Svalbard - an expedition
I must admit that I didn’t fully appreciate what I was about to embark on as I boarded the plane to Longyearbyen. I have always been drawn to the Arctic, a result of too much Jack London and Joergen Riel as a child. In a spur of moment decision, I had signed up for a five-day skiing expedition in some remote part of Svalbard and now I was on the way. The plane was quite full and I sat and watched as the other travelers boarded. It was mainly tourists and a few locals. They were easy to tell apart. The tourists were, like me, all dressed up in smart, brand-new trekking gear and thick jackets. The locals on the other hand were wearing sneakers and jeans. One guy was in a t-shirt and shorts but it was after all also a sweltering 9 C in Oslo.
The plane ride up to the northernmost town in
the world was only a couple of hours.
The weather was clear and there was a full view of the snow-covered islands as
we came in to land. The
cold air hit us as soon as the door was opened. The difference between Sri Lanka which
I current call home and Svalbard was a staggering 45 C, and I could feel it!
To say that Longyearbyen international airport is small would be an understatement. It is tiny and probably the smallest international airport I have ever been to.
Escaping the cold outside we came into the combined departure/arrival area where we were greeted by a massive stuffed polar bear guarding the luggage belt. I got my bag and went out to catch the bus. I had read somewhere that the bus only took cash so I made sure I had the correct amount ready only to get told off by the bus driver. Credit cards only! It turned out to be the case in quite a few places in Longyearbyen.
I had a day for exploring Longyearbyen before
the expedition started, which proved plenty of time. The town is small with only some 2,400 people
living there. Despite its small size there were a surprising number of bars and
restaurants, largely thanks to all the tourists – some 30,000 visit every year.
For some reason, I always
thought the town’s name somehow was a reference to the fact that a year on
Svalbard would feel really long with 6 months of winter darkness, but it’s
actually after its founder John Munro Longyear. It is an old mining town and
remnants of its past are visible across town; old derelict structures for
transporting coal; and a long abandoned mine up on the side of a mountain. Longyearbyen
has that polar town feel where the normal demarcations such as fences or hedges
around houses are missing. It was destroyed in 1943 during a raid but most of
the houses looked a lot newer than that; all well maintained and colorful
(brown is also a color). The town felt very homogenous, unlike my past
experiences in Greenland where there were clear differences between the ethnic Danes
and the Inuit. In that regard, Svalbard is unique in the sense that for years
it was “no man’s land” with no indigenous population, and only in 1920
officially became part of Norway.
Longyearbyen is snowmobile city and they vastly outnumber the cars. The town only has 40 km of road, and that’s when including both the road out to an abandoned mine and the airport road. Snowmobiles on the other hand can travel into the valleys, though some areas are off limit. I watched an exodus of snowmobiles disappearing into the Adventsfjorden on a day excursion. Snowmobile driving is not for novices though it looks easy enough. One overturned on a slope and the rider got pinned down under it. She was quickly freed by a couple of bystanders.
I liked the no nonsense feel of the place. The roads and sidewalks were covered in ice and snow and the attitude seemed to be that if you are afraid of falling, get proper shoes. It is also a place where you are expected to be able to look after yourself, as was evident from the warning signs at the edge of town informing that one should be prepared to meet polar bears and that having “counter measures” was mandatory. I got the feeling this was less out of concerns for idiots who failed to appreciate where they were on the food chain and more because of the impact the bad press of someone getting eaten would have on the tourist industry. The non-PC attitude also extends to the restaurants’ menus which included items like whale steak and reindeer pizza. After having explored what there was to explore, I visited the town’s two small museums, one on the history of Svalbard and the other on the history of (mainly failed) expeditions to the North Pole launched from Svalbard. Walking back to the hotel, I encountered a small group of teenage girls, all giggly out on an afternoon skiing trip, happily chatting away. The only thing unusual about the group was the large caliber hunting rifle hanging over one of the girls’ back. As a matter of fact, most people I encountered on my walk that Sunday were armed. Though it was only late April, it was already light 24 hours a day which took some getting used to.
In the evening the group met up to get
introduced to each other and the guides. We were six tourists and two guides. The senior guide,
Niclas, had the mandatory beard which seems to be a requirement for all men in
Svalbard. My fellow travelers were all Norwegian and of course expert skiers. Gro,
the woman who I would be sharing a tent with, a typical Norwegian hard-core
skiing champ, confessed that she had been uncertain about whether her skills
were up to the challenge. However, after
finding out that I had signed up she felt a lot more confident. I was glad I
The other challenge regarding the group’s composition concerned language. As I spoke Danish the somewhat mistaken assumption was that I would understand their Norwegian. I smiled and nodded a lot and hoped I nodded at the right times. I might not have gotten it right all the time, judging from their facial expressions.
Aside from Gro there were two couples; one very young, very much in love and with endless energy, like we all had once. The other a slightly older couple enjoying the fact that the kids had left home. It was a nice group, relaxed and all of us eager to get started.
Next morning, we packed our stuff into the pulks: clothes, tents, primus, fuel, and food. All that we needed for the next five days. Each pulk probably weighed some 30 – 35 kgs by the time we were finished. I picked up my rental skis from a local shop. I learned that is another clear giveaway that you are neither Norwegian nor an expert skier. The others in the group of course all had their independently designed super carbon skis. We loaded everything up into a couple of trucks and drove out along the only road that goes outside Longyearbyen, leading to a now abandoned mine. We got dropped off at the entrance to the Bolterdalen in Nordenskiöld Land. The weather was beautiful. Clear blue sky, - 10 and no wind. The ground was flat and covered by hard icy snow in most places and some powder where snowdrift had accumulated. It was more than 35 years since I last skied and it was a good place to start. It was easy going on the hard ground and the pulk slid easily behind me.
The Bolterdalen is off limits to snowmobiles and we only encountered a couple of groups on dogsleds out on a daytrip. As we got deeper into the valley, it started going more uphill and I could feel the pulk. I struggled somewhat on some of the steeper parts, with the skis sliding backwards under me on the icy surface. The pulk pulling the other way also made it hard to recover the balance, especially when already struggling.
After some five or six hours of skiing we arrived at a spot deemed suitable for overnight camp and we embarked on setting up tents. The guides remained true to their name – they guided but the actual work was left to us. Their "we will show you and then you do it yourself afterwards" approach was a definite change from what I am used to in Asia. It meant that we had some long days ahead of us. Gro, my tent roomy, and I got our tent up after an initial struggle. Neither of us had much experience, and even our idiot proof tent proved a challenge. Another part of camp preparations involved digging a toilet in the snow. Inger, the junior guide, was very specific about the design which included a wall to allow for some privacy, a shelf for putting toilet paper etc. It took a while for us to get it right. Despite the snazzy design, using the toilet was probably the singular most unpleasant experience of the trip. With temperatures going as low as – 16 and wind blowing, the emphasis was on quick! Camp preparations also involved constructing a bench and table out of the snow to allow us to sit together and eat. We all worked together to get it done but it took time before everything was ready.
Niclas was in charge of dinner. Supposedly a secret family recipe, adding various frozen ingredients along with a spice mix from the supermarket into a pot and stirring. As we sat eating, tired after skiing and getting ready to crawl into our sleeping bags, Inger casually mentioned the need to keep a watch out for bears. We couldn’t agree more. Afterall bears were a real danger. However, it slowly dawned upon us that this would involve someone staying awake while the rest were sleeping. It was something which had been conspicuously absent from all information provided beforehand. In retrospect it was obvious. Svalbard is famous for its polar bears and most tourists visit the place with spotting one as their main goal. Having apex predators roaming around does present a challenge and the warnings are not idle bluster. People do get attacked and occasionally killed, though the last recorded death was in 2020. In 2022, a French woman was attacked though she was part of a group of 25 persons, so there isn’t exactly safety in numbers. Inger drew up a schedule for the watch. Each of us got an hour and fifteen minutes every night. Though we were entrusted to keep watch, Niclas didn’t entrust us with neither the flare gun nor the rifle. Rather, if a bear was spotted the grand plan was to wake him up and hope he could get out of his sleeping bag quickly enough to deal with it. I hoped he was a lighter sleeper than me!
By the time we had finished dinner and worked the bear watch schedule and what to do if one showed up it was close to ten pm and we turned in. Despite a well-insulated sleeping bag and plenty of warm clothes the cold kept creeping in. The first night was the coldest on the trip with temperatures going down to -16 C. The subsequent nights were a lot warmer or rather not so cold at around -5. I felt as if I had just gotten warm when it was my turn for the bear watch.
While the prospect of standing outside at 3 am freezing my butt off was less than enticing, it actually sounded a lot worse than it really was. I had in a rare moment of foresight bought a thick duvet jacket in Longyearbyen which kept me snug and warm. As it turned out, bear watch actually became my favorite part of the trip. We were camping up on a small hill. With 24 hour light it was bright as day, even at 3 am. I enjoyed the fantastic view. The snow-covered landscape, low mountains, and the frozen river at the bottom on the valley. The air was crisp and cold. The sky the dark blue you only find in places with no pollution. It gave me a bit of time for some quiet reflection. During the day, I had to concentrate a lot on the skiing and couldn’t really let my mind wander.
What struck me most on the bear watch was the complete silence. Not a sound. No birds, no traffic, not even any snoring from my fellow travelers. I struggled to remember when I last had that experience. The silence also meant that every step taken on the snow sounded like thunder. I walked around a bit, keeping a good distance from the tents so as to not wake anyone up. There was no sign of any polar bears and the shift passed remarkably fast. Soon I was back in my sleeping bag. Around eight in the morning Niclas did a round of the tents making sure we were all awake. There was a muffled curse from Gro as she woke up. “You snore. A lot!” In my defense, I warned her beforehand, not that she had much choice about sleeping arrangements. She had problems sleeping in tents to start with and apparently me blasting out my nasal version of Metallica’s greatest hits didn’t help.
One thing which I failed to fully appreciate was how much time we spent melting snow, for cooking and for drinking. It proved a lot more time consuming and a lot more important than I expected. During the day there was no opportunity to stop and melt snow and I managed to run out of drinking water. I was completely parched by the end of the day. When people refer to the arctic as an ice desert there is something to it. Cooking breakfast, melting snow, packing up and erasing any signs of the camp took time and it was close to 11 before we were ready to continue.
The second day was more challenging for me with regards to the skiing. We continued into the neighboring valley and started downhill which the pulk didn’t make any easier. It either overtook me, and pulled me sideways or ran into me from behind. I gradually got better at controlling it, holding it on a short leash and keeping it by my side. I made it all the way down the hills, though it did involve a couple of falls. We continued down the valley on hard icy snow which sloped to the right towards the frozen river. Keeping my balance, controlling the pulk and trying to keep up with the others was a challenge. The group’s master skier was kind enough to confide in me that he also found it challenging though he might just have tried to cheer me up. Where the valley opened up, the terrain sloped steeper downwards. We jumped on our pulks, used them as sledges and flew down the hill.
We got camp organized, melted snow, cooked dinner and got the bear watch schedule sorted out. It was a lot quicker than the day before. This night my shift was around midnight. The mountains across from us had a light reddish shine from the sun which was peaking up just behind the low mountain tops. My shift passed quickly. I gave a ten-minute warning to Gro that it was her turn next and stood and looked around while I waited for her to out of her sleeping bag. Suddenly, I noticed movement some distance away, slowly coming towards us along the foot of the hills. I couldn’t really make out what it was. All I could see was that it was white. I quickly found the guide’s binoculars. It was with both apprehension and excitement that I glassed it. The animal held its head low as it slowly moved closer towards the camp. It took a minute before the disappointment set in. A reindeer.
The reindeer on Svalbard are a separate sub species. They are smaller and sturdier than the reindeers in mainland Norway or in North America. They appear to have little fear of humans, despite being hunted, and on several occasions, we came quite close to some of them. I found a nice antler buried in the snow; only a small piece sticking up. It was a good size and intact. Not gnawed on by rodents or other animals. I took it along as a souvenir.
In the morning, Niclas did his round, waking us up. I got started on the snow melting where there was a yell from inside the tent. “I look like I am a 100!” Gro had found a mirror. “Why didn’t you tell me?” I am way to wise to comment on anyone’s appearance after a few days in a tent without access to even basic hygiene facilities and I could only imagine what I myself looked like. That being said, she did look a bit like a troll in the morning. I continued with the melting of snow. The troll came out. She looked better.
We were not gone long enough for me to really lose track of the days, but it was long enough for the days to turn into a nice routine; uprooting the camp in the morning, skiing and admiring the stunning landscape, stopping along the way for lunch and finally setting up camp again in the evening. What added to the experience was that we enjoyed some remarkably clear days without any wind, a rarity on Svalbard.
I also enjoyed getting a bit of insight into Norwegian culture. Apparently one topic that seemingly could be discussed for extended periods of time was the concept of huts. More specifically what constituted a real hut and what was a house disguised as a hut. I got the impression that in Norway, everyone has a hut. I think the conclusion was that a real hut is a cabin without electricity or running water and no access road.
Day 4 was special, not just because it was a long hard day but also because it was the first day where I didn’t at some point find myself floundering on my back with the skis up in the air. We started with some four hours up a glacier, with the pulk. While you hardly felt the pulk on level ground, going uphill was another story. I had ventured up a glacier some years earlier in France. There we were all roped together. Here we just were told to stay clear of the edges, “then you will be fine.” It was slow going but eventually we reached the top of the valley and could see into the next one. We had our lunch there. The young couple once again impressed me with how they could turn anything into a romantic event, even a lunch with freeze-dried cod and pasta in a bag. All that was missing were the candle lights. After lunch, the Norwegians disappeared down the slope on the other side while I continued my safe rather than sorry approach, in a rather slow pace. They somewhat mockingly claimed that I walked on my skis. Nothing could be further from the truth. I skied, elegantly with short well managed slides. I used long skins which are basically a fabric attached under the skis to provide more resistance and thereby more control. It is kind of the ski equivalent of training wheels. It is not how purists make it down a hill but I honestly didn’t care. I made it down, and in one piece!
Once at the bottom of the glacier, we continued out the
valley towards the Adventsdalen. We camped in a riverbed almost at the mouth of
the valley. By now, the wind had picked up and was blowing some 28 Km/h with
snowdrift. We struggled with the tent. Gro stood on it to prevent it from
flying off as I tried to secure it. Thankfully, by now we were setting it up
The wind continued throughout the night and
when it became my turn to do the bear watch I again congratulated myself on my
foresight and purchase of the thick duvet jacket. Despite the wind and snowdrift,
I saw a couple of reindeers casually moving about up on the hill side, trying
to find whatever little nourishment there might be.
Next morning, we came out into the Adventsdalen and continued towards Longyearbyen. We reached the point where we had been dropped off five days earlier, and the cars were waiting for us. We drove back to Longyearbyen, unpacked our pulks and said goodbye to the guides and each other. It had been a truly pleasant group to be with. It is always a bit of hit and miss with these kinds of arrangements where you are lumped together with strangers but this one was definitely a hit. Once back in the hotel, for the first time in five days, I could take my clothes off. To say that I stank would be an understatement. I petty the driver who picked us up from the collection point. He must have suffered sitting with all of us in a small enclosed space.
After a long hot shower, feeling all refreshed and wearing clean clothes, I found a restaurant and devoured a large steak along with a few pints. The restaurants in Longyearbyen are cozy with good service and good food, or maybe it was just that after five days of freeze-dried meals and Niclas’ cooking everything tasted like heaven. As I sat enjoying my food and reminiscing about all the impression from the past few days, a couple of tourists came in, asking the waiter for directions to the nearest certified kosher restaurant. The guy kept a straight face as he explained that it might be a challenge. I really wanted to hear how that worked out for them. After an extended dinner, I walked back to my hotel, a bit drunk, a little stiff in the muscles but very happy. It was close to ten pm and there was a red tint on the snow-covered mountains as I made my way through the town. After a good night’s sleep, I was ready to embark on my long journey back to warmer climates.
While everything worked out perfectly, especially thanks to the patience of my fellow travelers, I couldn’t help feeling afterwards that if the weather had turned ugly, I would have struggled a lot more. My poor skiing skills could easily have been a real issue in nasty weather, especially at the parts of the route where the skiing was challenging. There is a brutal beauty over the landscape but it is also unforgiving.
A final note should be that I truly appreciate the guides’ constant work to ensure that we left nothing but our footprints behind. All garbage was carefully removed and used toilet paper burned. The area we travelled in was as pristine as they come and we made sure we left it like that.
I went with Svalbard Wildlife Expeditions and they delivered. They were highly professional and their services were exactly as promised. The guides did their best to make sure that even a novice like me made it through in one piece and that everyone had a great time. https://www.wildlife.no/en