Survival in Svalbard.
With all the grace of a beached seal, I throw my leg over the snowmobile for the very first time – ahead of me lies 200km of Arctic tundra – I can’t help wondering if this time I really have bitten off more than I can chew!
I’m in Longyearbyen, Svalbard, 1,200 km north of the Arctic Circle and about to set off on a two-day expedition to the abandoned Russian mining town of Pyramiden.
A hundred years of coal mining has not been kind to Longyearbyen – it has an unattractive, industrial look. The valley walls above the town are scarred by weathered wooden pylons that once carried coal from the mines to the port.
These days, just one Norwegian coal mine remains active, providing enough coal to feed the local power station that heats the town.
But 50km to the west, lies the Russian settlement of Barentsberg, here coal is still mined but the amount they extract is minimal – causing many to question the real reason for such a established Russian presence on Svalbard.
Given the strategic geopolitical position of the archipelago, (although demilitarised under the Svalbard Treaty) and the as yet untapped wealth of offshore natural resources, there could well be ulterior motives – but sure who doesn’t love a gripping spy story set in the frozen tundra?
Since 1922, Svalbard has been administered under Norwegian law and regulated by the Svalbard Treaty which provide citizens of the 45 signatory states with specific rights to residence and commercial activity.
Ireland signed the Treaty in 1925 – the most recent country to sign in 2016 was, wait for it… North Korea!
But this is no ordinary place, located 1,200 km north of the Arctic Circle and less than 1,000 km from the North Pole, this is one of the most inhospitable environments on earth.
Running along its streets, there’s an ugly network of service pipes, drains and cables that have to sit above the perma-frost, the architecture is pre-fabricated and bland. In general, windows are pretty useless here – during winter it’s completely dark, so no light gets in. Then during summer, the sun never sets, so the windows are blocked up to stop the light getting in!
The bank in Longyearbyen is probably the only bank in the world where you can walk wearing a ski-mask and carrying a loaded rifle and the teller will just nod at you.
Outside the settlement there are no roads as environmental protection is paramount – here on Svalbard, the flowers have more rights than people!
The Pyramiden expedition is run by Arctic Travel Company Grumant, the tourism wing of Russian mining giant Trust Arcticugol who own the mine at Pyramiden and also Barrentsberg, 50 km to the west.
Our group is just four people; our guide from Russia, Daniil, who has been guiding for 5 years – Lorne and Claire a Scottish couple from Oban and me! Lorne and Claire are both very experienced skidoo drivers (best said in a thick west-highland accent) and have covered thousands of miles in the Yukon in all kinds of conditions over the last 15 years.
In the warm comfort of the Russki Dom Guest House, I listen intently to the safety briefing over coffee and cake before we go brought downstairs to get suited and booted. Although it’s bright sunshine outside, the temperature is still a face freezing -27°c, but when hitting speeds in excess of 60 kph on these skidoos, the wind-chill factor drops the temperature to well below -40°c, so wearing the correct kit is not just a matter of comfort, it’s a matter of survival!
Starting with the feet, here’s what I’m wearing:
Finest grade Marino wool socks with thick smart-wool socks on top. Icebreaker Marino leggings, thick fleece leggings then light windproof leggings. Upper body has Icebreaker Marino long sleeve top with a heavy fleece on top of that. Then a Columbia Whisper Creek jacket and a North Face Thermoball hooded jacket. On my hands I have a thin pair of Marino gloves under Sealskin gloves under Dakine Diablo Gore-Tex mittens and on my head a thick Marino balaclava. I can hardly move!
This is the kit I brought with me, then Grumant give us the heavy stuff! A heavy insulated snow survival suit that weighs a much as the aforementioned beached seal, honestly, the material is so thick on this thing, I suspect it’s bullet proof! Also a pair of thick Baffin snow boots and enormous leather gauntlets topped off with a full-face helmet with two visors, one tinted, one clear!
We then get winched outside to meet our skidoos!
My 600cc Lynx Commander looks well capable of carrying this particular Mr. Blobby, which is reassuring. Daniil our guide takes me through the controls – including the ubiquitous red button – “Don’t touch the red button Dougal”!
Between Longyearbyen and Pyramiden, there’s nothing but Arctic tundra, glaciers and sea-ice. We’ll get plenty of time to acquaint ourselves with the machines on the long flat valleys that lead us out of the settlement before reaching the glacier system.
‘Apprehensive’ doesn’t really cover the range of emotions rampaging through my head right now!
So the four of us set off, each on our own skidoo but Daniil tows a sled carrying essential survival equipment, food water and fuel. Speeding out of Longyearbyen, the sky is clear and we have bright sunshine, which is a huge relief as the weather for the previous couple of days has been white-out – this is now my first opportunity to see the actual topography of Spitzbergen.
Within minutes of leaving the settlement we are in another world. An extraordinary world of pure white. Beneath the crystal clear blue sky everything is white, the valleys, the ground, the distant peaks – and of course, one of the greatest predators on earth.
They say there are more Polar Bears than people on Svalbard. In the town, the schools are caged by 4 meter high metal fences and from a very early age, the kids take part in weekly Polar Bear drills. Out on the ice, the threat is very real.
Each time we stop and dismount our skidoos, our guide automatically moves the rifle from slung over his shoulder to carried in both hands – reassuring momentarily, until the penny drops! You really don’t want to get too close to one of these beasts that can weigh as much as 500kg and stand over 3 meters tall!
After an hour of high-speed driving we reach the the glacier system and snake our way through the moraine and incredible ice statues. Then we begin the climb up on to the enormous glacier plateau that stretches north for hundreds of kilometres. For the next 6 or 7 hours we face rock-hard sastrugi (wind-blown snow, frozen in a solid wave pattern) which significantly slows our progress.
After a couple of hours we stop for some lunch, the silence is deafening – other than the gentle ticking of the engines cooling down, there is nothing. There is nothing here no trees, no shrubs, no wildlife – just a vast emptiness.
Daniil spreads out lunch on the back of the sled while I take a couple of photos. The scenery is breath-taking but, despite the bright sunshine, it’s cold, bitterly cold – I was warned by local photographer Kai Müller not to take off my inner gloves when taking photos as it only takes a moment before you start to loose feeling in your fingers.
Any kind of photography in this harsh environment is difficult. First, I have to remove my full-face helmet as I can’t see through the camera’s viewfinder with the helmet on. Then I remove three layers of gloves (keeping inner gloves on) so that I can access the camera bag and operate the camera. Then take off my camera pack, unzip and remove the camera, select the appropriate lens and attach. Find a good composition and shoot off as many frames as possible before you feel your fingers starting to go numb – too late, the numbness started before I even got the camera out of the bag!
For the next two hours I’m convinced I have frost-bite, three fingers on my right hand have no feeling at all but there’s no stopping to have a look – we must push on.
To this day I still get a numbness in those fingers, so clearly there was a bit of frost damage – I was warned!
It’s worth pointing out for those that have never been on a skidoo, that these are mighty clever machines with heated hand and throttle grips, and just as well or I may well have lost a finger or two. They also vent hot engine air at your feet to keep the blood flowing to your toes.
Hour after hour of slow back-jarring progress over the sastrugi ice, before we eventually begin the descent down off the glacier system towards Pyramiden as the sun begins to set.
Weather conditions change in a flash as we make our descent. A vicious katabatic wind whips up out of nowhere, kicking up a blizzard of loose powder snow that reduces visibility to just a few meters.
In these conditions, I struggle to keep sight of the tail-light in front of me. The golden rule is if you get separated, you just stop and stay exactly where you are. The guide will use his GPS to retrace his track to find you. Not wanting to put this theory to the test, I’m in no need of motivation to keep up!
On the flat sea-ice below and out of the wind, we have less than 20km to go to Pyramiden, so we pick up speed again. But after only a few kilometres the edge of the sea-ice and the cold Arctic water loom in to view so Daniil urgently signals for us to head to the shore but to keep the speed up – we’ve no idea how thick the ice is! At this time of year, the sea-ice should have taken us all the way to Pyramiden, but the thaw has come much earlier than usual this year.
A steep snow covered slope rises up sharply to our right with the open sea immediately to our left. We pick a very tight, twisting path along the shore among the rocks and ice.
But suddenly we encounter a major problem! A recent avalanche has deposited thousands of tons of snow and rock in our path – there’s no way through! We are less than 5 km from our destination!
Not wanting to wait around in the path of a recent avalanche, Daniil signals for us to turn our skidoos around and we retrace our path along the shore.
We will have to take an alternative route through the mountains to approach Pyramiden from the west. This will add 60km to our journey – it’s almost dark.
After more than an hour slowly climbing up through a wide valley, we reach a steep, snowy pass between two peaks and Daniil signals for us to wait as he tackles the slope with the sledge carrying spare fuel cans and supplies.
Halfway up he gets stuck, the sledge is too heavy. Not only that but the track of skidoo has dug deep in to the snow – it takes us half an hour to dig it out before he tries again, same result. So we reduce the weight on the sledge by re-fueling our four skidoos and leave the other four full cans of fuel in the snow to be collected tomorrow.
Next attempt, he makes it. With a bit of coaching and encouragement from Lorne and Claire, I also make it – it’s surely all downhill from here?
We descend for a kilometre or two then Daniil stops and is looking up at a huge steep snow wall to our right, several times higher than the one we just climbed – but much, much steeper – we’ve got to get over this one too?
We watch Daniil as he makes several attempts, but the sledge is still too heavy, he deposits more equipment and finally makes it to the top at the third attempt.
Claire makes short work of the steep slope and I marvel at the agility of these machines. It appears as though they could climb a vertical wall if you have the right technique – I don’t, it’s my turn now and I’m crapping myself!
Things start to go wrong from the outset. With a heavy camera bag on my back I don’t transfer my weight enough to the hill side, less than a quarter of the way up the skidoo starts pulling to the left and I’m powerless to stop it.
In a flash the machine rolls towards the valley and I throw myself clear.
Fortunately the skidoo settles after just one roll rather than crashing to the valley – the only damage appears to be a smashed windscreen.
Lorne arrives to check I’m OK, then he and Daniil right the stricken skidoo and get it started. I climb on hands and knees to a small plateau about 100 meters further up lungs burning in the rarefied atmosphere – climbing this steep slope in deep snow is so difficult wearing all this survival clothing, not to mention the heavy camera bag – Daniil drives the skidoo up to me.
Attempt number two, same thing only this time when the skidoo rolls, I manage to get my leg trapped beneath it – this is really not a good place to break a leg – but Daniil and Lorne are there quickly and manage to lift the skidoo enough to let me roll free.
I’m not happy, way out of my comfort zone – but out here in the wilderness, giving up is not an option. You can’t just press the pause button and go and put the kettle on – in simple terms, you complete your journey or you die!
I’m spent – weird stuff is running around my head – is this my life flashing before me?
I look up, suddenly there appear to be two guides in their bright orange survival suits – am I hallucinating?
No – 20 kilometres down the valley in Pyramiden, one of the other guides had been following our progress on the satellite spot tracker and realised that something must be wrong as we had been stationary for hours, so he set out to investigate.
At this point I’m physically and mentally drained, so the new guide (and my new best friend) drives me to the top of the snow slope on the back of his much more powerful skidoo – Daniil’s machine would not have managed the incline with two of us on board. Daniil follows with my damaged skidoo then runs back down the slope for his. He and Lorne arrive at the top, we continue our way down to Pyramiden. This time it is all downhill!
14 hours after leaving Longyearbyen, we arrive in Pyramiden – it should have taken less than half that time.
Arriving in Pyramiden was like some kind of surreal dream. After 14 hours in the wilderness with absolutely no sign of any kind of human life, we arrive in what appears to be a large town – but there’s no one here, the place is completely abandoned.
One of the old concrete dormitory buildings is slowly being converted in to a hotel, as we pull up in front, the drab solid block of a building looks very imposing and uninviting. We park the skidoos and trudge up the steps and through the swinging doors – it’s like walking in to a sauna – the first blast of warm air we have felt all day.
In the boot room we discard our survival suits and hang everything up to thaw and dry. Then we are directed in to the dining room for (a very late) supper.
The dining room is vast, it would easily sit 200 or more, and has clearly seen better times. The over detailed filigreed decor is a suffocating palate of crimson reds, yellows and browns – although a lot of that could have been nicotine!
A noisy group of Russians sit a few tables away drinking vodka and by the sounds of things, they’ve been at it for a while. The hotel manager brings plates of food to our table and for the next hour, more plates keep arriving. I drink every jug of water I can get my hands on and slowly my metabolism begins to stabilise. The noisy Russians insist we join them for a few vodkas and even none of us can understand each other, their good humour is infectious.
I can’t get my head around this – a couple of hours earlier I was fighting for survival in -45°C on the side of a mountain in the high Arctic. Now here I am drinking vodka and thawing east/west relations with a bunch or rowdy Russians in what could easily be mistaken for some dive of a bar in downtown Murmansk! You’ve got to love what life throws at you sometimes.
The next morning after a very, very good night’s sleep we are treated to an hearty breakfast before taking a tour of the old mining town. If you would like to read a bit more about the story of Pyramiden, I have another blog post here.
A couple of hours later we have lunch and then it’s time for us to leave and start the 200km journey back over the ice to Longyearbyen. The weather has closed in and the light is flat, so reading the terrain becomes much more difficult. Photo opportunities are minimal, so we push on.
Every 50 km or so we stop to stretch the legs and 7 hours later under cover of darkness, we arrive back in Longyearbyen, absolutely exhausted.
Lorne and Claire both told me afterwards, that this was one of the toughest skidoo expeditions they had ever undertaken – and they’ve been at this a long time.
This was an amazing adventure, a lot more extreme than I had bargained for, but out in the wilds things go wrong and you have to be prepared – I wasn’t and I’ve got to learn from that! There’s an expression in the world of wilderness travel that I never fully understood: “the deeper you get, the deeper you get” – I get it now. I had moments of serious self-doubt, but without the constant calm reassurance from Lorne and Claire, I quite possibly wouldn’t have made it back.
If you ever get the chance to visit Svalbard, do. It’s is one of the toughest, unforgiving environments on earth – but boy is it beautiful.