tea for lunch. Get the stares from every single person on the street and wonder if it is because Stan’s a foreigner, or because we look like hobos.
  • Take at least four mandatory selfies with the locals, for which they demand and talk about how Stan should make a living out of this in India. Stan’s Selfie Shop – fifty rupees a selfie!
  • Hike back up, have some chai and get back up on the line again.
  • Share stories, epics and the usual belay banter.
  • Climb till we wish we were like Tommy Caldwell, missing the index finger, just so that we don’t feel the pain.
  • Hike back out late in the evening, hitchhike it to Nandi Upachar, charge our phones, play a card game called Lulaa, wash occasionally, fill up our bottles, stuff ourselves with gulab jamuns and hitchhike back.
  • Walk back into the trail leading to Avathi, making sure no one is watching us and then quickly make our way up to the cave and crash.

The hardest move on the route involves locking off on a mono finger lock, getting a high step and making a semi-dynamic throw to another finger lock. In the first four days, I managed to stick the move once, after 250–300 attempts on that one move. I knew I had a chance to send the line now; I just had to rest the finger and execute the move again. I decided to take two rest days and Stan decided to try another couple of lines that he had spotted.

The Hitchhike Barter

Every day, we had to hitchhike out to Nandi Upachar for dinner, and then hitchhike back to the Avathi. The first evening, I stood there for 20 minutes trying to hitch a ride while the people walking past us kept staring at Stan, while some stopped and asked him to pose for a selfie. Not a single person even showed the slightest of interest to give us a ride.

After a while, I asked Stan to try and went to sit on the side of the road. Before I even sat down, a Maruti 800 pulled over! From the next day on, we decided that I should hide, while Stan stops a ride in seconds and I come out like a fucking creep. Every ride, we get asked the same set of questions, and then when they drop us, they ask for a selfie with Stan. This barter made life so much easier, and from the next day, we always managed to hitch a ride in seconds.

The Leopard that came for Chai

“this is my first line of defence against the leopard, biochemical warfare!”

Stan had just finished onsighting a new lichen-coated trad line, Biochemical Warfare, and we saw a couple of Spongebob-ish figures hiking up toward us. Gujju and Harsha had come bouldering that evening and they happened to spot us from the road. We had a chill session with them, moving quickly between boulders, constantly being amazed by Avathi’s night sky and Gujju, Sharma-ing between attempts, talking about the flow and being one with the rock.

After the session got over, Gujju hikes up a bit and goes, “Hey, you guys spotted this?” It was a half eaten dog’s head, probably the leftovers of a leopard’s kill! And it was a two-minute walk from our cave.

Before we crash that night, Stan removes his socks and goes, “this is my first line of defense against the leopard, biochemical warfare!” and passes out almost immediately. That night, I realised that when I’m in a state of panic, there’s this heightened sense of awareness, where I can listen to every tiny sound and differentiate it, but it becomes of no use, as my brain completely goes mental and I become dumber than a cane toad.

The next two nights were pretty much hell, as I kept hearing these feeble sounds and had nightmares of the leopard devising a plan of attack. I ended up passing out after sunrise and tandoor-ing myself inside the sleeping bag. I needed to rest and recover, so I decided to support Stan on his projects and nap through the day.

 

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I recently realised that when I’m in a state of panic, there’s this heightened sense of awareness, where I can listen to every tiny sound and differentiate it, but it becomes of no use, as my brain completely goes mental and I become dumber than a cane toad! I slept in the same spot for 3 days peacefully, before I found a half eaten dogs head. The next two nights were pretty much hell, as I kept hearing these feeble sounds and had nightmares of the leopard devising a plan of attack. Ended up passing out after sunrise, and tandoor-ing myself inside the sleeping bag! #tradclimbing #campfirestories #epics #typetwofun #rockclimbing #climbing_pictures_of_instagram #gipfelclimbingequipment #climbing #thegreatoutdoors #rockclimbing #stories #getoutdoors #climbinginindia #liveclimbrepeat #climbing_worldwide #doyouclimb #travel #travelstoke #viewfromoffice #mountains #camping #campinglife #offwidtharmy #fitrockarena

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Stan had spotted this typical gritstone-ish line, a 30-foot dicey slab with just one place to protect, 5–6 feet off the ground. The moves weren’t too hard but were technical, and they can feel very insecure if not executed perfectly. Stan had cleaned the lichen and top-roped it a couple of times. “I don’t think I can solo this mate,” he said.

The next day, Stan shoved a couple of cams in a horizontal crack five feet off the ground and cruised up the next 25 feet of a technical slab with no protection! He came down grinning, and named it, ‘The leopard that came for Chai, E1’.

Days at the 20th Mile Cafe

I wasn’t resting enough, as I was shitting bricks every night because of the leopard. Also, we had pooped out the entire sector around the cave and we needed to give Avathi some time to recover! So, we decided to move out of the cave for a bit, hike out with our packs and find a spot to camp outside. We hitchhiked to 20th Mile cafe, a nursery/kennel/cafe close by.

The entire day, we kept ordering samosas and grape juices every hour, shared stories, kept moving our chairs to stay in the shade and played a card game called Lulaa. Although Stan wasn’t successful in selling the E grading system to me, he told me all these stories about the gritstone legends, their epics, the way the climbing culture evolved there, their ethics and the futuristic first ascents; I ended up having immense respect for all these legends and their unique ethics. We bought ‘The Hard Grit’ movie, (probably the most famous climbing movie in the UK), and Stan would keep telling me more stories about the sketchy ascents in the movie as we watched it!

That evening, the owner of the cafe, Nishant, walked over to us and asked if he could join us to play. Lulaa is a card game that I made up. I was explaining the rules of a famous game called Kabu to Stan, and realised that I didn’t remember most of the rules of Kabu. I taught Nishant my made up game, he got it after a couple of rounds and we were really hooked! We ordered more food and played for another 3–4 hours. He was stoked when we told him we’ve been living in the hillock and climbing the last 4 days and he offered us his lawn to camp for the night. He refused to take any money and told us he had a great time talking and playing with us.

After another day of stuffing ourselves with Samosas and a lot more of Lulaa, we decided to give the line one last session. My finger felt slightly better but was still swollen and hurting. We hiked back up. Stan got ready to belay as I tied in. Sunsets at Avathi are always magical and the weather that evening was just beautiful.

I started climbing, managed to get past the crux mono finger lock, got to a glorious hand jam, slotted a 0.75 cam in and shook out. I tried not to focus on the finger that was hurting and got the next finger-lock higher up. My feet cut loose and I took a huge swing on the finger lock. I knew I wouldn’t be able to hold on for long, as the pain was a bit too much to handle, so I threw for the next hold, missed it by a couple of millimeters and took a fall, screaming in disappointment! By the time I got lowered down, the pain settled in. My hand was completely swollen and I had no sensation in my right index finger all the way down to my wrist.

We headed back to the 20th-mile cafe and decided that some booze might help ease the pain. Stan worked his magic and got a car ride all the way to the city! We got dropped off at ‘The Druid Garden’, a brewery worshipped by the local climbers of Avathi. We ordered two glasses of every brew and started rambling. Stan, a brit who loves his beer, goes “Man, the IPA here is almost as good as the stuff we get in the UK, or I’ve forgotten how good beer tastes like after the last few months of shitty Kingfishers!” We had a couple of more glasses of our favourite brews and stumbled out. Stan told me about his plans to trek around Nepal the next month, gave me a parting hug and wished me luck for the project.

Yabadabadoo!

It had been a week and the sensation in my finger started to kick in and so did the pain. The next week, I had been caught often zoning out of conversations, ranting randomly about the route every time I got high and doing weird beta-dances! I was totally consumed by this route and fell prey to the usual cycle that every crackhead goes through.

  • Phase one: The cravings hit and he wakes up to nightmares and shivers. He gives in and plans another trip.
  • Phase two: Gets stoked AF and can’t wait to get back on the project.
  • Phase three: 7–10 attempts in, completely destroyed, thinking why he ever thought that this was a good idea.
  • Phase four: The swelling goes down, the scars settle in and we’re right back to phase one.

Pranav, my partner from Chennai, couldn’t take any more of my rants and agreed to drive down to Avathi and project the line with me. We reached Avathi mid-noon, hiked up to the cave and were greeted by a dog’s skull and a half-eaten paw right outside the cave. The leopard clearly wasn’t very happy with how we invaded his cave a couple of weeks back. We set up the line, and I rehearsed the lower crux and the mini-crux higher up a couple of times. Pranav gave the line a few tries and began linking moves.

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, gulp that shit down and go out climbing. Yabadabadoo!’

The entire boulder turned bright golden as the evening sun rays hit us and I racked up, calming myself down for the lead. I managed to stick the mono finger lock crux move; somehow completely avoided the swing and cruised through the top crux. I knew the climb was in the bag for me if I just keep it together and cruised through the next half of easy climbing without stopping to place any pro. I romped to the top, just stoked out of my mind! I named the route ‘Yabadabadoo’, after the days Stan and I spent living out of the cave.

The next two days, Sid from Chennai and a huge gang of Avathi regulars came down and were chilling with us while trading burns on the line. I had a lot more space on my mind to appreciate the little things, not having the constant pressure to send. I realised how grateful I was to have the opportunity to be in these grand places, in the company of good friends and to be doing what I love the most.

As a wise man once said, ‘When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, gulp that shit down and go out climbing. Yabadabadoo!’

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