The Arctic Saga – Crossing Svalbard On Skis

Some roads are harder to walk than others. How is it that we choose the path less travelled, going against the grain when there are much easier, more enjoyable ways to get to where we want to go?

These are the thoughts bouncing around my head as I brace myself against the wind. One step at a time, I tell myself. Keep moving forward. The biting cold chills me to the bone. I keep my goggles on with hood cinched to the max and a balaclava covering my face so that only narrow strips of skin are exposed to the elements. I will pay the price for this later in the form of frostbitten cheeks, but right now I’m unaware how much damage this harsh environment is inflicting upon even the slightest of cracks in my armour. I stop only for a moment, but it’s long enough to lose circulation in my fingers and toes. The only way to stay warm is to keep moving, so I tuck my chin and step one foot in front of the other, propelled by the frigid wind, the whirling snow and my own thoughts.

It’s day 5 of a 16-day ski traverse crossing Spitsbergen Island, the largest of the Svalbard archipelago far off the northwest coast of Norway, sitting between 74 and 81 degrees latitude. On our team is Selena Cordeau, Christy Long, Erika Flagella and myself, Emelie Stenberg. We’ve come to the high Arctic from our homes in Canada and Norway, with dreams of skiing under the midnight sun where neither time nor darkness have a say in when we eat, sleep or ski. We’ve come to be dwarfed by huge glaciers calving into the Arctic Ocean and rugged peaks rising out of the ice. We’ve come to experience a legendary polar bear denning site in this northern refuge. 

To our dismay, however, we arrive to an island surrounded by open water with no bears in sight. Polar bears rely on the sea ice to hunt for seals, travel, and find mates. Historically, the entire island chain is surrounded by sea ice that reaches down from the North Pole, but this year, it’s open water on the west side of the islands, and the sea ice that polar bears depend upon is nowhere to be seen. Instead, what we do see is some alarming evidence of our changing climate.

We’re all silent with our heads down. Even if we wanted to talk, the wind is too strong to hold a conversation. We lose ourselves in our own thoughts, alternating lead positions at the front of the line. The leader’s only focus is to walk in a straight line following a compass bearing, and to keep a keen eye out for polar bears and crevasses. The job is tedious and wearisome when all you see for hours is variations on the colour white. There are no shadows, no definitions or shapes: it’s like living inside a ping-pong ball.

Walking in the back of the line, I swear we’re walking in circles. Everywhere looks and feels familiar. If it weren’t for our compass bearing and GPS location, it would be a hard sell to convince any of us we were moving closer to our goal. In these conditions, you have to have absolute faith in technology.

When it’s my turn in front, I shuffle forward and stare into the void. For all I can see, we could be staring off the edge of a cliff or, more likely, a crevasse. It’s difficult to say what lay ahead. Soon, however, my shuffling slows to a stop as I sense the landscape is changing: something is different than it has been. We stop and study the map. It seems unlikely we would come across crevasses on this vast, flat ice cap, but we rope up just in case and, sure enough, we soon find ourselves navigating through a field of deep, yawning cracks of varying depths. We all agree that travelling through this kind of terrain in these conditions is too risky and we alter our route, giving the broken landscape a wide birth.

Our journey started in the town site of Longerbyen, the hub of Svalbard. Here we loaded up the zodiac with ski gear, towing sleds, a riffle for polar bear protection, food and supplies to survive on the ice for 2 and half weeks. With the zodiac packed to the brim we headed north, deep into Tempelfjorden, where we accessed the Lomonosovfonna Icefield. Our journey took us through immense glaciers on our way, towards the mythical Atom Fjella, where big rocky peaks towered over us exposing hundreds couloirs and steep ski lines. The peaks range between 1400-1700m, with the highest point on Svalbard, Newton Toppen, reaching 1713 meters above sea level. We set up a basecamp at the heart of Atom Fjella for 5 days hoping for a break in the weather before we started our journey back to the ocean. We would finish our traverse in the Russian ghost town of Pyramiden, an abandoned mining settlement from the Soviet era. From here, we’d be brought back to Longyearbyen by boat. We chose a route that involves travelling primarily on vast glaciers using randonée skis and pulling sleds. Travelling across the landscape was our primary purpose, but we all get inspired by big mountains and skiing. In the end, conditions and weather tempered our desire to ski, and the goal of the trip turned into something far more simple: getting from Point A to Point B, which, as it turned out, is not always so simple.

After 8 days of living in a trance with minds and bodies numb, the clouds eventually part to reveal a dominating landscape. This is what we have come here for: to feel liberated on this frozen sea of ice, surrounded by big mountains. It’s hard to wrap our heads around the expanse of it all. Sun finally finds our faces, thawing and relaxing our bodies. We enjoy every moment of it before the world closes up on us again as the horizon dissolves and the mountains fade into obscurity; we’re back in the white room once again.

Our timing may not have been the best, with whiteout conditions and stormy weather for most of the trip. And we might not have chosen the easiest road to walk. But, after all, it’s about the journey, the hardship and the challenge. We all share a common goal, a passion for exploring new places, the adventure of expedition style trips, and the desire to experience the high Arctic. It’s sobering to be in that landscape, fully immersed and in tune with the dynamic and ever changing conditions of the north and its importance for us all. Our existence feels unquestionably small but also meaningful in a way we can no longer deny. On the ice, everything else fades away. For every step we take and for every decision we make, it becomes clear what’s truly valuable, not only in that moment, but on a bigger scale, in our lifelong journey as we return back home again.

The Svalbard Ski expeditions was made possible with MEC Expedition Support Fund.

Emelie StenbergComment