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The Heath

seyðisfjörður jessica auer

Jessica Auer is a Canadian photographer and filmmaker. Through her work, she examines our social, political, and aesthetic attitudes towards places, including historical sites, tourist destinations, and small communities. Jessica received her MFA from Concordia University in Montréal, where she teaches part-time. While in Iceland, Jessica runs Ströndin Studio, an educational and experimental centre for […]

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Searching for Grettir

fagraskógarfjall william morris

On July 17, 1871, the English poet and artisan William Morris set out from Reykjavík on horseback with three companions, two guides, and fourteen ponies on the first leg of a six-week journey through the heart of western Iceland. In the age of steamships, locomotives, and the telegraph, this mode of travel was medieval by […]

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White Sahara

kerlingarfjöll cross-country skiing

Cold reception

The west-facing windows of our superjeep – or, more correctly, supervan – have turned to ice, blasted by the sharp winds coming off the highland. Inside, it’s warm, and the loud mechanical whirring of pneumatic pistons mingles with the sound of ice crunching under our vehicle’s heavy, well-studded wheels. It is -12°C [10°F] outside, and the visibility is decreasing quickly.

“So, who here has already been to Kerlingarfjöll?” our guide Brynhildur asks. Nearly all present raise their hands. “And who here has been here in the winter?” Brynhildur asks. Again, nearly all hands go up. I’m starting to get an uneasy feeling in my stomach.

highland base camp kerlingarfjöll

The journey is long. Even with the considerable horsepower of our van, the wheels lose their grip here and there, and we free ourselves either by rocking back and forth or by a tow line from another member of our convoy. During one particularly arduous stretch, we cover just 500 m [0.3 mi] in one hour. The powerful pneumatic system located a short distance behind my skull empties and fills our tyres on demand. Anyone who’s seen a polar bear hunt in a nature documentary will know the principles at play here: to avoid breaking through a thin crust of ice, the bear flattens itself out, spreading its weight. Our supervan struggles on, inching up steep slopes and ploughing through metres-deep snow drifts. Finally, as the sun sets over the highland, we crest a final hill and look down at the warm lights of the Highland Base – a new hotel and one of the largest-ever developments in the highland. It is a welcome sight, and we are among the first travellers to see it.

kerlingarfjöll highland base
kerlingarfjöll highland base winter

One step at a time

It’s 9:00 in the morning, and I’m still wiping the sleep from my eyes as we stand next to our skis, limbering up. We’re standing in the hotel hallway in full gear, practising the basics: adjusting our poles, clipping and unclipping from our skis, and recovering from a fall without disrupting the skiers behind. In a moisture-wicking base layer, thick socks, fleece, and windproof shell, I begin to sweat. I’m eager to get outside.

kerlingarfjöll highland base

“It’s just like learning to dance,” our ski instructor Brynhildur cheerfully informs us as we shuffle outside. This is advice that has generally not boded well for me. 

But as we get into it, I see that the dancing bit is not entirely inaccurate. It is not the poles, after all, that generate the forward momentum. It is one’s legs. One can, in fact, cross-country ski without poles, though I wouldn’t recommend it. The trick is finding a rhythm between pushing off with your legs and letting yourself glide. Sounds easy enough, but finding the rhythm in between hard patches of ice, wind gusts, and generally uncoordinated limbs can prove difficult.

kerlingarfjöll highland base
Our cross-country ski instructor, Brynhildur.

Still, sure enough, after some laps around our practice track, I get into the swing of things. Next, we move on to proper pole usage. The poles are never to be out in front at an angle, I’m told. The trick is to keep them vertical and then fully extend them behind. Those who quickly mastered handling their poles then graduate to an advanced gait, which involves a rhythmic cycle of gliding, shuffling, and kicking. I regret to report that I was not nominated to graduate to the advanced gait, but I was soon enough confidently punting my way around the practice track.

To round off the day, we begin learning the basic techniques of cross-country skiing downhill. When braking, for example, one is never to hold the poles out in front. Brynhildur mimics being impaled. Noted.

Après ski

In fine alpine fashion, we conclude the day of skiing with champagne in the loft of the Kerlingarfjöll hotel. The Icelanders discuss an upcoming winter expedition across the Fimmvörðuháls pass, a trail connecting the popular Laugavegur hiking trail with the South Coast, while a German and an Australian wax poetic about the surroundings. It’s hard to blame them; the panoramic view of the winter highland is all the better after a day of hard work on the slopes.

kerlngarfjöll highland base
kerlingarföll highland base

After a dinner of fillet mignon and sorbet, we relax in the natural hot springs and stargaze. Cross-country skiing is fun and all, but I’d be perfectly content if the trip consisted of nothing more than this. Later in the evening, we join a traditional kvöldvaka, an evening of drinking and song. Such nocturnal revelries have their roots in the early days of the ski school here, when Kerlingarfjöll was a much humbler place. Young people would cram into the loft of the old lodges here, strum guitars, and drink schnapps late into the night. Tonight, our accommodations are considerably more sumptuous than those of a generation or two ago, but something of that spirit is clearly in the room as we raise our glasses and voices into the cold, clear night.

kerlingarfjöll highland base

A brief history of Kerlingarfjöll

The highland area known as Kerlingarfjöll is located between the glaciers Hofsjökull and Langjökull, some 50 km [31 mi] northeast of Gullfoss waterfall, as the crow flies. This proximity to Gullfoss waterfall, with its cafés and gift shops, may make it sound relatively accessible, a quick stop on a day tour of the Golden Circle. But even in the summer, the rough track can be difficult to navigate; in the winter, nothing but the largest, most powerful superjeep will do. 

kerlingarfjöll highland base

To the traveller approaching Kerlingarfjöll, the mountain range appears as nothing so much as a highland fortress. From the banks of the Hvítá river, a long plateau gently rises to the north. Atop this motte sits a bailey of jagged peaks, including Fannborg, Hverahnúkar, Snækollur, Snót, and Loðmundur. All of them are among the hundred highest in Iceland.

This complex of peaks is a mature volcano, characterised by diverse eruption patterns, geothermal springs, two prominent craters, and striking rhyolite colours. During the summer, the rhyolite gives the area a distinctive and vibrant colour, much admired by the hikers, mountain bikers, and social media influencers who come here in droves. The oldest rock formations at Kerlingarfjöll are about 336,000 years old, with volcanic activity prominent during the last glacial and interglacial periods. Minimal seismic and volcanic activity has been recorded here in recent years, making the area about as calm as it gets on a volcanic island. 

The captain

Daði is known informally as the captain of Kerlingarfjöll, and though it’s partly a tongue-in-cheek title, it’s not entirely. The day-to-day of managing a highland-base-camp-cum-luxury-hotel, after all, requires Daði to be equal parts mountain guide, receptionist, and all-around handyman. “An average day here is nothing like the ordinary,” Daði tells me. “There’s always something you have to figure out. I need to take care of the whole area, and it’s like a small village. In the summer, a typical day begins with me waking up early and setting up the breakfast buffet. Then, around 10:00 or so, I might have to fix a tyre. I’m always fixing tyres,” he adds ruefully. “Then in the afternoon, I might need to fix a window and take care of our customers until dinner. So it’s always something.” He tells me that working here in the winter is much the same, except that the snowmobiles also need looking after.

kerlingarfjöll highland base

Daði also explains that simply getting visitors to Kerlingarfjöll is its own challenge. “We’re always sure about how many people we’re expecting, and if they don’t arrive, then we need to go out and find them. Sometimes, a jeep might get stuck, and then it’s up to us to assist them.” Incidentally, this is a duty of Daði’s with which I’m already familiar. Despite the horsepower of our supervan, we stranded briefly on the rough highland track. It was Daði in his superjeep, Emma, that ultimately guided us to the warmth and comfort of our lodgings.

kerlingarfjöll highland base

Such difficulties remind one that despite the luxurious lodgings and elegant atmosphere at Kerlingarfjöll one is, indeed, in the middle of nowhere. I can think of no better illustration of this tension than our fellow guests for the weekend – a corporate group holding a private party that seemed to have much more to do with the clubs of downtown Reykjavík than the Icelandic highland. It is a curious dynamic that leads me to wonder: who, exactly, is Kerlingarfjöll for these days? 

“I think the highland has been quite accessible for many years now,” Daði goes on. There have of course been superjeep enthusiasts and international mountaineers who have frequented the area for some time, but the area is undeniably gaining in popularity among a new kind of traveller who doesn’t necessarily have the same kind of experience or gear as these other types. “We see a lot of people who want a real adventure,” Daði says. “They come here to see the mountains, to experience the weather in a way that you just can’t on television or social media. You can actually feel it on the skin. You can come here, and you can stay in the hotel – you don’t even need to leave the hotel if you don’t want to. Some people just want to experience the dark nights and see the aurora, for instance.” 

kerlingarfjöll highland base

The beauty of the new Highland Base at Kerlingarfjöll seems to be that travellers no longer have to choose between extreme outdoor adventure and the comfortable luxury of hot springs, saunas, and champagne. As more and more people find out about this hidden jewel of the highland, it’s inevitable that this area will see quantities and kinds of visitors previously unheard of in this region. As Daði says, “I think there is so much at Kerlingarfjöll for everybody, and I think it’s only going to grow in the years to come. But it’s also important to take care of the nature here. And maybe the best way to do this is to educate the people who come. That’s really important to us. We always have guides on the premises to talk to everybody, to teach them how to best view the surroundings. Maybe that’s the best way to take care of what we have here.” 

Destination: Kerlingarfjöll

It is only relatively recently that Kerlingarfjöll has become known as an outdoor destination. Prior to the 21st century, local farmers had little reason to explore the highland area, and most thought it the haunt of outlaws and trolls. Indeed, the name Kerlingarfjöll might be best translated as the Hag Mountains, a reference to the traditional connection between uninhabited places and the supernatural. Many peaks, glaciers, and valleys here had no names until recently.

The first human construction in these mountains was a small hut raised by Ferðafélag Íslands (The Icelandic Touring Association) in 1937. In 1961, a ski school was founded in Kerlingarfjöll that operated during the summers until the turn of the century, when the area stopped receiving consistent snowfall in the summer.

kerlingarfjöll highland base

With the growing popularity of the region, Kerlingarfjöll also saw a rising demand for services. Original plans for the Highland Base detailed some 120 double rooms, but after calls by concerned environmentalists, the hotel was scaled down and redesigned to better blend in with the landscape. At a total cost of ISK 2-3 billion [approximately $20 million, €17 million], the Highland Base at Kerlingarfjöll is the largest-ever investment in the Icelandic highland, with the exception of hydropower plants.

The scale of the project also sparked the political will to formally protect this area of the highland. In 2020, 344 km² [133mi²] were designated a conservation area, in what many, including then-Minister for Environment and Natural Resources Svandís Svavarsdóttir, celebrated as a win for the environment. 

Ásgarðsheiði

Early next morning, we are treated to a generous breakfast buffet that was rather inexplicably – to me at least – paired with the sound of Taylor Swift. The pineapple in the fruit salad seems somehow fresher than the stuff I buy in town, and heaps of sliced cheeses, deli meats, scrambled eggs, and pain au chocolat greet the browsing skier. Some shot glasses are arranged on an elegant tray next to the canisters of water and orange juice. It seems a bit early for that kind of thing, but as I later see, the shot glasses are intended for the doctor’s recommended intake of lýsi – cod liver oil. I see our guide, Brynhildur, doing a bottoms-up with the other guides. Health-wise, they might be on to something, but I can’t help but stifle a reflexive retch from childhood memories of the stuff.

kerlingarfjöll highland base

Not long after, we clamber into Daði’s superjeep, Emma. As we soon learn, Emma is a minor celebrity among offroad vehicles. Along with her driver, Daði, she was the first vehicle to cross Greenland from East to West and then back again. It took some three to four weeks each way, Daði tells me. With 120,000 km [75,000 mi] on her odometer, Emma has also driven on every major glacier in Iceland. Outfitted with 44-inch wheels, she sits atop three separate fuel tanks, carrying a total of 240 litres [63 gallons] of diesel when fully topped off. The pressure of each tyre is individually controlled through an app on a smartphone mounted to the dash.

We are driving across a mountain plateau known as Ásgarðsheiði, the Asgard heath. It is an area that feels mythological, and Daði tells me that two crows are known to live here. He has named them Huginn and Muninn. Thought and Memory – Odin’s ravens.  

kerlingarfjöll highland base
kerlingarfjöll highland base
kerlingarfjöll highland base snowmobile

Our mission today is to catch a glimpse of the Hveradalir geothermal valley and then rendezvous with our ski group. In the summer, Hveradalir is known for the vibrant colours of its rhyolite cliffs and mineral deposits from the geothermal springs. Now, in the middle of winter, it’s a white Sahara. White cliffs against a white sky loom over us; white snow drifts snake across the white ground; even the sun, in its blinding clarity, appears white.

We stop on a ridge that overlooks the valley. The river that flows through it is some of the only water in this region that remains unfrozen in the winter, heated by the many geothermal vents and springs that dot the valley. It is a spectacular sight, but the wind is picking up, and we re-embark into Emma.

Switchbacks

The ski group comes into view as we descend Ásgarðsheiði, brightly coloured Gore-Tex shells standing out in sharp relief to the blasted white surroundings. As we disembark from Emma, I sense a charge in the air. Walkie-talkies crackle and click in the wind. We are surrounded by expert guides and experienced skiers, but this windswept heath is not a place anyone wants to linger. 

The wind is picking up as we strap on our skis. Before us, at the northeast edge of Kerlingarfjöll, stands Loðmundur mountain, the so-called King of Kerlingarfjöll. At 1,432 metres [4,698 ft], it is not the tallest peak here, but its distinctive shape has earned it a place in the hearts of mountaineers. It is also the most technical peak to summit in this range, skirted by steep slopes on its sides, its top ringed by near-vertical cliffs.

loðmundur mountain kerlingarfjöll
Loðmundur, the king of Kerlingarfjöll.

“Everybody warm? Good to go?” Brynhildur yells atop the wind. We can’t afford to stop at length; cross-country skiing in this environment is a delicate balance. Stay still for too long, and you cool down; overheat, and you sweat through your layers – a potentially dangerous situation in extreme temperatures. The current temperature is -15°C [5°F] with wind gusts up to 30 m/s [67 mph].

A long, broad slope extends before us. A switchback trail cuts zigzags through the snow, and the more advanced skiers have already pushed off. With little time to lose, I begin my descent.

There is an art to cross-country skiing downhill. While downhill skiers can simply form a “pizza” shape with their skis to slow down, it’s important for cross-country skiers to remain in the ruts that have been cut in the ice-crusted snow by their fellow travellers. This means that conventional braking methods are out the window, and I must instead time my descent such that I lose momentum where the switchback turns, dragging my poles in the snow if need be. Once stopped, I cut my slope-facing foot into the side of the hill and with the other, I take a conspicuously large goose-step and turn my foot in the other direction. Once secure, I repeat the procedure with the other foot and then it’s downhill again. Through the constant rebalancing and readjusting, I discover muscles in my feet previously unknown to me.

kerlingarfjöll

It is a relief when we reach the bottom, where we resume our shuffling and kicking. After a brief respite, we head out again across the flats of the plateau. Loðmundur is at our back, and a sharp wind picks up from the northwest. 

The wind is unrelenting, but, fortunately, there are times when it’s at our backs, catching our shells in the wind like sails. The temperature is dropping, and we have several kilometres to go before we return to base camp. The group sinks into the silence of grim determination, pushing on through ice patches, snow drifts, and uphill slopes. During particularly sharp blasts of wind, a burst of mad laughter picks up along the column. It’s infectious, and I join in, howling at the wind. By the time we return to base, I can honestly say this trip has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done; it also happens to be one of the best days spent outdoors in my life.

Another world

As I sit in the supervan bound for civilisation, I think about distance and time. From Gullfoss, the nearest outpost of civilisation, it is only some 50 or 60 km [some 35 mi] to the Highland Base at Kerlingarfjöll. But on the icy highland tracks, it takes five or six hours to traverse these kilometres, making this corner of the highland just as far removed from Reykjavík as London or Paris. A traveller may well wonder – why come to Kerlingarfjöll at all? The answer, it seems to me, is simple. On any other weekend, I could have visited another city, another country. But out here, I’ve visited another world.

kerlingarfjöll highland base

Point of Sale

Shopping malls Iceland

Reykjavík streetlife is something of an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. In the winter in particular, locals abandon the main street Laugavegur to the droves of travellers, seeking the comfort of home during the dark days. But even during the shortest days of the season, there are oases in Reykjavík, beacons of light where families […]

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In Full View

Hörður Kristleifsson @h0rdur

Hörður Kristleifsson is a 25-year-old photographer who’s been practising his craft since 2010, when he got his first camera. But things really took off in 2018, when he got his got his first drone. “Since then,” Hörður tells me, “it’s been a passion that’s kept on growing. You just get such a unique perspective with […]

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Chill & Grill, Salt & Sour

Gunnar Karl Gíslason, head chef at Dill

In the rhythmic flow of seasons over the stony Icelandic landscape, where the North Atlantic winds carry tales of resilience and the terrain demands a symbiotic dance with nature, a culinary legacy has emerged – a testament to tenacious farmers, brave fishermen, and the profound respect for the resources that grace their doorsteps. Finding stories […]

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Decades of Darkness

Andkristni festival Icelandic Metal

On December 21, the annual black metal festival Andkristni kicked off at the bar and concert venue Gaukurinn in downtown Reykjavík. As an initiate, I had hoped for a night of mayhem, madness, and moshing, but what I found was a less anarchic, more introverted, more thoughtful group of people, uniting to celebrate the winter […]

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Melting Hearts

Ice Guys Icelandic boyband

Long in the tooth

Jón Jónsson had the idea for Ice Guys in early 2023. 

It all began as a kind of a joke. 

He was, after all, 38 years old and probably a bit too long in the tooth to start a boy band. 

But, despite his advanced age – in boy-band years, that is – he still had his boyish good looks and those teeth, no matter how long, would become the focal point of a Colgate Christmas campaign later that year.

Besides, Jón had a slew of popular singles to his name and years of experience in the Icelandic music business. 

So why not?

Jón dialled the bat phone to his brother, popstar Friðrik Dór; rappers Herra Hnetusmjör and Aron Can; and Iceland’s most handsome man: Rúrik Gíslason.

If you are unfamiliar with Rúrik Gíslason – Sexy Rú as he was playfully called during my time trailing the gang – a brief digression is in order.

Ice Guys boyband
Ice Guys boyband
Ice Guys boyband

“The hot one”

In the summer of 2018 – when Iceland was swept up into a mania of football-coloured patriotism – then-footballer Rúrik Gíslason came on as a substitute during Iceland’s first-ever World Cup match against Argentina. 

With thirty minutes left of the game, Rúrik sprinted onto the pitch with silky blond hair gathered into a neat bun, landscaped stubble affording a smooth fella some rough texture, and uncanny valley peepers seemingly designed by machine-learning algorithms to bankrupt the concept of celibacy.

It may have been the most successful substitution in the history of Icelandic football. 

Iceland secured a tie against Argentina, one of the tournament’s top contenders, and Rúrik secured ties with legions of Argentina’s female viewership; by the time the ref had blown the final whistle, the eager fingers of a quarter million South American women had smashed follow on Instagram.

Qué lindo.

Rúrik would hit a million followers soon thereafter, and in a press conference during the tournament, goalkeeper Hannes Þór Halldórsson – who famously saved a penalty from Messi during the opening match – was asked to comment on Rúrik’s newfound glory.

“He’s finally getting the attention he deserves,” Hannes remarked. 

The press cracked up.

Ice Guys boyband
Rúrik Gíslason
Rúrik Gíslason
Rúrik Gíslason and his uncanny-valley peepers

Big ideas

During their first meeting in early 2023, Jón asked Rúrik (who had begun releasing music in 2021) and the rest of the gang if they would like to start a boy band and maybe release a summer single. 

The proverbial ball began rolling quickly. 

During their second meeting – which coincided with reports that the Backstreet Boys would perform in Iceland that April – someone pitched an idea for an Ice Guys TV show, and a few days later, Jón found himself sitting across from TV execs with “no script, just vibes.” 

And whatever Jón was selling – Sjónvarp Símans was buying.

Deal done.

During their second meeting, someone pitched an idea for an Ice Guys TV show, and a few days later, Jón found himself sitting across from TV execs with “no script, just vibes.”

Rúletta

The Ice Guys released their first single Rúletta (Roulette) in collaboration with hit-maker Þormóður Eiríksson in June of that year. 

A month later, having recruited super-producer Ásgeir Orri Ásgeirsson, they released their second single, Krumla

(Krumla is the Icelandic word for the game of Mercy, in which two people interlock fingers and attempt to bend back the wrists of their opponents.)

A video to the song, which opens with Rúrik Gíslason playing a metaphorically amorous game of Mercy with one of Iceland’s top models, was also released. 

The video, directed by Allan Sigurðsson and Hannes Þór Arason, was produced by the aforementioned Mess-penalty-saving former goalkeeper Hannes Þór Halldórsson. He had founded his own production company that summer; in Iceland, every professional athlete needs a sideline.

 

Krumla is the Icelandic word for the game of Mercy, in which two people interlock fingers and attempt to bend back the wrists of their opponents.

Krumla featured the five attractive Ice Guys engaged in a Homerian bromance while dancing admirably in sync, and admirably in denim, at various locales around the capital of Iceland, including the Reykjavík airport. 

And the ball just kept rolling.

While vacationing in Italy with his brother in July, Jón pitched the idea of hosting a Christmas concert at Kaplakriki, a sports arena in Hafnarfjörður.

Far-fetched

The idea for the concert was somewhat far-fetched, Jón admitted, sitting across from me at the Salurinn concert hall in Kópavogur, where the Ice Guys were rehearsing a few days before their big night.

“Given that we had only released two songs and all,” Jón recalled.

The Ice Guys went on to perform those two songs at the National Festival in the Westman Islands, arguably the biggest stage in Icelandic popular music, in August. 

(They weren’t booked for the event but snuck on stage as a cameo during Herra Hnetusmjör’s set.)

Parts of the TV show were filmed during their performance. 

While some were initially sceptical of this supergroup coming together under the pretence of a boy band, the TV show, released in October, seemed to clarify the concept to its detractors. 

Playing up some of the salient qualities of the five men – and inventing others – the audience was made to understand that all of this was very much tongue-in-cheek. 

(Although, as would later become evident, their wink-and-a-nod attitude was belied by the ambitiousness of their musical productions and dance routines.)

Ice Guys boyband
The younger generation looks on

Ice Guys, the TV show

In the semi-fictional TV show, it’s Friðrik Dór, and not Jón, who has the idea for founding Ice Guys, on account of having grown so emotionally drained by performing show after show as a soloist. 

Jón Jónsson agrees to the idea and spends much of the first season trying to escape the cold shadow cast by his more popular younger brother; even their mother unfairly dotes on Friðrik Dór, and wherever Jón goes, Friðrik’s music is being played. 

Aron Can, the baby of the group, plays a compulsive liar; Herra Hnetusmjör sinks deeper and deeper into debt, trying to keep up with the lavish lifestyle associated with famous rappers; and Rúrik Gíslason portrays a vain narcissist incessantly shadowed by a German film crew.

Ice Guys the TV show received rave reviews – and ticket sales for the concert picked up.

The team huddles backstage before the concert.

Swiftian

The band had originally planned on hosting a family concert in Kaplakriki in the afternoon and a longer version of the show geared towards a more adult audience during the evening. But now, in light of rising demand, the Ice Guys decided to add a second family concert for good measure. 

It sold out in the space of 12 hours.

To the outside eye, it seemed almost Swiftian: both in the sense of a satirical Jonathan of yore and the more modern, and more seismic, Taylor of now

The band released a Christmas EP in November, which featured a few original tracks and a handful of covers. 

(Ever since, my two sons, aged three and five, have sporadically broken into song and mangled the Ice Guy’s lyrics in an especially endearing way.)

To the outside eye, it seemed almost Swiftian: both in the sense of a satirical Jonathan of yore and the more modern, and more seismic, Taylor of now.

Ice Guys boyband
The Ice Guys rehearsing at the Salurinn Concert Hall

Connections

The Salurinn concert hall in Kópavogur seemed an unusually grand venue for a rehearsal space. 

Jón admitted as much.

“We had been rehearsing in World Class [an Icelandic gym franchise], but we needed some place where we could synchronise the music to our dance steps. And our boy here,” he gestured towards Herra Hnetusmjör, “was quick to pull some strings.”

Herra Hnetusmjör, or Mr. Peanut Butter in English, had, in the space of about six or seven years, crossed over from one of the island’s most technically gifted and popular rappers to a fixture of mainstream pop culture. He was currently serving as a judge on the Idol singing competition and had gained an admirable social network.

“He fished out his phone and within a minute he had done it,” Jón explained. “He called some insider from Salurinn and also some buddy of his on the municipal council.”

Jón laughed.

“The bad boy”

Every good boy band is predicated on a carefully orchestrated group dynamic constructed around precise stereotypes. If Rúrik is “the hot one,” and Jón is “the responsible older brother,” Herra Hnetusmjör is the designated “bad boy.”

He dresses in fashionable clothes, wears sunglasses inside, and maintains a stolid poker face when interacting with others – as if to suggest that while he is generally courteous and pleasant to be around, that b-boy attitude is always lurking around the corner. 

Later that day at Salurinn, one of the management took down the Ice Guy’s respective email addresses, and when it was Hnetusmjör’s turn to provide his, he replied: “…@kopbois.com.”

“How do you spell that?” the individual inquired, a bit confused. And a helpful Herra Hnetusmjör lifted up his shirt to reveal the words in tattoo form on his belly (a reference to his hometown of Kópavogur).

“How do you spell that?” the individual inquired, a bit confused. And a helpful Herra Hnetusmjör lifted up his shirt to reveal the words in tattoo form on his belly.

Ice Guys boyband
Ice Guys boyband

New Kids on the Block

It is hard to put one’s finger on the first boy band in music history. 

Some have pointed to the revival of barbershop quartets of the early 20th century while others have suggested the Beatles. 

There is, however, a much more solid argument to be made that what we in the modern age understand by the concept of “boy band” traces its roots to New Kids on the Block.

In 1982, musician, songwriter, and record producer Maurice Starr discovered New Edition at a talent contest. He went on to co-write and co-produce their debut album, Candy Girl. In spite of the success of the album and the subsequent tour, Starr reportedly only paid the members of New Edition two bucks apiece, which led to the group firing Starr in 1983 and suing for embezzlement. Starr went on to found New Kids on the Block, a kind of white version of New Edition. 

Indeed, several prominent boy bands throughout history have faced legal and financial challenges with their management. The Puerto Rican outfit Menudo reportedly endured underpayment and harsh working conditions, and both NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys had legal battles with their manager Lou Pearlman, accusing him of misrepresentation, fraud, and failure to pay adequate earnings.

 If one were to distil the essential elements of the modern boy band, it might go something like this: a group of young and handsome men, all of whom can sing and dance, are recruited by an outsider for the somewhat Machiavellian purpose of gaining popularity especially among a young and mainly female audience.

Unlike many American boy bands, whose relationship with their management has often been fraught with exploitation and legal disputes, the Ice Guys seem very much in control of their own destiny. 

Whatever the true origins of the genre, Ice Guys is, undoubtedly, the first band in Iceland that hews to the true essence of boy bands: dance moves.

Of horses and choreography

Stella Rósenkranz had hardly learned to walk when she began to dance.

As one of Iceland’s most experienced choreographers, she has worked with almost everyone, ranging from Of Monsters and Men to Emmsjé Gauti and Páll Óskar.

Stella knew Jón Jónsson from her time at Verslunarskólinn Junior College, which was also where she met producer Ásgeir Orri. 

When Jón first approached her with the idea of choreographing the video to Krumla, she said yes immediately.

A long-time fan of boy band culture, Stella found that reviewing any old videos from NSYNC or the Backstreet Boys was unnecessary; she had a pretty good idea of what she wanted to do. The only question was how capable the Ice Guys would be in executing her moves.

“The boys don’t have any background in dancing, so how do you choreograph them in a way that they don’t simply throw their hands in the air?” she explained.

She knew she had to give them plenty of footwork, to make sure they were always moving, but not so much as to detract from their vocal performances. 

And so she did what she always does. 

She took the music for Krumla to the Heiðmörk conservation area and began to walk.

She prefers to stay away from places filled with cars or pedestrians:

“I want to be in places where if I meet someone – that someone is a horse.”

She is not always successful.

“Occasionally someone will pass and write me off as a lunatic.”

The steps for Krumla came relatively quickly.

“But I had to slightly revise them in the studio. As I compose while walking, there is always this forward motion, and so I had to adjust the steps so that the boys weren’t moving 20 metres forward on stage.” 

Having settled on a basic framework, she took her ideas to the Ice Guys and gauged their abilities and reaction. 

“We just hit it off at once. I began adding more complicated moves and they proved equal to the task. I realised that I could really challenge them, which was exciting for me.”

Aron Can

“I want to be in places where if I meet someone – that someone is a horse.”

Ice Guys boyband
Ice Guys boyband
Choreographer Stella Rósenkranz directing the "guys"

Soundcheck

It was just before noon on December 16, and the Kaplakriki sports stadium was tottering towards excitation. 

In an hour and a half, the uncrowded hallways would be congested with stirring children and their parents, and, as the day slowly turned to night, and one performance followed the next, Jón Jónsson would appear to transcend to the veritable culmination of his earthly existence; even when there is nothing doing, he’s all energy, but this morning the occasion seemed to finally measure up to his enthusiasm. 

Bouncing on stage during soundcheck, Jón was belting out the lyrics to Stingið henni í steininn, when the playback was suddenly cut off. Without missing a beat, Jón promptly reframed the technical mishap in a positive light – almost in the vein of Norman Vincent Peale.

“It’s OK, that’s why we’re practising!” he declared as he frolicked on the stage; and then, in a sort of upbeat non-sequitur, he yelled: “Awesome!”

Meanwhile, Stella – whom Jón credited for the ambitiousness of the Ice Guys’ show – was amicably barking instructions through her wireless mic. 

Once the playback came back on, the band continued to rehearse. Jón stepped down from the stage and reached over the partition, pretending to slap hands with the crowd – which had yet to arrive. 

Judging by his enthusiasm, however, there might as well have been a crush of fans screaming below on the empty dance floor. 

(He later explained that this trance-like gusto was a part of his process of visualisation, a technique that once carried him through an entire marathon for which he had not adequately trained.)

His brother Friðrik Dór was less obviously excited. Like a young Frank Sinatra, face eternally paralysed by cool, Friðrik was visibly drained trying to balance the demands of choreography with the requirements of vocal performance. 

When he descended the stage following the soundcheck, he was notably flustered. “This is going to kill me,” he remarked.

Without missing a beat, Jón promptly reframed the technical mishap in a positive light - almost in the vein of Norman Vincent Peale.

Zeitgeist

Among the people looking on as the Ice Guys completed their final soundcheck was Ásgeir Orri. 

A seasoned producer who has worked with many of Iceland’s most popular artists – ranging from Friðrik Dór, Páll Óskar, Herra Hnetusmjör, Steindi Jr., and Bríet – Ásgeir, like Stella Rósenkranz, did not take much convincing to collaborate with the Ice Guys. 

He was partly inspired by the Swedish super-producer Max Martin, who has been responsible for many of the era’s major pop hits: the Backstreet Boys’ I Want It That Way, NSYNC’s It’s Gonna Be Me, and Britney Spears’ Hit Me Baby One More Time, to name a few. 

“I’ve tried to use modern drum samples in conjunction with the snares, hits, and claps that are ubiquitous in some of the classic boy band songs. And then all of it is driven home by these big catchy Euro pop melodies.” 

What Ásgeir enjoyed about the project was how it seemed to gel with the current zeitgeist of fun and joy. He also believes that music benefits from being tied to cultural phenomena.

“A lot of what has been popular lately are songs that are tied to these larger gimmicks or cultural events, like the Barbie movie, for example. It’s really hard for a song to set itself apart if it isn’t tied to some larger occasion.” 

Once the soundcheck finished, Ásgeir decided to gun it back to the studio and re-export the tracks to accommodate some of the breathless dancing. 

“Higher backing vocals in some places, a little lower in others.”

Ice Guys boyband
Ice Guys boyband
Ice Guys boyband

Reservations

Despite the number of elements that required coordination, the Ice Guys’ first family concert went off without a hitch. 

During the first half of the show, the members of the group jumped onto the stage and performed songs from their own private catalogues, prior to launching into the Ice Guys’ more impressive, and more ambitious, choreographed routine. 

The children were visibly enthused by the performance, although I – sitting on the bleachers with my family – wondered if the group would have been better served jumping right into the latter half of the show.

Whatever reservations I had harboured prior to the evening performance, however, were dispelled once the Ice Guys launched into their final, full-length show. 

It kept to the same format, with individual members of the group taking the stage one at a time, or in pairs, but this time, there was a live band on stage, more individual performances, and a few notable cameos.

When Birnir joined Herra Hnetusmjör on stage for Já, ég veit, an old-school hip-hop banger featuring a stuttering, in-your-face synthetic bass line, the crowd went wild. Seeing Hnetusmjör change into a white suit later in the performance, so as to croon a Christmas song with the Ice Guys while seated, was likewise unique, to say the least.

(A TV weatherman from Fox News, a die-hard fan of Jón Jónsson, was reportedly among the crowd that evening.) 

The decibel levels following the Ice Guys’ performance of Krumla were deafening. My ears would ring for the better part of the night.

A return to youth

Jón Jónsson would later confess that he had never experienced anything like it. 

“I’m the kind of person who can usually fall asleep immediately after a show, but I was so buzzed after our performance, that I stayed up most of the night, scrolling through videos on social media and thinking to myself: ‘Did that just happen?’”

When Jón stumbled to his feet in the morning, he felt as if he had run three consecutive marathons. 

“Fortunately, my family was on their way to the public pool, and I tagged along. I shuffled between the steam room and the cold tubs in an attempt to recover.” 

On the night before, it was as if he had returned to his early twenties; many of his wife’s friends felt the same way.

Which seemed, somehow, appropriate.

(Season 2 of the Ice Guys TV show was announced just prior to the annual comedy revue that aired on the National Broadcaster on December 31, 2023.)

Of the Great Mortality

Sigríður Hagalín Björnsdóttir is a novelist and a journalist living in Reykjavík. Her novels have been translated into many languages, and include the dystopian thriller Island (2016), and The Fires (2020), which foreshadowed the ongoing volcanic eruptions on the Reykjanes peninsula, published in English by Amazon Crossing in 2023. Her latest novel, DEUS (2023), is […]

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Keeping in Step

Icelandic folk dancing, Árbæjarsafn

It was a Friday night in Reykjavík, and I was looking for a dance floor. You may expect, dear reader, that I was on my way to one of the dimly lit clubs that line Laugavegur street, where young bodies sway to pulsing, electronic beats. Actually, I was heading somewhere entirely different: to a wood-panelled […]

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