Ski Touring on Svalbard | The Magnetic Pull of the North
Following in the footsteps of legendary polar explorer Roald Amundsen, Tristan Kennedy heads to Svalbard
Featured images by Tristan Kennedy
The man’s mouth is set resolutely in a straight line, and his forehead, framed by the fur of his arctic parka, is deeply furrowed by weather and age. Is that steely determination on his face, or weary resignation? It’s hard to say. But his eyes appear calm as he stares out towards the horizon, and the slate-grey sea that killed him.
“His eyes appear calm as he stares out towards the horizon, and the slate-grey sea that killed him.”
Finding a statue of Roald Amundsen, the greatest of all polar explorers, makes perfect sense in this setting. We’re in Ny-Ålesund on the Svalbard archipelago, the northernmost civilian settlement on the planet. It was from here, in 1926, that the Norwegian navigator launched his last great achievement – a successful bid to reach the North Pole by air. In fact, the tower to which his enormous airship, the Norge, was tethered is still visible, just a few hundred metres from where his statue now stands. Svalbard was also Amundsen’s destination two years later, when the flying boat he was travelling in disappeared over the ocean.
A display in the tiny Ny-Ålesund museum, open by appointment to the trickle of visitors who make it here, tells how Amundsen fell out with the pilot of the Norge, Umberto Nobile, after their success. But on hearing that the Italian had crashed on a return mission to the pole, he still rushed to join the rescue effort. On 18th June 1928, he set off from Tromso bound for Ny-Ålesund, but the plane didn’t make it. Nobile and eight of his men would eventually be saved, but Amundsen’s body was never found.
Like a lot of people who are into adventure, I grew up on stories of Amundsen’s exploits. As a Brit, I’d been taught about the doomed romance of Captain Scott’s South Pole expedition at an early age, but I’d always been more interested in the Norwegian who’d beaten him to it. On both that mission and his first successful navigation of the Northwest passage, another goal that had eluded the Royal Navy for hundreds of years, what seemed to have made the difference was Amundsen’s willingness to learn from indigenous people in the polar regions – as opposed to relying on a combination of imperial arrogance and a stiff upper lip.
Despite my childhood interest, however, I’d never made it to Amundsen’s stomping grounds myself. So when I was offered the chance to come further north than I’d ever been, and join a North Face ski touring expedition on a ship around Svalbard, I jumped at the chance.
“This exact line? No, probably not”
Of course, this being the 21st Century, we’re not facing anything like the same challenges as the polar explorers of old. But in our own, small way we are venturing into uncharted territory. Svalbard Ski & Sail, the company organising the expedition’s logistics, specialises in guiding skiers on virgin slopes. As we peel off our climbing skins at the top of a ridge on our first day, I ask Thomas Hukkelås, our guide and the company’s co-founder, if anyone’s ever skied it before? “This exact line? No, probably not.”
First descents like this are a rarity in most of the world’s mountain ranges, but up here they’re actually more common than not. Svalbard after all has a permanent population of just 2,500, living on a landmass three times the size of Wales. Each evening, our boat sails into a new, isolated fjord and the guides simply take their pick of the surrounding peaks.
“A permanent population of just 2,500, living on a landmass three times the size of Wales”
The ship Ski & Sail use – our floating home for the duration of the trip – is the refitted 1956 Norwegian coastal cruiser MS Nordstjernen, meaning ‘North Star’. On the inside, she’s an interior designers’ fever dream of wooden decking, retro brass fittings, and riveted porthole covers. The cabins are small, but comfortable, and the liveried crew do a great job of catering for our every need – as well as making it feel like we’ve stepped back in time.
On the outside she looks like the kind of ship Haddock might have captained in the Adventures of Tintin – and by the sounds of things, she’s experienced her fair share of similarly exciting exploits. At one stage we’re given a ‘below decks’ tour, going down to the engine room – where the original diesel-powered pistons still clang away at enormous volumes – before being taken up to the bridge. “Yes, we’ve been through some very big storms, with waves of 30 feet or more,” Captain Tormod Karlssen tells us, casually.
Days onboard begin with the voice of Ski & Sail co-founder and expedition leader Hilde Falun Strøm crackling over the public address system. The stairs are too steep, and the gangways too narrow to have everyone putting their ski boots on at once, so groups are called in turn, before loading into the Zodiac inflatables that ferry us to the shore, crunching through icebergs as they go.
Once you’re ashore, the ski touring – or in my case, splitboarding – is much the same in Svalbard as it would be anywhere else. There are, however, a few significant differences. For starters, there are a lot of guns.
“Polar bears are… everywhere on Svalbard – and bear attack is an ever-present risk”
As the much-photographed signs warn, polar bears are “Gjelder hele Svalbard” – everywhere on Svalbard – and bear attack is an ever-present risk. The islands famously hit the headlines in the UK when a pupil from Eton was mauled to death by a bear in 2011, and any group venturing into the backcountry is obliged to carry a weapon.
Every morning the first boat to land takes two guides armed with bolt action rifles, who stand watch as the rest of us disembark. The last person to leave each day is also armed. More often than not, this is Hilde herself, who carries her own .357 Magnum in a holster made of seal skin – the product of a previous hunt.
The second major difference is the light. At 78 degrees latitude, Svalbard doesn’t see the sun for four months during the winter season, but when we visit in May, it never gets dark. The sight of the sun spinning circles in the sky takes some getting used to, but it means that there’s very little pressure to get out and up the hill early. You could start touring at five in the afternoon here, and still easily enjoy a full day.
If anything, the difficulty becomes knowing when to stop. It’s not so much the ski touring, which operates on a strict schedule (Hilde is a masterful organiser, and runs a super tight ship). But once the group is back on board and the beers come out, it’s all too easy to find yourself standing in your snowboard boots, enjoying “a couple of apres pints”, and suddenly realise it’s after midnight.
“Walls that would put even the best efforts of Game of Thrones’ CGI team to shame”
Time seems to pass at a different speed up here, helped along by the fact that the scenery is never anything short of stunning. By day, each ridge we climb reveals further rows of untouched peaks, broken only by the occasional tongue of a fjord, glinting in the distance. By ‘night’, the ship skirts along the calving face of glaciers – vast, blue luminescent walls that would put even the best efforts of Game of Thrones’ CGI team to shame – and we eat our dinner listening to the creak and crack of the ancient ice moving. Every time we set sail, inquisitive guls and fulmars swoop low over the wake, and although we never actually see a polar bear, the thought that they’re out there definitely adds to the sense that this is a wilderness on a different scale to anywhere I’ve ridden before.
Famously there are more of these massive predators on the archipelago than people. Yet, despite that, Svalbard isn’t completely devoid of human habitation. Ny-Ålesund, with its permanent population of just 30, hardly counts, but before we board the ship we get the chance to spend a day in Longyearbyen. The largest settlement on the islands, it’s home to all but a few hundred of their inhabitants. Hendrik Sanio, our guide on what’s rather grandly billed as a ‘city tour’, shows us the ‘sights’ – the school, hospital, airport, and, from a distance, the post-apocalyptic Global Seed Vault. Perhaps more interestingly, he also sheds some light on what makes this remarkable community tick.
“You could start touring at five in the afternoon here, and still easily enjoy a full day”
The territory is technically part of Norway, but since 1925 has been governed by a unique international treaty which gives all signatory countries equal rights, while simultaneously banning any military presence. The upshot of this is that anyone, of any nationality, can live and work here visa-free. For most of the past 100 years, when coal mining was the only industry in town, there were just a handful of hardy Norwegians and Russians. But as tourism grew steadily from the mid-90s onwards, a truly international community began to emerge in this least likely of locations.
“I think we have 52 different nationalities living here now,” says Hilde, who arrived from the Norwegian mainland in 1995. Hendrik, originally from Germany, tells us proudly that there are locals who hail from as far away as Uganda, and that the third largest national group “with 142 and a half people,” is Thai. “The half,” he jokes, “is my son”.
Because of where they are, cooperation is the key to survival on Svalbard. “I think you build stronger connections because you need them,” is how Hilde explains it. “In this environment, I think we get kinder as humans – to each other, but also to nature, to the wildlife and even to ourselves. Being exposed to nature does that to people.”
This impressively egalitarian community, and the pristine landscape that supports it, are now under threat as never before, however. Global warming is more pronounced the further north you travel, so a two degree warming at the equator amounts to four degrees at the poles, and the impact of the climate crisis up here has been severe.
“When I arrived in 1995, it was quite common that the whole Isfjord [the inlet outside Longyearbyen] would freeze,” says Hilde. “I could drive more than 50km across it on my snowmobile, seals would always give birth to their cubs on the sea ice, and the polar bears never had any challenges getting any food.”
Hungry polar bears are obviously not great for the islands’ human inhabitants, but the greater threat comes from the landscape itself. Landslides and avalanches are increasingly frequent as the winters become less stable. “We have to evacuate parts of the city every summer now,” Hendrik tells us on our tour, while Hilde tells the story of a catastrophic avalanche in 2015, which “buried 17 people inside their houses, sweeping some buildings 80 metres,” and killing two people – including a two-year-old child.
“I feel connected here. Like I’m a part of something bigger”
Faced with such hardship, you might think locals would start to pack up and leave. But the small amount of time I’ve spent in Svalbard is enough to make me realise that there’s something about the place that will always exert a pull on people. It’s the same magnetic attraction that drew Amundsen and his ilk to the frozen polar regions time and again, even at the expense of their own lives.
It’s not easy to put your finger on what that appeal is, exactly, but Hilde perhaps explains it best: “It’s the light, it’s the nature, it is the wildlife, it’s all of those things, but it’s mostly the feeling it gives me – it’s a grounding. I feel both vulnerable, and humbled because of all the forces around me. At the same time, being out here, in this very harsh environment, I feel very strong. It might sound like a bit much, but I feel connected here. Like I’m a part of something bigger.”
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