All the best expeditions start off in a cold, dark, damp smelling garage littered with kit, chocolate bars and packets of freeze dried food. Here we were, packing for our 5 day coast to coast ski crossing of the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago, Spitsbergen on the 79th parallel.
This trip was to be much shorter than my similar expedition here last year. I was worried that it would be over too soon, before I’d acclimatised to the cold, settled into our routines and allowed my mind the time to wonder and relax. From the garage we loaded up the pulks onto the sledges that were to be towed with us on a 4 hour journey via snow mobiles to our start position on the west coast ice edge.
Already the weather reports were wrong. Predicted blue skies and zero wind looked too good to be true, and it was. We arrived in near white out conditions with a strong, biting head wind that meant we barely spoke to one another before we set off, simply hurriedly preparing our kit and wanting to get on the move to warm up as soon as possible.
We skied for 3 hours into the wind to get off the ice and up onto the glacier. That first night camping on the glacier was cold and windy, the tent shook all night. Because we were camped so closed to ice edge and thus our chances of an encounter with a Polar bear were high, we took turns throughout the night on shifts of Polar bear watch.
The 24 hour daylight was an aid to us, we weren’t limited by daylight and when it was sunny it raised the air temperature. It played havoc with my sleep however. The light is energising and, even though I was exhausted from skiing and the journey out I could not sleep, even with an eye mask on. It also affected my dreams. I had one crazy dream of spoon feeding my rehydrated chicken curry meal to a friendly polar bear. That doesn’t even happen in cartoons!
In the morning I opened my tent door to what looked like a whole new world. The steep, pointed mountains on either side of our tent channelled our route. We could see the baby blue craggy glacier to our left that we couldn’t see through the clouds yesterday. The sun shone and made the snow on the ground glisten like a sea of diamonds. Now we felt the vastness of our snow covered surroundings and were humbled by our smallness in such an almighty scene of white beauty. As I stepped outside, what striked me was the silence. It amplified our feeling of being so alone, so far away from civilisation, so out of our usual comfort zones and in such a unique place that we were privileged to have all to ourselves. We also appreciated a warmer temperature of around minus 10.
It took about an hour each day to de camp and a couple of hours upon waking to boil snow to fulfil our water needs for the day. We’d then set off, covering 20-25km per day, stopping for lunch and setting up a new camp again at the end of the day and boiling more snow for our meals and drinks. We ate rehydrated meals. Whether they were meant to be curry or pasta they were all the same colour orange and tasted much the same but were filling and warm.
Going to the toilet was something us girls dreaded but couldn't avoid. It was a very brief process that I generally put off for a couple of hours until I was desperate. The “procedure” was so much worse in the wind and the direction was of huge importance to prevent “accidents”. It was better in camp. We’d dig a hole in a hole that was shielded by a wall made of snow blocks to protect us from the wind and give us a little privacy. The loo always had a magnificent view.
We skied mostly in silence. Silence, due to the face burning winds that paralysed my facial muscles but mostly because I was totally consumed by the awesome beauty of my surroundings that I couldn’t articulate words. We travelled at a slow place. The legendary Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen famously stated “ At the poles, if you sweat you die”. Sweating is a really bad idea as the dampness causes your body to cool down very quickly. Therefore we took it slow and steady, stopping for a 10 minute break every couple of hours to hydrate and refuel with a snack. The route took us up and down 2 glaciers. The down hill bits were the most fun. The easiest way to get down was to simply straddle our pulks and ride it like a child would a sledge all the way to the bottom!
At home in the UK we’d never dream of eating outside in temperatures less than 25 degrees under a perfect blue sky. Here, if the weather was good we’d dig a communal table out of the snow each evening and enjoy a sociable dinner of freeze dried meals and mugs of hot chocolate in temperatures of munis 15!
Despite being surrounded by snow and ice in the arctic, the air here is very dry and it is classed as a desert. Therefore, when it snows, the snow crystal are so large and dance as they fall out of the sky, lighter than feathers. When they land they are perfect crystals with multiple defined jagged lines bolting out from its centre, shaping it like a crazed star. So thin and fragile they melt instantly, blink and you miss the magic. I was mesmerised watching the delicate flakes land on my arm and disappear almost instantly.
On our last day we planned to descend 2 joined glaciers down to the sea ice and our snow mobile pick up. However, the two glaciers that were still joined as little as 2 years ago were now not, and a massive steep crevasse now stopped us moving forwards. We had to remove our skis and trek for a couple of hours until we could find a safe crossing point to continue our journey. Not every plan sticks on any expedition.
The view from camp over the sea ice on our last night was particularly spectacular. The wind was gone, the baby blue glacier cut the through the white of the frozen flat sea and the sharp tipped snow covered mountains above it. At 2 am on my shift of polar bear watch I had this wondrous view all to my self. I felt like no one had ever been here before, that I was the first to see this humbling view. In this huge expanse of space I felt the greatest sense of freedom that I’ve ever known.
On our return to civilisation I stood under the hot shower for over half an hour. Before I did I took a long look in the mirror. I’d not seen my face for 5 days. My cheeks were wind burnt tomato red, my lips cracked and skin was already peeling off. But I was smiling back at myself and had a sparkle in my eyes. Adventure isn't glamorous or always pretty, but I felt a huge sense of satisfaction at not only having survived out in the snowy wilderness in temps of munis 20, but having thrived, laughed a lot and felt a deep sense of contentment and clarity in my mind.
It’s such a heathy process to go through and for just a weekend, I felt as though I’d been in a completely different world, the magical frozen kingdom of the polar bear. What a privilege it had been.