Monthly Archives: February 2016

Iceland Air’s Glacier Hike and Northern Lights Tour

As part of their push to encourage tourism in Iceland, Iceland Air now offers a variety of one-day excursions that travelers can embark on whether they are visiting Iceland specifically, or taking a stopover on their way between Europe and North America.  These one-day tours offer a variety of options for experiences, including which places to visit and what types of activities to take part in.  For all of them, the general idea is the same; a bus picks tourists up at various hotels in Reykjavik, and gives visitors what basically amounts to a one-day “Taste of Iceland”.

My tour of choice was the Glacier Hike and Northern Lights tour, which offers a lot of what I was looking for out of my time in Iceland.  The Northern Lights is something I had never seen before.  In America, we hear about such phenomenon occasionally. Roughly once a year, we will hear in the news about a particularly strong solar event occurring, and the potential for the Northern Lights to be visible much farther from the North Pole than is typical.  Sometimes that zone would even reach the Northern parts of the United States, and news outlets would provide maps of where the lights could potentially be visible.

For years, living in Chicago, such stories would provide a particular brand of torment for someone that is curious about seeing the Northern Lights.  It is not possible to see the Northern Lights from such a large, lit up city.  One would need to travel somewhere less populated. To get outside the populated metropolitan area, I theoretically would be able to travel in any direction, but it makes little sense not to go North, as the lights get better the farther north one travels. However, North of Chicago is Milwaukee, and the area in between the two cities is populated enough to make it less than ideal for viewing the phenomenon.  So, the prospect of getting in a car and driving out to see the Northern Lights was always a multi-hour trip.  Some combination of time constraints, or frequent wintertime cloudiness in the Midwest always stopped me from driving up to Central Wisconsin (or Central Michigan) to try to see the Northern Lights.

The tour started like every one of the Iceland Air excursions, with a mid-sized bus going from hotel to hotel picking people up.  The bus went to about six different hotels to make pick-ups, finally leaving Reykjavik around noon.  The tour group was quite mixed.  There were a couple of other Americans, a few Canadians, and even two people from France on our tour, but the majority of the group was from Great Britain.  I have relatively little experience traveling to Europe (this trip, and a trip to Italy, Austria, and Germany in 2012), but on both occasions I ended up hanging out with tourists from the UK, specifically England.  I don’t know what that says about America, or who I am as a person, or if it is just due to a common language, but I am curious to see if that happens again next time I go to Europe.

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Driving East out of Reykjavik, towards Iceland’s South Coast area, the first thing I notice, which is common throughout Iceland are lava fields.  Across much of Iceland, the land is covered with ashes from previous volcanic activity.

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The previous day, I had learned at the Volcano House in Reykjavik that Iceland is one of the most volcanically active places in the world, as it sits on the ridge between the North American and Eurasian plates, which are drifting apart from one another.  In geologic terms, this is actually happening quite quickly.  On average, a volcano occurs somewhere on the Island once every 5 years, and as the plates pull apart, the Island is literally growing at a rate of 2 cm per year. 50 years from now, Iceland will be 1m wider than it is now!

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About 30 minutes into the trip, the bus passed by the hotel where one of the scenes in the 2013 film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty took place.  In the movie the volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupts, and Walter is lucky enough to have been picked up by a friendly local to escape before being covered in ashes. In real life, this gigantic volcano erupted quite explosively in 2010.  In the most unfortunate of circumstances, the wind happened to be coming from the Northwest that day, and the ashes covered the sky over Great Britain and much of mainland Europe halting air traffic for several days.

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The next stop on this tour was Skógafoss, one of Iceland’s largest waterfalls. Iceland is not only a hot spot for volcanoes, but it is also a hot spot for waterfalls. This is due to the glaciers, which cover 15% of the land area of the island, the terrain and relatively moderate maritime climate. Waterfalls like this can be found all over Iceland, and they probably look even more amazing in summer, when the ground appears lush and green!

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The main event of this tour, the Glacier hike, worked for me on multiple levels.  I love being outside, hiking and getting some exercise.  There are many times, when on vacation, I purposely try to find the most strenuous activities possible.  I especially do this when I am on a cruise or in some other kind of vacation package, where I know an activity does not need to be super challenging, or even that physically exhausting for them to be labelled as such.  I also got to try something new, hiking with crampons.  Now, I am not sure they were absolutely necessary for this particular hike, as back in Colorado I had hiked in areas that were steeper and more slippery and gotten by without them.  But, I did learn how to use them, how to attach them to my hiking boots, and how to walk with them on, a good thing to know for future activities down the road.

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In addition, the glacier, and what our tour guides told us about it was quite fascinating from a scientific perspective.  Apparently, this particular glacier is receding at a fairly rapid pace.  Along our hike, the tour guides pointed out where the glacier used to end in past years compared to where it ends now.  As recently as 2010, the glacier covered nearly all of the area near the entrance of the park that we traversed before getting onto the current glacier.  When this portion of the glacier melted, a gigantic lake was left behind in the lower lying area.

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The tour guides then informed us that we are actually witnessing a the formation of a fjord.  Roughly an hour into the hike, we had climbed to roughly 100m above sea level. However, the ice was thicker, somewhere between 150m and 200m.  Over time, the ice had pushed the land beneath it below sea level. Once these glaciers melt, the area will be under water, creating a fjord in this very spot.  This is one of many spots where this process is happening as we speak.

As a weather enthusiast, who had studied meteorology, I asked the tour guides what the primary mechanism was for the melting glacier.  Specifically, I asked if it was reduced winter snowfall or warmer summer temperatures.  They indicated that both were contributing factors, but also mentioned that, since temperatures in Iceland are commonly quite close to freezing, the area was starting to see precipitation fall in the form of rain (as opposed to snow) more frequently.  I could sense that, as even on this February day, the snow I stood upon was quite wet.

But that was not even the most fascinating scientific aspect of this tour.  Almost everyone is familiar with climate change, and it’s become the subject of sometimes-ridiculous debate.  The most fascinating thing I learned about this glacier is that fact that, due to the presence of volcanic ash, the glacier is creating terrain that is constantly changing.  Here, volcanic eruptions spill out on top of the ice, causing ice to melt faster in some areas.  The ice then flows in a manner that brings more ice into areas that are currently in “valleys”.  Even when there is no new volcanic activity, the cycle of ice flow and differential melting can happen rapidly enough that each year the terrain of any given section of ice is significantly different from the previous year.  Literally, if I were to return to Iceland at the same time next year, and come to this very glacier, the hike would be significantly different, as the terrain would have been significantly modified.  Amazing!

The glacier hike concluded a little after sun down, which was right around 6:00 P.M. After the hike, the tour bus took us to a hotel restaurant in the area for a traditional Icelandic meal.  To my surprise, the meal did not involve fish.  For some reason, I had this impression that since Iceland is an island in the North Atlantic, it would be a place where almost every meal consisted of fish.  Instead, the traditional Icelandic meal was a hearty meat soup.

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On the tour bus, I learned that the Icelandic cow, which is a special breed of cow that is smaller than the ones most of the world is familiar with is quite popular on Icelandic farms (they actually once voted in favor of keeping the cow over switching to a more efficient Norwegian cow).  In addition to these cows, many farms also keep lamb and sheep.

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After dinner we drove in search of an ideal place to view the Northern Lights.  This involved driving around and looking at weather conditions in a manner that actually seems reminiscent of storm chasing.  We drove around for hours, and every time it felt like we had found the right conditions (i.e. clear skies), something would change.  At one point, sometime between 9 and 10 P.M., as drove through an area where it suddenly started to snow!  At 11:30 I was in despair.  We were clearly headed back into Reykjavik, and I thought we were just going back to the hotel.  After all, the tour does not guarantee that the Northern Lights will be seen.  It can’t be guaranteed.  The weather is always changing, and the solar activity, which leads to the Aurora phenomenon, is also quite variable.

Oddly enough, though, just after midnight, we pulled into a pier on the far West end of town, along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, on a peninsula.  Our tour guide informed us that we would now be able to view the lights, and, sure enough, they appeared. I was unable to capture them on camera in a manner that would do this amazing natural phenomenon any justice.  I mostly just sat there, in awe, watching the lights glow and move from side to side along the horizon.  I thought about how amazing this phenomenon was.  I wondered if people who lived here took it for granted, noticed it less, the same way many people become less appreciative of what is in their own back yards.  At the end, I just thought about what an amazing day it was, from when the tour began, over twelve hours ago, until now, ending with this amazing light display.

Life in a Northern Town

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It’s 8 AM on a Thursday morning in Reykjavik, Iceland’s Capitol and largest City.  The sun has yet to come up, as this far north (64 degrees latitude) days are still quite short in the middle part of February.  A quiet dawn persists over the town for nearly two hours, from 8 to about 10.  A couple of local teenagers are hanging outside the grocery store.  A group of tourists can be seen hanging outside one of the few restaurants that are open.  Otherwise, the streets are quite empty, and the shops are mostly closed.

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It’s odd because, in many most major cities, 8:00 is the peak of what is often referred to as “rush hour”.  It is a time of people hurrying to and from train stations, and crowding highways trying to get to work.  Even in the more touristy sections of cities, which this most certainly is, a lot of motion can still be found at this hour.  At places like Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, and New York’s Time Square, which are utterly packed with tourists nearly every day, there are still plenty of people to be found at 8:00 on a weekday morning, mostly people headed into work.  Here, that culture just does not seem to exist.  Are all the office jobs elsewhere?  Do people have office jobs?  Do they work different hours?  Or is the economy so heavy on tourism and fishing that there is just no point in being awake at an hour when all the tourists are likely still asleep and the sun is not out?

By noon, things start to pick up.  On some days, the sun comes out and hits the harbor.  At this latitude, when it hits the harbor, it hits it in a way that seems to highlight every single feature, from the boats in the harbor to the snowy mountains on the other side.  From the perspective of someone that has always lived in the mid-latitudes, is feels neither like mid-day nor twilight.  It is a different feeling altogether, and those who take a pause from their tourist itinerary and truly soak up the moment are reminded as to why it is worthwhile to visit different places in the first place; to see something, experience something, do something that cannot be done at home.

The day progresses.  Tourists fill streets whose names are too intimidating to even try to pronounce, make their way into the bars, the restaurants, and the dozens of souvenir stores that feature a gigantic stuffed puffin in the window.

The weather inevitably changes- but, well it doesn’t.

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There is this saying, “if you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes, it will change.”  Anyone that travels on a regular basis to places outside the tropics has most likely heard the phrase too many times to count.  It is used here.  At souvenir shops, mugs and shirts about Iceland sport the phrase.  And, it is true to some extent.  At any moment, it can turn from sunny to cloudy, or suddenly get windy.  But, the temperature does not vary too much.  On a four day trip to Iceland, the temperature, including daytime and nighttime, seemed to only vary between a few degrees below freezing and a few degrees above freezing.

Regardless of these changes, winter in Iceland is consistently cold and damp.  For this reason, one of the most popular items made in all of Iceland are wool sweaters.  While any visitor to Reykjavik can find these sweaters for sale all over town, the best deals on them are found at the Kolaportid Flea Market.  Even at the Flea Market, though, they can be quite expensive, the equivalent of roughly $100.  Money talks, and it is easy to figure out what a certain culture values by seeing what they are willing to spend money on.  Coloradans are willing to spend thousands of dollars annually on ski equipment.  Icelanders are willing to spend money on a warm wool sweater.

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Reykjavik’s population is only just over 200,000 people.  In fact, the population of all of Iceland is 330,000- significantly less than every borough of New York City, even Staten Island.  Yet, it is a place that knows how to party!  The nightlife is surprisingly good- probably better than many towns 2-3 times its size!

Making up for the lack of action at 9 in the morning, festivals, shows, and clubs give locals and tourists alike plenty to do in the nighttime hours.  Iceland has been promoting tourism quite hard since the economic collapse of 2008, which hit Iceland particularly hard.  Iceland Air has been particularly active in promoting tourism, by adding direct flights to more places in both Europe and North America, possibly with the goal of becoming a preferred airport for making connections while traveling between Europe and North America.

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Looking at this map, it is hard not to imagine an executive with Iceland Air looking at at map, possibly even Risk the board game, and thinking of this grand plan to become a connecting point between the continents.

Well, it’s working.  Recently, more people talk about Reykjavik being their favorite place to make flight connections, and more and more people seem to have visited Iceland.  At this point, in Reykjavik, it is probably impossible for locals and tourists not to interact with one another in some way, especially at clubs and shows.

After hours of partying, all of a sudden it is 4 AM.  Many clubs still have lines to get in!

At 5 AM, on the streets, music can still be heard coming from multiple directions.  In fact, by this hour, it almost becomes easier to find a place to eat than it was at 9 AM on Thursday morning.

Sometime in the next few hours, the blurry memory of a fun filled night fades into the next morning, likely to be delayed through at least part of that lengthy twilight period.  In my particular case, it faded into the realization that it is now noon, and Millions of New Yorkers (where the local time is 7 A.M.), despite the time difference, have woken up before me on the other side of the Atlantic!

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I only spent four days in Iceland.  I do not know the full extent of life in this nearly arctic city of Reykjavik.  I only know what I experience in this short period of time, where I did the best I could to experience the local culture.  Regardless, it does appear quite different from any place I have ever been.

 

 

A Fancier Ski Experience

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There are plenty of things that make skiing at Beaver Creek Resort different from pretty much anywhere I have ever skied.  As soon as I walk into the ski village, I am greeted by the resort’s staff in an extremely friendly manner.  The friendliness of the staff reminds me of the few times I had visited high priced golf resorts, and was greeted by staff offering to wipe down my clubs after a round of golf.  In a away, right from the get-go I feel like I am not at a typical ski resort, but somewhat of a country club of ski resorts.

After this, as is the case with most other resorts, I walk through a ski village to get to the lifts.  However, at Beaver Creek, this walk involves getting on a series of elevators, something I have yet to see anywhere else I have ever skied.

In addition to the elevators, Starbucks coffee and other amenities in the village, every day at 3:00 P.M., cookies are brought out to guests at the main village — for free!  In fact, on days that are less busy, staff will come out with trays of cookies and often hand guests two cookies at a time!  Last time I visited this resort, I ended up eating 4 cookies!

It’s easy to build up an appetite for those cookies here.  In addition to the standard type of ski runs that one finds at many of the other mountains in the area, the resort has some interesting areas that are both unique and challenging.

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First off, some of the steepest terrain can be found here, particularly for “groomed” trails. I use the term “groomed” loosely here, as when most people think of a groomed ski trail, they think of one that had been groomed recently, often with marks from the recent grooming.

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(Note: This particular image was taken at Keystone Resort)

This is some of the easiest terrain to ski on, a there are no small obstacles to take a skier off course, and the snow has been churned up by the groomers to make stopping relatively easier.  However, once the snow is pushed away, either by numerous skiers making turns on the trail, or by strong winds, the conditions become much more challenging, as they can get icy, making stopping more difficult.  This seems to be the case every time I go to the steepest part of Beaver Creek ski resort; areas called Grouse Mountain and Birds of Prey.

Birds of Prey is where the 2015 World Championships were held.  I had heard that this was the fastest ski trail in the State of Colorado, and that they actually purposely make the trail icier for competition.  I knew it would be scary to ski here, but I wanted to have the experience of actually skiing on a trail that professional skiers compete on.

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The trail certainly was icy (or “race surfaced”)!  I actually fell three times trying to get down this course, and apparently, although I could hardly imagine skiing on a surface any icier than this one, it wasn’t even as icy as it is during an actual competition.  I would later be reminded, by the friendly staff at one of the ski lifts that of the 36 contestants that entered the World Championships here, only 15 finished, the other 21 fell in some sort of way!

Due to it’s relatively lower base, at 7400′, Beaver Creek Resort is home to a significant amount of aspen glades.  By this I mean skiing through the trees, as can be done at pretty much any major ski resort worldwide, but rather than skiing through the pine and evergreen trees that are common at elevations from 9,000 to 12,000 feet (which is where a lot of the skiing at the other Central Colorado resorts is done), skiing through Aspen trees, which are more common at elevations closer to 8,000 feet.  Skiing in the Aspens offers a somewhat different tree skiing experience, primarily due to Aspen trees having significantly less branches.

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Discussion of Beaver Creek can be somewhat polarizing (although there is something polarizing about every resort in Central Colorado).  Beaver Creek is slightly farther away from Denver than Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, and Vail.  This means that the resort can often be slightly less crowded, but also means that most people who decide to visit this resort must consciously decide to drive past those other resorts.  Some people find the interesting experience, the unique amenities, cookies and special treatment worth the extra travel (and extra money).  Others don’t.

 

As an EPIC Season Pass holder, the money does not factor into the equation.  It is pretty much only the travel and opportunity cost.  Every time I come to Beaver Creek, I process the experience hoping to come to some kind of major interesting revelation about what makes some people chose the activities they do when they do.  In the end, all I actually end up thinking about is how much different the experience is than the experience I get at other resorts in the area, even Vail which is known to be a pretty fancy place in it’s own respect.

When I think about the people I ski with on a regular basis, I see a spectrum of attitudes, related to skiing, as there is with any activity.  On one side, there are the people who like to find something they like and stick to it.  These are the people who would be content to buy a pass to one resort, find their one favorite neighborhood bar, or have a standard order at a specific restaurant that they order every time.  These are the people who just want to enjoy the activity, and, know something they already enjoy, so feel no need to keep searching for something else.  On the other side are people who are always looking for variety, and always looking to mix things up.  People on this side of the spectrum can get bored going to the same places repeatedly even if they are incredible experiences.  In reality, almost everyone fits somewhere between these two extremes I describe.  I wonder, though, if for some people, particularly those who live in the area and ski somewhere in Central Colorado almost every weekend, if visiting Beaver Creek is a way to mix things up, doing something different, and ensuring that we get that variety in our experiences.  That may be what motivates many people to drive by Keystone, drive by Copper Mountain, and finally drive by Vail and come here to Beaver Creek.