Doing anything outside of Longyearbyen was never as easy as you’d hope. Fortunately Ana was absolute legend and had done so much to be prepared for some pretty epic trips. Having been studying there long enough she’s classed as a local which means she’s allowed to leave the town. Tourists aren’t without a guide because of all the fuss about polar bears, avalanches and extreme conditions. So Ana became my ‘guide’ and off we went. Well, only after packing the flare gun, cartridges, rifle, bullets, shovel, probe, avalanche beacon, and most importantly, a thermos of hot tea.
Having got Ana’s snowmobile running with a new drive belt our first trip was to join a group driving to a Russian mining town 60km away. Her little scooter I’m calling ‘Rex’ was only designed for one person, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers. This meant being on the back was sometimes a bit of a wild rodeo but who would choose to sit in comfort anyway.
The views were epic, and driving along the coastline next to the sea was such a highlight. Barentsburg itself was such a strange town. Half of it is abandoned and the other half is huge modern apartment buildings for the 400 miners that live there. We warmed up with a good lunch in the pub and bum-slide behind the statue of Vladimir Lenin, then fired Rex up as the afternoon darkness set in.
Taking the fast route home we were pretty stoked on a great day. It was snowing, dark, and windy as we tucked into the end of the snowmobile convoy home. Thinking about where we were, up in the arctic, far from anyone or anywhere, in the dark and snowy conditions made it seem like what we were doing was pretty special and epic. Not your average saturday if you know what I mean. And then Rex died. So there we stood, the convoy disappearing over the hills and us feeling pretty remote all of a sudden.
Fortunately a few minutes later they realised we’d disappeared and seeing the lights coming back for us was a bit of a relief. Rex for some reason was guzzling insane amounts of fuel so we had to fill up twice on the trip back. But back home, in Ana’s warm room it was pretty sweet to think about what we’d done that day.
A few nights later Ana’s neighbour Line (pronounced Lina) knocked on the door saying we had to go visit the ice caves at the top of the Longyearbreen Glacier. So poor old Rex had to drag three bodies up the hill this time. Ana and I on the sled and line being towed behind on her skis.
We spent hours exploring literally every possible part of the caves. At times this meant sliding along the ice floor on our backs, tummies scraping the roof, squeezing into the next section. That in itself was amazing but then we popped out onto the surface to see a full on display of northern lights for the first time in my life. Rex was being a pain and not starting again but of all the times to break down, this was definitely the one. The lights danced around for over an hour as we rescued the scooter and even though we were incredibly cold by the time we made it back home, it was such a sick evening.
But with only a few nights left we still had a few bucket list items to tick off. So on my second last night we hiked up to sleep in the Larsbreen Glacier Ice Caves. I’d brought the hammock from Mexico, and Ana had the Ice screws, so we set up the hammock deep in this ice cave, a place which has possibly never seen a hammock before.
But that wasn’t the end of the bucket list. On the morning of the flight we had one more thing to do. Obviously that was to swim in the arctic. I could’ve picked a much better time to do it given I’d had three weeks there but better late than never. But before we could even get to the water Ana had one last curveball to throw at me. Turns out she wasn’t that keen on me leaving so put into action her method of last (or first) resort and sent the snowmobile along a steepish embankment so hard that we tipped over and landed on a big pile of rocks. It wasn’t the smartest move because she bruised her leg up pretty damn well but she did succeed in taking my knee out of action. After a few minutes making sure we were both still in one piece we had to motor on. I had an hour to get to the airport so figured a quick dip could still work. The game plan was in/out, speedy dry down and we could speed out to the airport within 10 minutes to make my flight just in time.
What I didn’t think about was how cold swimming in the arctic would actually be. The water temperature was a balmy 0°C, and the outside air temperature -20°C plus wind chill. Before I was even undressed my fingers were numb and the breeze was not helping the warmth stay in the rest of my body. I jumped in, ducked under and got out as fast as I could. No more than 10 seconds. In that moment of being underwater and leaping back out the cold sent energy flying through my body, I felt incredible, my brain was super alert. And the first message that came through, was get out of here right now! and so I did. Feeling had long gone from most of my body and trying to put my hands into the arm sleeves of my jackets was unbelievably hard. I was also worried about getting my boots on because it felt like my foot was so frozen it wouldn’t bend enough to be able to get in. Somehow everything came on and we mad a dash for a building 300m away. Getting to the warmth inside was exciting, but moments later turned to hell. We ran my hands under cold water and gradually increased the temperature. This corresponded linearly with the volume of my grunts, moans and curses about the intense pain. I was in my own world at that moment, a world I didn’t want to be in but just had to endure. Eventually a shower brought me back from the dead but my idea of a quick 10 minute turnaround had suddenly become 45 minutes. Whoops.
With no more time to loose we fanged it out to the airport, getting there well after check in had closed. Luckily its a tiny airport so they managed to sort me out and send my bag through. I flew through security and had no time to put my clothes back on. Anyone on the plane looking out would’ve seen a young man, dripping wet, limping across the tarmac in a t-shirt, arms full of jackets, bags, laptop all being clutched onto by any means possible, and boots falling off as he desperately made his way to the plane. But they let me on, shut the door and took off right on the departure time. Made it by that much.
It was sad to leave, but I’m super grateful for an absolutely unbelievable three weeks that will stick with me forever. It still feels like a dream getting to visit Svalbard. But even if it was, it was a bloody good one.
Now I’m back in continental Europe and will update you on what happens next soon.