As the helicopter lifted from the mountaintop, the blades kicked up snow, shrouding the three of us who had just piled out in a white mist as we crouched over our Wagner skis and avalanche backpacks. Minutes later, with the whirl of the helicopter fading and the snow resettled, my surroundings set in: mountains as far as I could see in every direction. I felt on top of the world. I kind of was—the almost 4,000-foot peak on the Troll Peninsula, in northwest Iceland, is mere miles from the Arctic Circle.
I’d come to heli-ski at Deplar Farm, a new addition to the Eleven Experience, a portfolio of seven high-end adventure retreats founded in 2011 by Chad Pike, a senior managing director of Blackstone Group. A lifelong outdoorsman, he’s creating world-class environments for adrenaline activities (skiing and fishing, mainly) where the family can join too. In Pike’s case, that’s his wife, Blake, who meticulously and handsomely decorates each lodge, and their four children.
I’d arrived the day before, having flown 51⁄2 hours to Reykjavík, Iceland’s capital, and then another 45 minutes up to Akureyri. From there it was a 90-minute drive (in a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 4x4) that snaked along the coast; the raw, natural beauty of a paw-shaped peninsula forged by valleys carved from glaciers and rushing rivers was on full display. Finally, down a rocky dirt road, Deplar Farm came into view. On 3,000 acres of a former sheep ranch, the black 12-room farmhouse with a living grass roof looked miniature within the surrounding towering landscape.
But back to the mountaintop. Suddenly, I felt anxious. I’m not an expert skier and I get out maybe twice a season nowadays, but I’m not a fearful skier. I relish the rush from tackling trails above my abilities. Yet as I clicked into my skis and made sure the rip cord was out on my avalanche pack, I wondered if my confidence had gotten the better of me.
I pushed off. Crisscrossing down the wide-open bowl of untracked snow, I felt I was nowhere near as capable as the two people I was with, who sped down, their skis perfectly parallel as they carved their turns. At the bottom, Alan Bernholtz, the Eleven’s Director of Experience Development, confirmed as much. “I’m shifting you to a group that’s more your speed,” he said. I reluctantly helicoptered back to the farm to meet my two new ski mates. I lay bare the bruising of my ego for anyone who thinks heli-skiing is only for the super advanced. Deplar Farm accommodates all abilities.
I finished the day skiing eight runs, never repeating, each several miles long and averaging 2,500 to 3,000 vertical feet. (The trail options are boundless across the almost 1 million acres of terrain. Whistler Heli-skiing, in Canada, by comparison, offers about half that acreage. And 20,000 vertical feet is a good day in Iceland.) I returned to the lodge giddy. In the back of the bar I sank into a beige Danish-modern-style couch and replayed my day as a thrill seeker.
The next three days should have played out similarly, but high winds brought repeated no-fly days. (I had bad luck—most get up 70 percent of their stay.) There are snowmobiles and a snowcat as backup to get guests on the slopes and nonskiing activities too. The lodge includes a spa. There are horseback riding and whale watching. And touring an island inhabited only by puffins. And soaking in a hot spring that’s reached by descending a rope into a crack in the earth.
What the staff want to hear each night is “That was the best day ever.” So there’s no limit to the lengths they’ll go. Bernholtz explained at the outset that the spirit of the guests sets the mood of the lodge. (Deplar can be booked out entirely or room by room, resulting in strangers becoming fast friends—the case with my stay.) My fellow guests followed the “ski hard, play hard” philosophy.
Après-ski in the outdoor geothermal pool with swim-up bar started around 5 p.m. and some nights went well past 9; staff are trained to replenish drinks before a guest even notices their glass is nearly empty. Shifting to the long communal table, we settled in for dinner—prepared by a private chef and locally sourced, from arctic char to, yes, horse—which was another kind of adventure: One night I found myself eating the three courses with wine pairings in a purple dinosaur costume. Then it was off to the bar, with a dartboard, karaoke machine, both pool and foosball tables, and a full-band kit for those looking to jam. It was a rollicking, raucous six best days ever.
Ski season is March to May; rooms from $1,750, heli-skiing packages from $10,000 for four days; elevenexperience.com.