So I’ve succumbed to my rather less mature side and bought a snow-mobile. This was certainly not part of the plan for this year, but for the grand price of 8000 Norwegian Krone (around £800 of which I’ve paid half, the other half covered by Cees) its effect on my finances has been merely significant, rather than catastrophic. Our mistake was taking it for a test-drive, after which we were never going to say “No thanks, we don’t want it.”
Me aboard Sex Panther, Svalbard’s East Coast
We have named it Sex Panther, partly because it comes equipped with some unlikely-looking leopard-print seats but mostly because 60% of the time, it works every time. 5 years of abuse at the hands of tourists on Svalbard including at least one major crash (attested to by the fact that the front half is stapled together) have clearly taken their toll on the poor machine. But it allows unparalleled opportunities to explore Svalbard. This weekend we embarked on an epic 200km round trip to the East Coast of Spitsbergen, where it is known that polar bears wander hungrily in the dark.
A rare break on the way to the East Coast to actually do some navigating
The journey was no picnic. Navigating through morrain and deep snow that greedily swallowed our snow-mobiles, we spent as much time digging and swearing as we did driving. We drove over barely frozen ice that threatened to claim our vehicles for good and hit terrain that punctured our reserve fuel tanks, with the result that some of us were driving on fumes as we limped back into Longyearbyen. Almost the whole journey was made in the curious Arctic phenomenon of flat-light, so that variation in the terrain was completely invisible to us until we hit it. This accounts for why yours truly was required to undertake this manoeuvre whilst towing the sledge: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k07hC6_B0og
Sex Panther was heroic throughout, dealing with the worst the terrain had to offer whilst carrying two people and even shouldering the burden of the sledge when the other scooters gave out on the return journey. Not bad for 8000NOK.
Polar bear prints disappear ominously into the blackness
Arriving at our tiny cabin on the East Coast, we very soon became aware of the tracks of a mother and yearling polar bear which had visited our abode recently, snaking away into the dark. The visitors book was packed with tales of close encounters with “The Lonely Wanderer” and the door was riddled with bullet-holes.
The little cabin that sheltered us on the East Coast. The visitor book inside reveals that the windows have been broken many times by polar bears attempting to gain access
Jakob by candlelight
It was a truly excellent trip, preceded by an interesting few weeks on our course. Last Wednesday consisted of sea-ice training, which concluded with us plunging into a hole in the ice dressed in snow-mobile suits. The purpose of this was to train in the use of our ice-spikes, which somewhat resemble those little fork-things you use for holding corn-on-the-cob.
The experience was not as bone-rattlingly cold as I’d envisaged, with the snow-mobile suits surprisingly adept at keeping the water out. Fighting through dark, freezing water littered with massive chunks of ice before hammering in ice-spikes and hauling myself out nevertheless lay on the borders of my comfort-zone.
Ola attempts to claw his way back onto solid ice (Photograph Cees Apon)
Placing us in unpleasant situations seems to be something of a theme for training this term. Hot on the heels of our sea-ice experience came avalanche training. Apart from learning to read the snow conditions; use transceiver, shovel and probe efficiently and learning about the different varieties of avalanche, we had to experience the real thing. To this ends we dug our own graves.
We opened up a trench in the ground, three-feet deep and six-feet long, and, lying face-down at the bottom to allow an air-pocket to form in front of our mouths, the hole was filled in.
I’ve never experience this before and don’t mind saying that I was fairly close to screaming that I should be dug up again. With each shovel-full of snow deposited on top of you, the weight pressing down on your chest increases dramatically until breathing becomes almost impossible. At one point the pressure became so great that I was convinced that someone had stood on top of the snow as a joke. They hadn’t. As your head is covered, darkness and silence envelop you. The carbon-dioxide builds and each breath satisfies less and is followed more quickly by the next one. Panic grows, though you know the key to your survival may be keeping your breathing under control.
I was under the snow for just two minutes. Factor into my experience that due to a process known as sintering, avalanche snow sets as solid as concrete once it has come to a halt. You would also be lucky to be just three-feet below the surface; very lucky to have a good air-pocket in front of your face and exceptionally lucky to be unearthed after just two minutes. This avalanche course is perhaps the most sobering thing I have done. The boom of the snow-pack collapsing; the roar of rushing snow. It is the worst fear of those who spend time in the mountains. We joke about the lethal cold, we joke about falling into crevasses. We even joke (albeit in bad taste) about the polar bear threat. Nobody jokes about avalanches. What a horrifying way to go.
Longyearbyen from a skiing trip
The light is returning to Svalbard. The sun has yet to rise but, skimming the lower edge of the horizon, its influence can be seen for several hours per day. After a month of uninterrupted blackness, the wolf-grey skies we now witness around midday result almost in euphoria. We have celebrated with skiing trips into the surrounding mountains; a pleasant precursor to the multiday excursion we are due to begin on Wednesday. Can’t wait.
The endless Sassendalen on return from the East Coast