Sunday, January 11, 2015


9:30 am

Crossing the border

Sólarkaffi is the celebration of the return of the sun. This tradition is still taken very seriously in the Westfjords, though I‘ve heard that it‘s died out in other parts of Iceland. During the darkest months of the year (Dec/Jan) the height of the mountains surrounding Ísafjörður prevent the low winter sun from shining directly into town. After two months of living in the shadows, seeing the first rays of sunshine appear on the mountaintops is a really big deal. And it’s even bigger when the first tentacles of light actually hit your face or shine in your window. January 25 is the day the first sunlight briefly hits the street appropriately named Sólgata. Assuming there is a clear sky that day. Sólarkaffi is officially held sometime near that date and is celebrated with thin pancakes and jam, and of course, coffee. But each family celebrates in it‘s own way at it‘s own time. Some drive out to relatives in the countryside where the sun might appear a few days or weeks earlier. 

The groundhog sees its shadow
Today is only January 11th and for a few days now, the first rays of sun could already be seen on the mountaintops. It will be a good two weeks before these rays reach town, but Angela and I are eager to feel the warmth on our faces. It’s Sunday and we can spend the whole day outdoors. Already at 9:30 I can see it’s going to be a beautiful day. The big moon hangs low over the mountains over Seljalandsdalur, where we plan to sled and hike today. More importantly, we want to hike to the sun. That means climbing really high up into the mountains. 

We head out at 11am. Strangely there are a lot of people out for a Sunday morning, making the best of the beautiful day. Crispy cold, the snow crunches underfoot. It’s about -10°C/14°F up in the mountains. But absolutely no wind. Just before the ski hut we see a small white van parked, from Borea. They have a group of about 8 skiers slowly hiking zig zag up the mountain towards the sun. Later we watch them woosh down on skis, and then do it all over again. Another guy parks his jeep and takes out skis. He’s chatty and we talk to him again later up on the slope. We hike way above the cross country ski area, which is still in darkness. We keep our nose towards the sun and hike and hike, pulling our sleds behind us. It’s hard work, and I ‘m soaked in sweat, but standing still for just a few minutes is too cold. There’s a layer of about 15 cm of powdery dry snow and beneath it ice. It’s easier to follow the snowmobile tracks as far as possible. 

A friendly skier
My cell phone rings. It’s Matta the neighbor asking if I want to join their family for sólarkaffi! They’re driving out into the countryside to the family farm where the sun already shines in the kitchen window. Ah well, I appreciate the invite, but couldn’t get off this mountain quick enough to join them. Besides, I’m having a good ol’ time here anyway.

Reaching the sun occurs gradually. First I can see a faint outline of my shadow, which gets stronger with each step I climb. Finally I’m in the sun, it reflects off the white of the snow, I’m squinting and my eyes are running and the light feels so good. I can feel my skin soaking up all the vitamin E. But at this elevation it’s certainly not warm! In fact, it’s freezing but I don’t care. I use my sled as a seat and just sit and close my eyes and bask in the light. Angela keeps climbing higher but we’re already hanging on a steep incline, and my feet can hardly keep grip on the slippery slopes. At this height, the wind blows away any loose snow and what’s left is a layer of ice, worn and packed hard from the wind. 

After basking in the sun for as long as possible, we need to get moving to warm up again. We try and sled straight down but it’s slow going in the powdery stuff. We sled all the way back into town, even going up and down some hills a few extra times for more thrills. By now our feet are freezing cold. By the time I get home, every bone in my body aches. We were out 4 hours. I haven’t played that long in the snow since I was a kid.