I write from a university cafeteria in Alta, Northern Norway. The dark-time has descended upon Svalbard, with the impending winter beginning to make its presence felt through cold that bites down to -20C (with the worst of the winter to come after January). Partly due to this and partly because we are technically a part of the University of Tromso, we have fled south to the Norwegian mainland to spend a month learning some of the more theoretical points of being an Arctic guide.
I did so very reluctantly. Svalbard thus far has been a joy, with our latter days spent in rather less spartan accommodation than we started in. The long-running affiliation between my course and Barrack 5 was ended two weeks ago, when engineers inspecting the foundations realised that a loud sneeze would be sufficient to bring the venerable building crashing down on top of us. When asked when we should evacuate, our ever-baffling teacher Sigmund responded “Yesterday.” We therefore moved into the much better appointed (and crucially, much more structurally stable) Barrack 1.
From there we have been able to launch forays into the surrounding wilderness and experience Longyearbyen’s highly enjoyable student life. The combination is extremely satisfying, a particular highlight being one climb up the mountain of Sarkofagen beneath an ocean of stars and electric auroral displays. From the top, Longyearbyen shone wasp-yellow beneath a blazing “Winter-Road”: the Scandanavian term for the Milky Way. This is a special time of year.
On the final day that the sun was visible in this part of Svalbard, I was persuaded at the last moment to join a trip to the top of Trollsteinen (another local peak) to bid it farewell. The sun will now not grace Longyearbyen until the 8th March. We therefore wished to wave goodbye to the last rays of light as they made a final foray above the mountains. Unfortunately, the planned symbolic gesture never came off, with the weather deteriorating on our way up to the extent that at the summit we were presented with flat-light; a state of cloud and snow where it is impossible to detect features in the landscape. Walking our route back, one of my companions collapsed suddenly and spectacularly into a large snowy mound that had been completely invisible to him, right up until the moment he fell into it. Such light conditions also dissipate any trace of the sun.
We set off behind schedule, meaning we had to travel fast to make the summit in time for the final 15 minutes of sunlight. The day was not especially cold at around -7C, but even so I received an unequivocal reminder not to take this environment for granted. Breathing hard on the ascent, I knew I was sweating but did not take time to stop and de-layer, feeling overly comfortable with the freezing air. Once we had reached the glacier and the ground became easier, my sweat began to freeze and cool me rapidly. Ten minutes later, I noticed my hands had chilled to the extent that I could no longer touch my little finger and thumb together. Ten minutes after that, one of my companions pointed out that my ear was completely white. Pulling off a glove and feeling it, I touched flesh frozen solid for the first time. The ear was stiff and unyeilding.
Myself and Torbjorn on the way up to Trollsteinen, just before my ear froze
A buff wrapped around my head remedied my frozen ear and a pair of heat-packs warmed my hands. Through a combination of dehydration thickening my blood and not taking my layering seriously, I had almost neglected my condition to the extent that I could have become a serious hazard to my companions. As it is, no lasting harm has been done and I have learned a valuable lesson, evidenced by my sore, swollen ear: take the Arctic seriously.
On our way back down the mountain, we stumbled upon the opportunity to explore an ice-cave, carved into the glacier by a melt-water stream. The tunnels were extensive and almost perfectly man-sized, with floor and walls made of solid ice that glows a midnight blue when headlamps are turned off. Passages that we intend to explore once we are better equipped snaked off our main tunnel and into the darkness. Rows of icicles that sound like wind-chimes when disturbed hang from the roof, almost perfectly transparrent. It is a dark, epic playground that riddles the glaciers that surround Longyearbyen and we have many miles of it to explore yet.
Me and Jakob in the ice-cave. The camera froze inside, so this is unfortunately the best picture we have
Longyearbyen has been extremely good to us. The society is uniquely selective; everyone who is here has come by choice. If you have no means of support, you cannot stay in Longyearbyen; you are deported to the Norwegian mainland. Neither can you be born on Svalbard; six weeks before their due-date, pregnant women are obliged to return to the mainland to give birth. You may not even die here; the permafrost would push your body from the ground. The sick are required to leave and seek an infrastructure better equipped to deal with them. The result of this callous treatment is a society that is almost utopian for the inhabitants. There is no crime in Longyearbyen; employment is at 100% and taxation is almost non-existent. It seems instructive that just two roads lead out from the town. One goes to the mines; the other to the airport. The message is clear; there is no place here for those who cannot support themselves.
Two tons of firewood are assembled
The tent to see me, Morten and Cees through the winter
Our final days in Svalbard were spent preparing for our return. A local company (LNS Spitsbergen) kindly furnished us with two tons of firewood, taken from Longyearbyen’s dismantled port. We further did a test-pitch of the tent in which we will spend six frigid months after Christmas. Progress in acquiring our tent was hampered significantly by the enforced liquidation of the company from which we were buying it. Luckily, a store on Svalbard had one in stock, preventing a frantic search for a replacement. The next time we pitch our tent will be in the unrelenting darkness and searing cold temperatures of one of the world’s most unpredictable climates. Practice is therefore essential.
For now though, we are in Alta. It has lived up to its billing as the “Northern Lights Capital of the World”, with sweeping displays overhead every night so far. Seeing them has become a very personal experience; they always seem to appear when I most need them to. Their strong presence here is therefore a comforting one as I prepare to bed down in a snowy woodland on a floor of reindeer skins, warmed by my woodburning stove. Student accommodation doesn’t get much better.
I leave you with another excellent video made by fellow ANG student Stian, of our Barentsburg trip. Much recommended: https://vimeo.com/76815517#