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