Leifur Turns 50: A Conversation

Leifur one of Icelandic Mountain Guides founder hiking in a forrest

Leifur Örn Svavarsson is one of our founders and one of the most experienced mountain guides in Iceland. This week, Leifur turns 50 and to celebrate, we want to tell you a little bit about who he is, and some of the epic adventures he has under his belt and some of the lessons he has learned along the way.

I caught up with Leifur in a spare moment (there aren’t many) before a trip to one of the Everest base camps (wow!) and asked him a few questions. Here it is, from the horse’s mouth.

By Joseph Hall

You have accomplished some amazing journeys in your life. How did you discover your passion for adventure?

If I look back to my roots as a child, I see the bookshelf in my home as a mule source of inspiration. What I find amazing in these books is that there is something like Gaston Rébuffat climbing the the south face of of the Aiguille du Midi, explaining mountaineering techniques and even as a child to see him hanging from the cliffs and with this astonishing view, that was the thing that I found amazing. The same with sailboats: sailing around the world and explorers and such things, I found it amazing.

Don't worry about tour friends or society or Facebook status’ or what is admirable to do. Find the drive, and take small steps.

What was your first journey where you finished and you thought “I need more”?

We bought a 4-wheel drive car when I was 17, even before I had a licence and we were driving to Skaftafell National Park, staying in a tent and hiking the peaks in the areas like Hrjútsfjallstindar. When we came into Skaftafell again and we met with the elite team of Icelandic climbers, telling them that we had to retreat. They just laughed us out of the room. Later, when they heard where we had actually been, they were really surprised. We were hilariously equipped during these first adventures.

How did you come to build a company around adventure travel?

We wanted to break new ground and discover new trekking routes that are just brilliant, and they are. They have proven themselves through the years, such as the route between Núpsstaðarskógur to Skaftafell. We wanted to do something new and more technically challenging, and we started the company to introduce a greater diversity in mountaineering in Iceland. We were completely blind of what was lying ahead.

Leifur Örn Svavarsson climbing on a mountin

The core business for the company is glacier walks. How did that start?

We knew it had been done in some other countries. But the biggest challenge was convincing people that glacier walking could be a mainstream activity. Nobody thought it was possible. Everybody thought we were crazy. We set a target that 10% of tourists coming to Iceland would walk on a glacier, so we were aiming high already. It's quite shocking when you compare it year-to-year.

Leifur Örn Svavarsson at the end of the expedition on the South Pole on a tour with Icelandic Mountain Guides

What has been your greatest achievement?

What to say? To be able to convince my wife to stay with me all these years, and even with all these long journeys and time away from home.

Leifur and Sigrún standing by a glacier lake

What is the greatest challenge you have experienced in your career?

To make the decision on Everest, to raise the finance to be able to go, building up the company with a lot of extra working hours and a family and kids. To say: I’m going to spend an enormous amount of money on journey which, by the statistics, shows that there is a high chance I will never return. To take this decision is ridiculous, and very selfish. To establish the money, to be able to go, and start the expedition, for me this has been much harder than the actual expedition.

Were you ever in any danger?

Many that have died on the mountain have not been removed. There are just sitting there, many of them have been there for for years, some of them are fresh: they are a constant reminder that this is a dangerous act, to go above 8000 m, [known in mountaineering as “the death zone”, where the air has less oxygen than is necessary to sustain life, which means that you are quite literally dying]. They almost certainly planned to return home. You are in danger, even if you feel good and everything is working out well.

Many times, I had to turn back. I had to turn back from Denali [highest peak in North America, 6190 m/20310 ft] one hour from the summit and we were getting too tired and didn't have the energy to deal with it. I returned from the Vinson Massif [highest peak in Antarctica, 4892 m/16090 ft] 100 vertical meters from the summit also. You have to know when enough is enough, and when to turn back.

The summit of Mt:Everest, covered in Nepalese prayer flags.

Could you put into words what it’s like to stand on the summit of mount Everest?

I had brilliant weather on my summiting, I was able to go with only finger gloves through all the technical parts to get up through the summit pyramid. I had the zipper open, I could see the summit. I came up through the jet wind. I realised: “I am here, I made it”. I was a little bit surprised.

We were just two of us, my Sherpa and I. We took a picture, put the oxygen mask back on again (it froze, and I cleared the ice), and then down within 20 minutes from reaching the summit. There was a long day ahead. Losing altitude again after coming down off the ridge, getting down below 7000 m and realizing yes, I am probably going to make it, and then just heating water and relaxing at the end of the day.

Leifur Örn Svavarsson on top of Mt Everest

We were just two of us, my Sherpa and I. I cleaned the ice from the mask, took a picture, put the oxygen mask back on again, and then down within 20 minutes from reaching the summit. There was a long day ahead.

What advice would you give young and aspiring adventurers today?

Take one step at a time, and enjoy what you are doing, not being dragged by the wish to have done something. Go with the right motive, don't worry about your friends or society or Facebook status’ or what is admirable to do. Find the drive, and take small steps.

The view from the top of Mt Everest over the nearest mountains and valleys

What is your next journey? Where are you going next?

I am lucky enough to have lots of next adventures. Some are certain, some not so much. I will summit Lenin Peak in winter conditions in the autumn, so there will be a lot on interesting stories. Then, I will be home for Christmas, then heading to to Kilimanjaro in February and then a short vacation with my wife, a short 90 km ski race in Sweden. The race will be a new experience, I hope I wont get flagged out!

There are some Heli-skiing plans [this is when you jump out of a helicopter and immediately start skiing down], the Inca Trail in April, then a private expedition in Greenland with some the strong mountaineers in Greenland, kite-assisted on the main glacier for about 5/6 weeks.

Then I need to work on my garden. It needs some attention. At the end of June, I have booked the 13th for some first ascents in Greenland, I am also going to plan an expedition in Peru. If there is a request for the North Pole, then we will have to try to fit that in.

Leifur Örn and his Sherpa climbing Mt Everest

About the Author

Joseph Mattos-Hall

Joseph Mattos-Hall

Hailing from London and born into a British/Brazilian/Italian household, Joseph came to Iceland originally to complete a master’s degree in Environment and Natural Resources from the University of Iceland: the rest is history.

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