At 78° north, Svalbard is both the largest continuous wilderness in Europe and the final frontier before the North Pole. In the frozen depths of winter, a snowmobile expedition is the only way to get a sense of scope in this land of bone-chilling cold and heartbreaking beauty.
Many who have never stepped foot on Svalbard – the archipelago midway between Norway and the North Pole – envisage a bleak, white wilderness of ice, emptiness, and polar bears. Seen in a winter blizzard, this is bang on, but then there are the days as clear as cut crystal and the brilliance they bring. Colours. Nobody ever imagines the colours. This thought plays on my mind as I cling onto a snowmobile, bouncing giddily from side to side through a gully, the lights of the main settlement of Longyearbyen fast receding.
It’s around -20°C and a bitter wind blasts my visor, stinging and finally numbing the fraction of my face exposed to the elements. My tears freeze on my eyelashes like tiny jewels, and wisps of silver-white hair escaping from my balaclava give me a premature glimpse of my older self. It’s very, very cold and beautiful beyond belief. We enter glacial valleys where the sky is painted in softest pinks, pale blues and lilacs. We rumble up slopes of downy snow, fighting to keep balance, and over frozen tundra, as the late February sun glares defiantly on the horizon after four months of absence. You can almost hear the locals’ collective sigh of relief as the rays beat down.
When we stop the snowmobiles, there is utter silence in the blue air, but for the crunch of ice underfoot. Our snowmobiles take us deeper into the Reindalen and Grøndalen valleys, where mountains, bare, muscular and denuded of trees, rise steeply in rolling masses, snow-covered for most of the year. Glowing as the light dies, they appear lit from within – some perfect pyramids, some like the prows of great ships, some like the ruins of fantasy fortresses with mighty stone ramparts and buttresses. Almost 100km into the expedition, every newly trained muscle aches as we approach the glimmer of sea in the pearl-polished twilight.
We are so lucky, our guide Marte Myskja Sæterbø admits, as we defrost over mugs of mulled wine at Isfjord Radio, a former radio and weather station turned boutique hotel in the back of beyond at Kapp Linné. The weather is exceptional for this time of year and the aurora forecast is looking promising. The incongruity of the stylishly pared-back Nordic interior doesn’t pass us by. And the level of attention devoted to food is like a small miracle given the raw and remote setting. We begin digging into Arctic specialities like smoked Svalbard reindeer but, as the wine-braised veal arrives, we down forks. The lights. The lights have arrived.
Outside, the show has begun. We stand in speechless wonder, our gaze lifted to the heavens, as greens float and ripple in the night sky – like flashes from a wizard’s wand.
Morning brings more sunshine. After breakfast, we rediscover yesterday’s stiff muscles back in snowmobile position. “Many minke whales have been spotted off the coast here,” Marte tells me. “Belugas, too.” I scan the sea but see none. No whales today, perhaps, but as we approach the blue sparkle of Grønfjorden, as calm as a looking glass, Marthe points out a speck in the distance. It’s an Arctic fox moving deftly along the fjord shoreline. One of only three land mammals on Svalbard, the fox is barely decipherable in the snow – in its pearly white winter coat, it is a cunning camofleur.
Snowmobiling is becoming more like second nature, leaning into the bends, pumping the break, using body weight to negotiate bends and inclines. The landscape that unravels feels softly snowy, but it is actually a mass of ice and rock. Svalbard is 60% glacier, 30% rock – a barren wilderness little changed since the end of the Ice Age and a geologist's dream come true.
On the northeastern tip of Grønfjorden sits Barentsburg, a forgotten Soviet-era coal-mining outpost of 350 inhabitants. A bust of Lenin glowers over the Russian mining settlement, with its brightly muralled school, belching power-station chimney, Brutalist architecture and hotel hungry for tourism. At the bar, a guy called Artem from St Petersburg proudly pours us a locally brewed beer. He looks sad when we, the only customers, depart into the chill Arctic afternoon.
An impressionist palette of pastels streaks the sky as we break for lunch, the fjord like quicksilver below. Heading back across the frozen wastes of the Grøndalen, where snow has been sculpted into wave-like formations by the wind and cornices decorate mountain ridges, we north into Fardalen. A quick stop to tank in Longyearbyen and we reach Adventdalen in the inky twilight. It has been a long day, covering 130km of terrain, and I am tetchy, uncomfortable and frozen to the core. You have to earn the Arctic, I remind myself, as lights appear on the horizon. No Will o’ the Wisp, surely, but once again the spectacular green strobe lights of the aurora.
The lights dance on in the sky as we pull up to the North Pole Camp, where two huskies howl a greeting – a sound that belongs so utterly to the north. We are the first ever guests at this camp, with its heated tents and hearty meals courtesy of resident chef Lindstrøm. You don’t always see polar bears in these parts – most roam the sea ice further north in winter – but the preparations are there just in case. “We’re on the polar bear’s territory, it’s important we respect that,” says Marte. A tripwire and flares surround the camp and the dogs are on high alert, but I can’t help but check warily over my shoulder as I sneak out to the makeshift toilet in the middle of the night.
Breakfast is oatmeal, coffee and a stroking session with the huskies before we hop back on the snowmobiles for the last leg back to Longyearbyen. You should never become blasé when snowmobiling, we realise, as we get stuck in a snowdrift ascending a rise to a viewpoint, which reveals mountains rippling into the never-never land of the High Arctic.
“The best bit about going on expedition is the wildlife you get to see,” admits Marte. “Reindeer, whales, sometimes polar bears. Walruses are my favourite, they’re so funny – they just lie there and fart and make strange noises. It’s kind of beautiful.” No sooner has she mentioned walruses than they appear as if on cue, as we stand on the edge of Sassenfjorden, a mosaic of brash ice and sculpted ice as delicate as hand-blown glass. Peering through binoculars, we make out a female walrus with two cubs, lolling on a bergy area. They seem insignificant from a distance, but they are surprisingly enormous – males are three times as heavy as the average polar bear and they are the more fearsome opponent of the two.
Beside the lake stands Fredheim, the hut built by the famous Norwegian trapper Hilmar Nøis. It’s an astonishingly peaceful spot, in the shadow of a great mountain. “Hilmar’s first wife Ellen gave birth here in 1922,” Marte tells us. “Hilmar set off to find a doctor but it was too late. She had the baby all alone in the Arctic. Eventually, it made her a bit crazy.”
On the last leg of our expedition, we detour into an amphitheatre-like gorge where Eskerfossen waterfall is a frozen marvel of icicles several metres tall. As we cruise on through the broad Adventdalen, the air glitters with the diamond dust of ice crystals, like sparks flying from a blacksmith’s blade in the golden afternoon light. Wild Svalbard reindeer peer inquisitively at us as we approach, then bolt at the last minute, their antlers etching the skyline. The lights of Longyearbyen blink in the distance, marking our return to civilisation. We’ve been away for just a few days – but this is a small eternity in the Arctic.
Make it Happen
SAS (flysas.com) and Norwegian (norwegian.com) operate regular flights between Oslo and Longyearbyen. Sandgrouse Travel (sandgrousetravel.com) can book the five-day, four-night trip. Basecamp Explorer (basecampexplorer.com) in Longyearbyen is designed like modern-rustic trapper’s lodge and has a cosy lounge for post-expedition chilling.
Kerry Christiani travelled to Svalbard with support from Visit Norway (visitnorway.com). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.
Last updated in August 2017.