Two weeks in the arctic
This trip was a long awaited dream. I'd wanted to visit Svalbard for years, but I'd been living in the wrong hemisphere for quite a while, and when I was last living in Europe I'd never found flights for anything less than an obscene price. But when I got back from Indonesia and was thinking about where to go next, I checked prices on the world's northernmost scheduled route, and found that it was doable.
So I flew from sunny London to sunny Oslo, and had a quick wander into town there as I had a few hours before the next flight. It was sunny when I arrived, at least, but as I passed the parliament building it suddenly began to rain torrentially. This, I thought, was probably good preparation for two weeks in the arctic.
I headed back to the airport, briefly worried I'd caught an express train to Trondheim by mistake. Luckily I hadn't and I got the flight to Longyearbyen.
The campground in Longyearbyen is right outside the airport. I walked down the hill and set my tent up. It was warm and sunny and at nearly 80 degrees north, the sun never even got close to the horizon. The first night I was there I slept very badly in the blazing daylight, worried too about the minuscule risk of polar bears. It only took a couple of days to get used to sleeping in broad daylight, and my tent was not at the edge of the camping area so I thought any rational bear would not attack me first, so I slept fine after that.
The problem for the independent traveller in Svalbard is that it is crawling with polar bears. That's a bit of an exaggeration but there are enough of them there that you have to be prepared to encounter one at any time. By law, you have to be armed, or with someone who is armed, when you're outside Longyearbyen. I wasn't into the idea of learning how to use a weapon to the proficiency I'd need to have a chance against an angry bear, so I was limited to trips with groups.
So I'd rather have been on my own when I headed to Trollsteinen, but I was with a small group of hikers, led by a guide and a husky. We drove up the valley that Longyearbyen sits in, and headed up scree slopes to one of the glaciers that sits above the town. The hike was mostly straightforward, and would have been all straightforward if it had been a bit colder, but the glacier surface was slushy and soft, and slogging through the ankle-deep icy water was a bit tiring.
On the other side, the trail steepened, and we ascended rapidly to a ridge that let to the top of Trollsteinen.
Coming back down, we sloshed across the glacier once again. The armed guide would not, as it turned out, have been much use if we'd met a bear. He seemed to be not much into the business of guiding, and walked as far ahead of the group as he could. We ended up spread out across the glacier, and if a bear had decided to take one of the older, slower members of the group at the back, they'd have been gone before the guide would have even noticed the problem.
I booked a boat trip. The plan for it was to head up Isfjorden to the Von Post glacier, with supposedly good chances to see whales, seals, walruses and maybe even polar bears on the way. But when I got to the offices of the people running the trip, they said the plan had changed - the wind coming down Isfjorden was much too strong, apparently, so we did a short trip downwind instead of a long trip upwind.
This was not too disappointing, because downwind was Colesbukta, one of Svalbard's abandoned settlements. All was calm there, eerie and quiet, and we spend a little while looking around the crumbling buildings. My phone buzzed while I was there, a message welcoming me to Russia. The signal must have come from Barentsburg, 12 miles away and Russia's only remaining settlement here.
On the way back, we saw a pod of beluga whales. They didn't approach our boat too closely but they were still magical, bright white in the grey sea, like ghost whales.
All trips in Svalbard were expensive. I was there for two weeks and I couldn't afford to do something every day, so on my spare days I walked into Longyearbyen. It was about four miles from the campsite - the longest walk you could do in Svalbard without being armed. The low road was pretty boring. The high road was more interesting, following the route of an old cable car system which used to carry coal from the town to the port. Svalbard is a weird mixture of nature as pristine as it comes and grotesque environmental vandalism. All human relics here are ugly and industrial, but anything built before 1946 is considered valuable heritage and cannot be touched. So the old so-called Burmaveien will be here for centuries, probably, decaying slowly in the Arctic air.
I got a boat to Pyramiden. The boat headed out into Isfjorden, sailing north to this abandonded Russian town. I was on the deck, enjoying the incredible views of the fjord under threatening skies, when I heard the noise of a helicopter over the noise of the boat. It was quite a way off and I wondered where it was going and what for. It gradually approached us, we slowed until we were hardly moving at all, and soon there was activity on the deck as the crew of the boat cleared away some tables at the back. It came closer, and soon it was above the boat.
I wondered if it was going to land where they'd cleared away the tables, but I didn't think there was enough space. It hovered over us for quite a long while, and then eventually someone abseiled out of it. They dropped slowly down a rope, and eventually they set foot on top of the bridge. For a long while, the rope was attached, the abseiler was inside the bridge, and the helicopter continued hovering overhead. I could only imagine there was a medical emergency, and that it must be very serious to require this.
After a long time, a stretcher appeared on the line and was winched up into the helicopter. Then the person who had abseiled down went back up, and the line was detached. The helicopter turned and flew off into the distance.
Only much later did I find that there was no medical emergency. This was just a drill of some sort. I'd wasted a bit of emotional energy worrying about the non-existent plight of whoever I imagined was suffering and I'd probably have appreciated the display of skill a bit more if I hadn't been thinking that someone was probably dying at the time.
The boat sped up again, and we neared Pyramiden. For most of the way, the boat was in utter wilderness, with no sign of human influence at all.
We got to Pyramiden. The town was abandoned in a hurry in 1998, and is now a ghost town, with just a handful of Russians living there to staff its recently re-opened hotel. I was staying there for three days, but not in the hotel in town. My accommodation was much more modest, a bunk in a converted shipping container by the port, a mile or so from town.
The mountain of Pyramiden loomed over its namesake town as the tourists from the boat looked around the ruins.
Pyramiden at its peak had a population of over 1,000. There were a handful of houses in the town but most people lived in large blocks, raised off the ground to avoid permafrost issues.
Many things in Pyramiden represented the furthest north of their kind. The swimming pool was one of them. You could almost hear the echoes of happy swimmers.
Pyramiden had some amazing amenities for such an absurdly remote place. Just a few hundred miles from the north pole, and yet they'd even had a pretty well stocked library. I practiced reading cyrillic script - it was the first time I'd seen it on my travels since my last visit to Serbia. I can't understand any of the languages that use it, but sometimes the words are clear enough. So I could see that the library had sections on geography, architecture and sculpture. And stroitel, whatever that might be.
The cinema projection room floor was covered by a thick layer of unspooled film. Why would they have unspooled it? I couldn't think of any reason. I picked up one of the reels - it seemed to be an animation. The Russian children who watched cartoons here would be in their twenties now at least. I wondered where they were and whether any of them ever came back here.
I got a lift down to my container. It was pretty awesome. The waters of the fjord were like glass, and the silence was incredible. Everyone else off the boat headed back; I was the only outsider in Pyramiden.
In the morning I walked back up to town. I was unarmed and while I was pretty sure the risk was vanishingly small, I felt hyper-alert on my way. The road between the port and the town is littered with industrial debris, and I made constant plans as to which bit I would be able to run to if a bear should appear. But my plans were thankfully unnecessary.
Back in town, I explored the gymnasium a bit more. With no-one around it was a lot eerier. The probability of finding a bear hiding in one of the rooms was the same whether I was with a group or on my own, but when there are other people around, things always feel safer. We'd clattered around the deserted rooms yesterday with little concern. Today, I tiptoed around, looking out for any hint of the unusual.
Even in the empty library, with the tundra just outside the window I could imagine that it would have been a pretty amazing place to sit and read a book when the town was functioning.
Pyramiden looked like it had been abandoned at a moment's notice. With a bit more time to look around than I'd had with the group yesterday, I found rooms in the gym building that I hadn't seen before.
Some parts of Pyramiden looked like they wouldn't take too much of a clean up to get working again. But I think the catering setup would need some more serious attention if you ever wanted to cook hygienically.
Finally it was time to leave Pyramiden. I was sad to leave it as I got back on the boat, three days after I'd arrived. It was the furthest north I'd been, and I wondered if I'd ever make it closer to the pole. All things considered it was pretty easy to get to here; going further would be massively more challenging.
We sailed back to Longyearbyen via the Nordienskiöld glacier. The weather had been amazing while I'd been in Pyramiden but it was colder and greyer today. Thick cloud hung over the glacier.
I went for another hike in the mountains outside Longyearbyen. This time, the target was Nordenskiöldfjellet, a little bit higher than Trollsteinen, and a little bit more challenging. No slushy glacier to cross, but a steeper ascent and a greater distance to cover. We started out at the top of the valley above Longyearbyen, at the entrance to an old mine, long since abandoned and now full of snow and ice.
Our hike started in cloud. It didn't look at all promising, and we fully expected that we'd have no view at the top. We waited there for a while, and just as we were about to head down, there was a break in the clouds. The snowy plateau appeared and disappeared again a few minutes later.
We headed down. The clouds were breaking up a little bit and we got some amazing views. When the clouds closed in again, the ridge we were descending along began to look like a path floating in the sky.
Rather than going straight back down into Longyearbyen's valley, we descended onto the plateau above it. There were some reindeer milling about in the distance but they fled before we got anywhere near them. A cairn on the plateau stood as a memorial to a victim of a polar bear attack here twenty years earlier.
We got to the edge of the plateau, high over Longyearbyen. It was a steep scramble down to sea level again.
The following day was my last on Svalbard. Ever since I'd started planning this trip months before, I'd had my eye on a trip marketed as an "Arctic challenge", which involved kayaking across the fjord and then climbing Hiorthfjellet on the other side. I'd booked myself in for the challenge and I was excited about taking it on, but when the agency came to pick me up at the airport, they said that we couldn't do the trip. There was already a strong wind blowing across the fjord, and the prediction was that it would get worse and worse all day. The kayaking would be impossible.
"So," they said, "we'd like to offer you an alternative. How would you like to climb Nordenskiöldfjellet?" I'd already been chatting to the guide about what I'd been doing in Svalbard, and she'd given me a slightly sheepish look when I said I'd climbed Nordenskiöldfjellet yesterday.
The rest of the group signed up for that, and I told them what a great time I'd had up there, but luckily for me there was a third alternative, a trip to the Foxfonna glacier. I'd seen this advertised and I thought it sounded a bit tame, but it was the only thing I could do today. And it was a lot better than I'd expected. We drove up the valley in increasing rain and by the time we were hiking, we were in thick clouds. So for most of our trek across the glacier we couldn't see a thing.
We stopped for lunch in utter whiteness. It was very disorientating. Our guide had tried to cross Greenland the previous year before a medical emergency had forced her team to abandon the trip and get airlifted off the ice cap. She said that most of the crossing until then had been in conditions like this. Crossing Greenland is an ambition of mine so I talked to her about how she tackled it.
Finally it was time to descend. Rain was battering down on the campsite when I got back. Luckily I'd already packed up my tent and didn't have to dismantle it in the downpour. I headed to the airport and left the arctic, hoping to be back again soon.