“You know that’s why we’re called ‘Eleven’,” Jack Griffiths said from the head of a long, rustic dinner table, the snowy peaks of Iceland’s Tröllaskagi (Troll Peninsula) framed in floor-to-ceiling windows behind him. Griffiths, aka Griff, a bearded, barrel-chested, man-bunned Welshman and guide with adventure outfit Eleven Experience, was explaining the provenance of the company’s name. It refers to that scene from This is Spinal Tap, the satirical rock documentary in which the big-haired guitarist shows off an amplifier whose dial registers one notch above 10 – it goes up to 11. That’s the credo of Eleven Experience, Griff was saying: awesome, and then some. “Also,” he added, “11 is when you get two perfect skis going down a hill.”
Skiing and the promise of something epic is what lured me last spring to the Troll, a mountainous, mitten‑shaped peninsula in the north of Iceland. The peaks here, cut up by deep, glacier-carved valleys and fjords, are of modest height – few surpass 1,500m above sea level – but the vertical descents can be nearly 1,000m, some all the way to the black volcanic shoreline. During the busiest months of the ski season (April and May) the stable coastal snowpack offers some of the best and most reliable corn snow anywhere, and the Arctic sun stays aloft until close to midnight, making it possible to ski after dinner.
The Troll has emerged as an exciting new frontier on the slopes, owing to local helicopter skiing companies that have begun opening up the peninsula’s untracked interior. Last April, Eleven – which operates a growing portfolio of exclusive lodges around the world centred on fishing and skiing, including in the Bahamas, France and Colorado – staked its claim with Deplar Farm, a 3,000-acre property nestled in a remote valley on the site of a former sheep ranch.
The 12-room lodge is a two‑hour drive along the Arctic coastline from Akureyri (in a chauffeured Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 4x4). Its plain wood façade and turf roof – in the manner of a traditional farmhouse – would pass as indigenous, if it weren’t for the AStar helicopter parked outside (guests can also hire choppers for the transfer). The light and airy interior is undeniably upscale, yet unpretentious, with pale oak floors, Danish modernist-inspired furniture, and tasteful decorative flourishes by Icelandic artists. The logic seems to be: why upstage the majestic views? Shortly after arriving, I acquainted myself with the spa, a spacious wing with blue-stone floors, cement walls and large windows. I opted to save the purple-glowing flotation pods and steam room for another day, and instead posted up at the outdoor saltwater pool bar for charcuterie and cocktails with fellow guests, who included a London credit trader and a mortgage broker from Hawaii.
Everyone showed up to dinner that night in a spa bathrobe. One guest suggested it, and the guides encouraged it – such is the loose dress code at Deplar, which fosters the feeling of a private clubhouse. The meal was served around one long table; delicious, artfully prepared scallops and local lamb, home-baked bread and heaps of rich Icelandic butter. After dessert, Alan Bernholtz, Eleven’s director of experience development and its self-described “head of the department of good times”, asked the table, “Where are we going? Karaoke? Bar? Hot tub?”
Eleven’s “eleven-ness” reflects the gusto of its owner, Chad Pike, a London-based American who is also senior managing director of investment firm Blackstone Group. “He challenges us all the time: ‘Why not? Why can’t we do that? Let’s take it to the next level,’” Bernholtz told me. Why not, for instance, ferry departing guests across Iceland by chopper, taking them on ski runs down glaciers and volcanoes and alighting at waterfalls along the way, before dropping them off at the international airport near Reykjavík? Wouldn’t it be awesome to convert a fishing boat into a bar and Jacuzzi and install it on the grass beside the lodge? Why can’t they build a hobbit-style, turf-covered sauna outdoors? (They did.) “If Pike’s into it, we’ll do it,” Bernholtz said.
After breakfast the following morning – fruit, chia‑seed pudding, made-to-order eggs – we suited up for skiing. It was 4ºC and clear. The helicopter lifted off the grassy field surrounding the lodge and within minutes deposited us atop a broad, snowy ridgeline, the Greenland Sea glistening beyond an adjacent peak. Bernholtz wasted little time leading us into a wide, treeless bowl, banking turns down 2,000 vertical feet of buttery, granular corn that only turned sloppy towards the bottom. Over the course of the next seven hours – stopping only for an impromptu lunch of lentil and feta salad in an isolated snow basin – we skied whatever looked good to Bernholtz from the passenger seat: mellow chutes, open faces. It all belonged to us – 4,500sq km. Some lines had never been skied. One run petered out at a babbling stream that was so close to a farm I could smell manure.
“Down days” are a reality of heli-skiing: you’re lucky if conditions allow four out of six days on the mountain. During the week I visited, I got only that first one. (Deplar includes an hour of flying time per day, with any leftover time used on subsequent days.) The lodge has a snowcat, however, so guests can get ski turns even on windy days. One breezy afternoon, we strapped our equipment to snowmobiles, drove up to a snowy basin above an adjacent valley and ski-toured for a few hours. This being Iceland, other compelling diversions were offered: sea kayaking, whale watching, touring a coastal island inhabited by puffins and soaking in thermal springs.
There’s also medieval weaponry forged by a Colorado metalsmith for Viking-inspired high jinks, a full-band musical kit setup above the bar, and an outlandish costume party for dinner one night – toys offered by Deplar that enable adults to time-travel back to the utopia (and antics) of university. But Pike wanted a place to which he could take his family too. The Troll offers plenty of advanced intermediate skiing and there are miles of Nordic trails; non-skiers and kids can ride horses, take wildlife and cultural excursions, play laser tag and try mellower activities in the summer such as blueberry picking and hiking. Pike also hopes to offer sailing on a nearby lake, as well as an après-ski joint at an abandoned ranch in the next valley.
On my last day, rather than drive back to Akureyri’s airport, Bernholtz offered me and a few other departing guests the “Eleven” transfer. We choppered across north Iceland’s scarred and barren earth, landing beside a lava field. Bernholtz seemed giddy – one senses Eleven’s guides are living their dream but letting guests in on the fun. I soon shared in his delight: 6m below the surface – an easy scramble down a narrow crevice – lay an inconspicuous pool of warm, turquoise water, a hidden natural hot spring. We bathed silently in this fantastical nook of Middle-earth, far off the beaten tourist path. Not long after, we landed on the airport tarmac beside our Icelandair flight to Reykjavík. Our hair was not even dry.