It’s my third day of ski touring in Iceland and I’ve yet to see any trolls. Not live ones, anyway. I’ve seen statues and paintings of them. And rock formations said to be petrified trolls who got caught in the sunlight. I’ve seen elf hovels and model troll caves and traced a map to the homes of Hidden People, but in terms of flesh-and-blood, boil-a-man-alive beasts? Nothing.
We’re on the Tröllaskagi Peninsula, at Iceland’s northern tip. My guide, Jökull Bergmann, claims the last known troll was slain a few hundred years ago in a cave not far from here. But due to a mounting storm and potential avalanche conditions, I’m the only one in our group of five who’s concerned about a run-in with mythology.
We kick steps along a creek outside Ólafsfjördur, a fishing village whose volcanic peaks fall directly into the ocean. Icy north winds blast us as we skin over six inches of freshly fallen late-April snow, directly under a band of cliffs that come in and out of sight as clouds pass. The sea lapping in the fjord looks steely and unforgiving. We plunge headlong into a thick cloud. Black volcanic stones pass by like buoys. Vertical walls of rock materialize out of the mist. The summits remain invisible some 1,200 feet above.
The descent is no better. In the new and falling snow, we ski in each other’s tracks unable to tell sky from slope. Jökull gets ski-sick on the way down: Without anyone in front of him to provide contrast, the vertigo makes him physically ill—not quite throwing up, but close—and he stands doubled-over on his skis as we regroup in the thickening soup. We’re just outside of town, I remind myself. So how dangerous could this be?
Quite. This is the same drainage where acclaimed ski mountaineer Andrew McLean got caught in a slide while filming for the documentary Steep. Streams of glacial runoff and twisted mini-valleys lie waiting on our route back to the cars, loose slopes and potentially nasty folk-creatures above. We ski cautiously, nearly on the tails of the person in front, and stop frequently to get our bearings. Someone checks GPS coordinates on a BlackBerry. There’s a palatable sense of fear among the group even though we can hear trucks on the highway somewhere below us.
For all the cheery talk about Iceland being in the Gulf Stream, about geysers and hot lakes and eco-friendly energy, it’s easy to forget that this island is a hard place. The country’s northernmost point lies within the Arctic Circle. Crops don’t grow here, the sun shines for only a few hours a day during the winter, it snows in June, and the Troll Peninsula—with its cadre of bleak, monochromatic peaks—has spawned folktales of trollesses seducing and enslaving young farmers.
It also holds some of Iceland’s best backcountry skiing. Jökull, who last week became the first IFMGA-certified ski guide in Iceland, runs ski-touring trips from his grandfather’s sheep farm turned lodge, bringing some 90 clients here each spring to Iceland’s most rugged mountains. He plans to start a heli-skiing operation later this year. But his ski season runs at best from March to June, on mountains the size of the Adirondacks. I’ve ostensibly come to check out his ski tours and explore whether Iceland can indeed be a full-fledged ski-touring destination, as Jökull claims. That’s what he thinks I’m doing here. But really I’m just looking for trolls.
Though I’d never admit it to my outdoor-savvy, athletic ski friends, I’m a bit of a fantasy geek. Come winter, I’m torn between driving to Vail and staying in bed to reread The Golden Compass. I’m a level 70 Night Elf Druid in World of Warcraft with a—newly enchanted, I might add—Ethereum Life-Staff. Perhaps it’s the season I spent ski-bumming in Breckenridge with only the Lord of the Rings box set as entertainment, but when I found out that the best skiing in Iceland takes place in an area known for troll legends, I couldn’t pack my bags fast enough.
Maybe these tales come from the country’s seclusion or over-imaginative Norse storytellers, but in Iceland, accounts of elves, dwarfs, and fairies are as ubiquitous as fjords and $10 beers. Many Icelanders believe in these myths, at least superficially. A 2002 study found that 54 percent of the population believes that Huldufólk—or Hidden People—exist. A second study claimed that while 10 percent of Icelanders are true believers, another 80 percent of the population won’t rule out their existence. There’s no shortage of guided tours, museums, and seers dedicated to them. Naturally, only people blessed with “second sight” can see them, but any rock resembling an oversize human head is labeled a petrified troll. And, as I learn during a Hidden Worlds tour in Hafnarfjördur, a supposed hotbed of elfin activity, if you leave a glass of milk out for dowdy elf girls, they might reward you with a fine dress.
The Huldufólk story goes that, one day, Adam and Eve got a surprise visit from God. Eve’s children had been playing in the muck and she had time to wash only a handful before the man upstairs showed up. Embarrassed, she hid the dirty children. God scolded Eve for trying to stow away his creations, saying these children would become the most beautiful beings on earth, but he’d hide them from man’s sight forever. That is how the five races of Hidden People—including fairies, dwarfs, and elves—came to be. Trolls, on the other hand, evolved out of the rotting corpse of a dead giant.
I want to know more, so I track down Magnus Skarphedinsson, who runs the Álfaskólinn (Elf School) in Reykjavik, which teaches half-day classes on elf lore during the summer. He says he’s too busy to meet during the day but free at midnight tonight, which is an odd time. Then he asks me if I’m traveling with a girlfriend, an odd question. I tell him no. He says to call back at 11:30 p.m. And when I do, he doesn’t pick up. In a way, I’m relieved.
A trip to the Icelandic Wonders Center in Stokkseyri doesn’t provide much insight either. Located on the southern coast, the center offers facsimiles of troll caves and elf hovels, but little in the way of real proof. Upstairs is a haunted house with a bar attached. I catch a couple from a visiting tour group making out in the model turf house of one of the exhibits. From what I’ve seen, most of the hidden-folk centers are little more than tourist attractions. I half expect the ceramic troll replicas I see to start singing “It’s a Small World.”
But greeting Icelanders’ beliefs with cynicism oversimplifies things. Why, then, did the Icelandic highway department hire a part-time elf liaison to help out when equipment failures occurred during the demolition of known elf habitat? Why did a local radio station have no takers when it pressed listeners to demolish a suspected elf rock? What’s with the troll statues wearing Viking helmets I see everywhere? And why does Jökull give me funny looks when I mention Hidden People, then use troll stories in his marketing material?
One evening at the farmhouse turned ski lodge, Jökull reads a story aloud from an ancient-looking tome: “That night snow had fallen. The farmer traced the giant footsteps up to a cave…” (Jökull stops to point out the cave, high on a ridge visible from the living-room window.) “…The troll and the farmer wrestled. The troll was old and hungry but still it took all the farmer’s strength to subdue him. As the troll lay dying, he said, ‘You have attacked me. For that, your farm will never be a place of peace.’”
Don’t tell my friends back home, but I may have shivered.
I first meet Jökull Bergmann and his wife Sunna in a café in Akureyri. He’s easy to spot—unkempt curly blond hair, goggle burn, Dakine hat, huge Smith sunglasses, a puffy vest. He’s just returned to Iceland after living in the Canadian Rockies for most of the past five years. His time there has obviously informed his sense of style. Speech, too. He peppers his English with ehs and oh, yahs and pronounces process with a long o. His wife—they call each other husband and wife but haven’t officially tied the knot and don’t wear rings—grew up in Dalvík, near the farm. She still lives there with her parents when not traveling with Jökull and their two-year-old daughter, Issól. I ask Jökull if the girl’s name means anything. Issól translates to “Ice sun,” a combination of Jökull (glacier) and Sunna (sun). “It’s some hippie shit,” he says.
There is more hippie shit. One hour after I first meet Jökull, I find myself standing next to him completely naked. We’re in a communal shower at the town bath in Dalvík. This little port town of 1,200 people is modest enough, but like a lot of towns in Iceland, it’s got a municipal bathing facility with geothermally heated, almost chemical-free water. Since locals don’t like dirty tourists polluting their soak, showers au naturel are mandatory. “Icelanders are very at home with their bodies,” he tells me. “It freaks tourists out sometimes.” I laugh uncomfortably, trying to appear at ease while keeping my eyes trained diligently on the ceiling. Visiting these baths is the preferred après activity for Jökull. He often forgets his swimsuit, though, so he borrows one from the front desk nearly every day. And while he uses a big Isuzu Trooper to ferry guests to and from the farm, Jökull drives a beat-up 1994 Toyota hatchback—something he’s proud of, despite the fact that everyone else on the island seems to own a new Range Rover or Porsche Cayenne. “Consumer society in Iceland puts America to shame,” he says. “It’s not uncommon for someone in Reykjavik to be $10,000 in debt. That’s just normal.”
Jökull relies on his native country—its mystique, its culture, its brand—to bring in skiers but he doesn’t see eye-to-eye with many of his countrymen. He calls Icelanders “sheep” and rails against the government for selling out to foreign economic powers. He chides the tourism establishment—which prefers mass-market bus tours to one-on-one guided experiences—for not seeing the potential in ski touring and the Troll Peninsula.
As a boy, he would hike the steep reaches above Klængshóll (Raven’s Hill Farm) with his grandfather, looking for lost sheep. Later, Jökull and his mother, Anna, traveled the world, living in Ecuador, Canada, and the Alps. At 16, inspired by what he saw in Chamonix, Jökull decided to become a mountain guide. A year later, he took a mountain rescue course and started leading summer hikes. He learned to telemark ski and joined Fjallabak, an Icelandic guiding company. Jökull convinced the outfit to take on ski-touring clients. Following the death of his grandfather in 2001, he returned with his mother to the farmhouse, a white stucco building with a red roof. He continued to bring small groups of wealthy clients ski touring with Fjallabak, but always had bigger dreams for the operation.
His ambition drove him to get certified. When the European guide schools scoffed at his cable bindings, he moved to Canada, earned a degree in outdoor-recreation management, and scored a gig at BC’s Selkirk Tangiers Heliskiing. He worked there for two winters, training for guide exams and bringing clients to Iceland and Europe during the springs and summers. He helped pioneer boat-accessed skiing on the West Fjords, northwest of the Trolls. But he continued to think about the farm—and heli-skiing.
He’s quick to point out that it’ll be a different experience from its Canadian brethren—corn snow instead of powder, a more stable maritime snowpack, much smaller trees. (An Icelandic national joke is, Q: What do you do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest? A: Stand up.) He calls it “adventure heli-skiing,” a nod to the variable weather and snow conditions, and in May, Arctic Heli Skiing took a test group up in the chopper—an Icelandic first.
Jökull originally wanted to name his outfit Saga Heli Skiing, a reference to the epic poems that tell Iceland’s history. Nearly every family and region has a saga, and sprinkled through them are run-ins with helpful elves and hideous trolls. He recently received a $32,000 grant from the Icelandic government to market his operation, and his trip descriptions include the story of the last troll in Iceland. On the opposite side of the fjord from the Trolls is the Hulduland, a sparsely inhabited peninsula where Jökull brings groups in June. He says the name—a Huldufólk reference—was coined by locals. I can’t find it on any maps.
For Jökull Bergmann, questions of Huldufólk existence take a backseat to questions of skier visits. His operation, certainly, is the full Icelandic experience: His mother makes a traditional Icelandic feast for guests that includes horse sausage, sheep heads, and chunks of rotten shark called hákarl that taste like pure ammonia. She collects wildflowers and lichen from the surrounding wilderness to use in medicinal teas. Lunches consist of smoked lamb and pan-fried bread. At night, Jökull discusses local history over 12-year-old Scotch and Brennivín, an Icelandic liqueur flavored with caraway seed. Switzerland it’s not. You won’t find après-ski parties or Four Seasons hotels. Still, the allure of skiing here goes beyond mythical beings that may or may not exist.
“I will say, one hundred percent, that clients do not come skiing here to see elves and trolls,” he says. “But it is something that intrigues people. It makes them want to read about my trips.”
After some prodding and a bit of Scotch, Jökull tells me that he believes in elves and possibly ghosts, but not trolls.
“Trolls are too big and mean,” he says. He has a deadpan delivery that makes it hard to tell when he’s being facetious. “If there were trolls in these mountains I would have seen one.”
“Throughout the years I’ve seen enough things happen around me to know that not everything is as it seems. In some cases we have no clue what’s going on around us.”
There’s a scene in Independent People—Iceland’s most famous novel—where the main character, Bjartur, keeps himself from freezing to death in a mounting blizzard by envisioning the troll-beast Grimur. As he charges through the piling snow, his passion to slay this demon keeps him going. My first day touring with Jökull was eerily similar.
Like Bjartur, we brace ourselves against cold and wind as we skin up frozen crust punctuated with tufts of heather and old barbed wire fences toward a hanging valley some 1,800 vertical feet above us. It’s an early start by Icelandic standards—10 a.m.—but since the sun stays up until nearly midnight, daylight isn’t a concern. I grit my teeth as we climb, droplets of frozen rain intermittently stinging my face. Jökull effortlessly glides uphill. He might as well be strolling the Miami Beach boardwalk. Jökull actually has a passion for bad weather. He’d normally take clients up this route to The Horse, a classic Icelandic ski-touring test piece that drops 3,600 feet at a sustained 40 degrees back to the valley floor. But the storm rolling in promises to be so rough that we aim for a subpeak below it. Jökull points out a large volcanic boulder as we ascend, telling me his grandmother believed the rock is one of three main elf houses in the area. The wind blows spindrift around its corners, the effect looking like smoke from a chimney.
I lose my footing on the traverse and narrowly avoid a 1,000-foot slide down the slick, 35-degree slope. We kick steps past The Lads, a set of twin rock spires that legend says were troll boys who got caught playing in the sun. The wind is now a gale and snow has started to fall. As he hacks footholds out of the slope with an ice ax, Jökull shouts into the wind.
“Ski touring in the Trolls! Makes you feel alive!”
He’s right. Sunny days in Verbier don’t fill you with the same satisfaction as conquering a little-known peak inside a shaken snow globe. Listening to him scream, it’s clear he takes pride in the arctic temps and snow in June. He’s proud he can survive in a country like Iceland, and proud to forge ahead in the Icelandic tradition: carving out his living from a harsh land and harsh conditions. I’m not sure if skiers will heed Jökull’s call and visit Iceland but I’m also not sure it matters. What matters is that he keeps screaming into the wind, charging after his heli-skiing dream like he’s chasing a troll demon. I may not have seen any hidden folk, but as far as skiing in Iceland goes, I believe.
-SKIING MAGAZINE, November 2008