Chasing Waterfalls: Teton Gravity researches perfection and finds Iceland

Comments by Henrik Lampert/

300_waterfalls.jpgAs seen in the October, 2011 issue of FREESKIER.

Words and photos by Mark Fisher_TGR.

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I awoke ensconced in my down comforter at the Skaldarvik Guest House and considered the dis- mal weather outside. Thankfully, the house had everything I could possibly want: a fully automatic espresso machine, beer, home-cooked meals, a natural geothermal hot tub and a fast Internet connection. Hell, there were even nice hot showers—even if I didn’t use them nearly as much as the other luxuries.

All week, we had waited for weather suitable for heliskiing and a rebate session on a beautiful gap jump we’d briefly hit the previous week. It had been storming, depositing close to a meter of champagne powder in town and probably a lot more in the fjord-lined mountains just outside of town.

Eagerly anticipating what the day would bring, I staggered out of bed and peered out the window. Sun! My mind came alive at the site of that beautiful sun, but then I noticed another thing: wind. Digesting the sheer intensity of that wind, strong enough that it had uprooted trees, I lowered my gaze and discovered all of our precious powder had blown away overnight.

We had spent the previous week piecing together various urban features at night and occasionally venturing out during the day to explore the ski possibilities. Although our primary mission was to shoot skiing, we were really just looking for any activity to pass the time while we waited. For most crews the collective morale would’ve been at zero. But by this time in the trip, we had adjusted to our new normal and had given up any hope for decent skiing. The previous week had reminded us that weather has its own agenda. We could still adjust to make this the trip of a lifetime, even if it didn’t involve bluebird powder skiing in Iceland’s dramatic mountains.

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Martini and Bushy.line_31.jpg

So despite the baleful wind, the sun encouraged us to head out the door. After a healthy dose of caffeine, we ventured towards Europe’s largest waterfall, Dettifoss. We didn’t care how far away it was, or what we were actually doing. The important thing was that we were doing something. We drove aimlessly, mesmerized by the harsh, windswept yet beautiful landscape populated with only a smattering of small farms and villages. It was so windy when we reached Dettifoss that it was a battle to open the van door and get out without smashing a window or destroying the door in the process.

We were experiencing Iceland the best we could. Because it somehow still seemed like the logical thing to do, Nick Martini and Rory Bushfield donned their skis and headed on to the ice above the waterfall. They played around in the bizarre, scoured, icy landscape. Soon they were making turns where no one had skied before, while the waters of Dettifoss exploded below them. We ignored the ice pellets embedding in our faces by the cold wind since the photos and video were so insanely cool. Not many can say they have skied so close to one of the world’s largest waterfalls.

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Skier: Nick Martini.line_31.jpg

Hours later, as we drank beer and lounged in a locals-only hot spring, we celebrated the end of another day in Iceland. Relatively speaking, it was an overwhelming success.

When we had landed five days earlier at the tiny airport in Akureyri, some 150 miles northeast of Reykjavik, it was snowing and windy with zero visibility. The airport’s lone conveyor belt spit out our bags, and we wandered past a few seldom-visited kiosks. It was clear that Akureyri, and Iceland in general, is more a summer destination.

Teton Gravity Research organized our trip with great ambition and a crew to match: Martini, Bushfield, Andreas Håtveit and Byron Wells. The diverse and unique mix of skiers perfectly suited our motley Icelandic adventure. The incredible resources at our disposal would allow us to execute any conceivable vision we had, whether it be heliskiing or jumping over statues of local luminaries. Iceland had been stuck in a snowless state for weeks prior to our arrival, and we reckoned the current storm was a good omen.

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Skier: Andreas Håtveit.line_31.jpg

We met Ásbjörn Björgvinsson (Abbi), Managing Director of North Iceland Tourism, and headed straight to the local art center for some drinks. We immediately dubbed him “man of the arts” thanks to his laid-back approach and impeccable style. He sported a flat cap, scarf and a Leica camera clad in a custom leather case. Abbi had pushed to expand whale tourism in Iceland. Ten years ago, people thought he was crazy. Today, whale watching is among the most popular tourist activities in Iceland, so when he pushed his comrades for more skiing and winter tourism in Iceland (including backing our trip) folks listened to him. Jokull Bergmann, UIAGM certified mountain guide and owner of Arctic Heliskiing just outside of Akureyri, initially got the TGR crew stoked on visiting and coordinated virtually every detail through our stay. Without Jokull’s skills in the mountains and his day-to-day organization of the shoot, we wouldn’t have made any of the skiing, filming or shenanigans happen.

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Skier: Byron Wells.line_31.jpg

While we waited for calmer weather, we scouted a school campus in Akureyri, the second largest town in Iceland. Jokull quickly received approval to film on campus from the sports minister and head of the school. The initial schoolyard rail session was inspiring and opened our eyes to further possibilities.

One especially enticing option was gapping a 20-foot-tall bronze and stone statue next to the high-rise dormitory in the heart of the campus. It was a feature that begged for a session, but just a few scant inches of snow surrounded it. We needed heavy equipment, stat. In the blink of an eye, Jokull had organized his local team into action. Within 30 minutes, a front-end loader was on site. A few hours later the jump was prepped.

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After a quick dinner to refuel and warm up, we were back on campus. Kristinn H. Svanbergsson, the Akureyri sports official, met us at the jump with his Arctic Cat 800 ready to tow. We had lights set up, cameras rolling, a production crew and every single student (more than 100) hanging out in the dorm windows watching the show. Kristinn towed skier after skier, revving his two-stroke at every opportunity and loving every moment of it. The students were cheering, whether for a stylish make or the many near misses on the landing. Some especially enthusiastic guys gathered the courage to ask Martini if he’d sign their asses. Luckily, he said no. Despite the fact that the boys seemed to approach Martini more than the girls, we were digging the jib scene and local support in Akureyri.

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Akureyri, Iceland.line_31.jpg

In apparent mockery of all the odds stacked in our favor, and despite being blessed by the kind and generous Icelandic souls who were quickly part of our family, our trip wasn’t exactly going
to plan. As with most international trips, this had been a complete crapshoot. A dearth of snow can be as debilitating as a full-blown snowstorm. Even though it had been snowing since our arrival, Iceland was still in the midst of a very dry winter and the snow outlook was bleak.

It seemed like all signs pointed to pulling the ripcord and leaving Iceland for greener pastures. The entire “trip of a lifetime” could have easily spiraled into the worst ski trip ever.

So many variables can undermine even the most well thought out trip and it’s up to the crew to seize the day and make the most of any given situation. For days we were locked down by a full-on winter storm complete with zero visibility, ceaseless and strong winds that made the snow disappear as quickly as it fell, and a forecast that gave little hope of the conditions changing. Heliskiing was clearly out of the question for most of the trip, although we did manage to bag one day in the bird, and skiing the local, wind-scoured hill was undesirable to say the least. Our prize backcountry hit, a massive gap with the fjords and mountains of northern Iceland as a backdrop, was inaccessible after a short session earlier in the week.

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Andreas and his fan club.line_31.jpg

For our intrepid crew, that would not be the case. We were fascinated by seeing slednecks in F-350 diesel pickups—sleds in the back—gassing up before getting a delicate pastry, sipping a creamy latte and striking up a pleasant conversation with us foreigners. It was an odd mix of crazy Wyoming redneck and Western European sophistication. Despite the weather, the incredible local crew and the friendliness and openness of the people we met maintained our stoke. The creative vision of Todd Jones and his tenacity to make the shoot happen kept the crew’s motivation high. Todd’s leadership reminds me of Belushi’s speech in Animal House: “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?!” His enthusiasm is infectious, and ultimately the crew rallied behind him.

Despite the obstacles, we continued to chip away at our adventure, stormy day after stormy day. Crazy antics continued throughout the trip, resulting in not only unique footage but also a lot of laughs and good times. The boys scoped and hit rails at the historic church in the heart of the city. Martini and Bushfield skied down 300 feet of church steps to the astonished amusement of nearly a hundred onlookers, including Andreas’ newly formed personal Icelandic teen fan club. We skied 4,000-foot gray bird heli pow runs above the Arctic Ocean. We managed a day shooting our beloved gap jump, which Andreas himself helped build behind the controls of a cat. Bushfield befriended the commercial fishermen in town and did 60-foot gainers off the tops of their boats, usually at night and into near-freezing water.

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Martini lettin' 'er fly.line_31.jpg

The list of shenanigans goes on and on, as do the lessons from this trip. What could have easily been the worst trip of the winter turned out to be one of my fondest ski trip memories and truly the trip of a lifetime. Instead of festering in what was not, we seized what was.The essence of adventure is not what could be; it’s how you deal with what is.

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