Icelands Arctic Shores

Skogafoss one of Iceland's most iconic waterfalls. photo: cody tuttle

Imagine walking along a black sand beach covered in fragments of glacial ice yielded from a glacier covering an active volcano. Now imagine that you could fly along these sea shores, land at the local beachside café, and enjoy a nice cold one.  I would have never planned a flying trip to Iceland, but after spending a week in this magical country I would beg to differ.  After spending 2 weeks filming with X-Alps pilot Dave Turner and his adventure partner Malcolm Wood in Chamonix, I decided to make a week long stop in Iceland.  Coming from Europe where we were filming speed riding on Mt. Blanc and making not one but several flights of a lifetime I already had my paraglider and mini wing packed and ready to go.  Not knowing what to expect out of Iceland I was eager to get there and start exploring the flyable terrain on this seemingly mythical island.

When I first landed in Reykjavik, I had to make sure I was in the right country.  When you take a look at the placement of Iceland on a map, it leaves you feeling like you have traveled to outer space.  My lack of research only left me with visual impressions of lush green landscapes and raging waterfalls.  It has become the most hip place to travel to for the Instagram generation of photographers today.  However, I was confronted with a social contrast that left you feeling like you were in a cold war stricken town somewhere in Eastern Europe.  Waiting in the airport for my bags to arrive, I truly had no idea what I was getting myself into, and that’s how I typically travel; flying by the seat of my pants without an itinerary.  This often leads to the greatest adventures, but can leave you stranded in a strange country with no idea on where to go.  The focus of this trip was to tick off as many beautiful landscape photo opportunities as possible. As an adventure photographer, I was in dire need to bolster my portfolio with more than just extreme sports and expedition photos. I needed to harness my inner Ansel Adams and create landscape images that I could be proud of. A week layover in Iceland seemed like the perfect habitat for a novice landscape photographer to grow.  Or so I hoped.

I was joined on this trip by Canadian photographer Chris Harder. He had spent some time in Iceland before and was itching to get back to explore more of its landscapes.  We set off in our little rental car stuffed to the gills with all my bags from my previous shoot in Chamonix and started down the road. However, soon after driving out of town, we stopped to photograph a waterfall. Looking over to the sloping hill by the falls, I noticed that there was easy access to get above the waterfall, with wind blowing in perfectly up the hill. Duffel bags full of winter camping gear exploded in the back seat as I dug around to find my mini wing.  The topography and weather in Iceland is dramatic and quickly changing by the minute. If it’s not raining there is a good chance you will find a flyable summit or ridge within an hour’s drive.  I had only been in the country for 3 hours as I packed up my 4lb mini wing and started up what would be my first hike and fly on the island.  Barely able to keep my eyes open on the drive, I quickly found a new sense of energy as I hiked along the ridge passing waterfalls and sheep grazing on the tall green grass that covered the slope.  It felt like I was walking through a story book, Where The Wild Things Are.  After finding the perfect spot, I laid out my 17m Ozone LightSpeed and clipped into my harness.  It almost felt too easy as a 5mph wind blew straight up launch. With no cameras or agenda, I stepped off on my first flight in Iceland, a flight I will remember for a lifetime. 

With trimmers out I found myself skimming along the grassy slopes as dozens of sheep scurried the hillside.  This was a much different experience as this country was not accustomed to paragliding pilots visiting the area.  Tourist and locals alike stopped their vehicles and pointed looking at me as I seemed to float down from the top of the mountain. Seeing the expression on their faces I could remember the first time I took flight. It was like nothing else I had ever experienced before.  The sense of flying is enough to make anyone feel like a kid again. We as pilots have the opportunity to experience this feeling over and over again as we continually set sail to the sky with our magic backpacks constructed of thin chords and nylon sheets.  These aircrafts are truly magical.  When you try to explain how they work you sound like a mad scientist.

Upon landing I was greeted by an Icelandic couple who were traveling in the biggest 4x4 adventure wagon I have ever seen.  They were sitting next to the stream preparing lunch and quickly asked me if I would like to join them for some fresh salmon and cheese over bread.  Thinking to myself “this might be the best meal I eat in the next week” I quickly joined.  Less than 1 day into the trip I knew this would be more than just an opportunity to create stunning imagery, but also an opportunity to share my adventure as a photographer and pilot with those I came in contact with. Just as I was taken away by the stunning landscapes of this country, the locals seemed just as interested in the life I live as an adventure photographer and athlete.

I recently got off an expedition with fellow pilot and mentor, Nick Greece, who told me about a very small yet enthusiastic paragliding community in Vik, Iceland. After sending a few emails, I drove into the town, population of 400, where I met up with Gisli Johannesson tandem instructor and owner of True Adventure Paragliding. Once arriving in Vik, I slammed down a $20 cheese burger before heading to the small hostel overlooking town where Gisli ran his paragliding operation. A group of friends gathered around a flaming sculpture I would later discover to be a homemade pizza oven.  This later became the location for my second and last hot meal of the trip.  It seemed like this was where the local flying community met daily before heading to launch, to share stories after a day of flying, and to indulge in the fine art of Pizza. The owner of the hostel also owned the land where Gisli and crew had established both east and west facing launches allowing for endless coastal soaring along a 500ft tall peninsula jutting out to the north Atlantic Ocean.  It’s not often you stumble across such a beautiful and manicured private launch with aspects facing both prominent wind directions.  The steep cliffs and jagged rocks below made for a beautifully scenic place to fly.  Only minutes later I found myself driving up a grassy goat trail to launch where I made my first real flights in Iceland. Only being days after the summer solstice, I found myself soaring the ocean cliffs late into the night as the sun set for nearly 5 hours. As we soared to the tip of the peninsula, we crossed over 3 jagged spires that watched over the shores of town like watchmen in the night. The contrast between the lush, green meadows and the black sandy beaches created a sensational flying experience like no other.  I was trying to imagine the thoughts of the tourist flying tandem with Gisli.  I have had the opportunity to fly in some of the most beautiful locations in the world and this was by far an experience I would remember forever.  It was a way to see Iceland in a way that not many people ever have. 

In my meager 18 months of becoming a paragliding pilot, the sport has taken me to some of the most beautiful and surreal landscapes on the planet. The art of free flight has allowed me to explore the world in a new way and I’ve realized that you don’t have to be sending 150 mile lines in the Eastern Sierra’s where I learned how to fly, but rather it’s about the progression of how you allow this sport to guide you through a new way of life. It has allowed me to discover new places, meet many new beautiful people and through that establish some of the closest friends I have today. Flying with some giants of this sport, I have experienced so much and been able to apprentice under the wing of incredible mentors that have helped guide me along the way.

Transitioning from a technical, and at times difficult expedition on Mt Blanc, to the breathtaking shores of Iceland, I am always amazed at how versatile this sport has become to me. It is about the discovery and new experiences rather than the site of a goal. It has allowed me to be involved in a community amongst other pilots sharing a new form of sanctity in the mountains, and has inspired me to look at the world with a fresh set of eyes, seeking the next great adventure.

If you are looking for a unique adventure be sure to check out Iceland.  Don’t count on making it a flying trip, but rather a trip to experience a country that will burn memories into your mind forever.  And if you are lucky you might make a magical flight or two.