Text and photos by Kate and Marcus Westberg
My foot slipped out beneath me on the ice and before I knew it I’d lost control and slid down into a crevasse. The arctic island of Svalbard, named in a Viking saga meaning ‘cold coast’, feels like the end of the world, but is only a short flight from Oslo. At 78 degrees north, Spitsbergen is the closest we’ve ever come to the North Pole and around us stretched the glaciers.
Svalbard has a history of whalers and trappers who used to overwinter to hunt seals, walrus and Arctic foxes. Except for a few small settlements like Longyearbyen, there aren’t any roads and the parking lots were full of snowmobiles. The sun never set, but nobody strayed far from town unless they were armed with a rifle because of polar bears.
We spent a night at the Trapper’s Hotel at either end of our trip and the rest of the time out in the arctic wilderness. Lying at the foot of the Nordenskiöld glacier, we stayed in a remote cabin that can only be reached by boat in summer, and dog sledges or snowmobiles in winter. With no electricity or running water, our only link to the outside world was a hand-held radio.
Dog sledding is usually done on the glaciers, but as it was summertime we rode in a wagon on wheels, sticking to the gravel roads. At the Trapper’s Station we heard the Alaskan huskies before we saw them, all whining, barking and pulling on their chains to be taken out. When I patted the dogs, they jumped up and put their paws on my chest, licking me all over my face.
Our guide Kristen Wex, who feeds her own dogs on seals she hunts, showed us how to harness the huskies to the wagon. We drove our dog team across the arctic landscape with the brakes held down, stopping to watch the short-legged reindeer and give the dogs a drink. With their thick coats, huskies get warm in summer and sat panting with their tongues out.
Standing at the back of the wagon, we wheeled along the valley of Longyearbyen and up to one of the abandoned coalmines. Steering the team through the leader dog, Fifty, we called out ‘klara’ to go, and ‘gee’ and ‘haw’ to turn right and left. ‘Whoa’ brought the dogs to a halt back at the yard, where I got swamped under a pile of Alaskan husky puppies in their playpen.
We dressed up in survival suits, hats and goggles for a two-hour boat ride in an open polar circle boat to Billefjorden. The isolated cabin lies inside the glacier moraine, only 300 metres away from the Nordenskiöld glacier. Sometimes a couple of Alaskan huskies come along and give warning in case a polar bear comes too close, but we didn’t have any dogs with us.
Never having hiked on a glacier before, we had two experienced guides with us, Magnus Løge and Oskar Birkeland, to show us the ropes. Laden down with crampons, helmets and ice axes, we stopped to get into our gear, and practice some hiking and climbing techniques. Tied together with rope eight metres apart, we dug our crampons in and set off across the ice.
We hiked up and down the glacier cracks, crossing razor-sharp ridges and climbing up backwards with our ice axes. Slipping down a narrow crevasse, I stuck my crampons in on either side, catching myself before hitting the meltwater at the bottom. Nine hours later, we unhooked from one another and took turns climbing up a vertical ice wall above the sea.
Polar bears are occasionally seen in Billefjorden hunting seals on the sea ice close to the glacier front. The Nordenskiöld glacier reaches all the way down to the sea, and we carried our double kayaks down to the water’s edge, pushing off under a grey cloudy sky. Icebergs were scattered across the bay, glittering whenever the sunlight burst through the clouds.
Once again we were covered from head to toe in a rubbery waterproof suit that thankfully didn’t look too much like a seal. It wasn’t long before we saw a ringed seal lounging on a rock, staying still but keeping an eye on us as we floated nearby. There were all sorts of seabirds on the rocky cliffs, including Arctic terns that will chase even polar bears off their nests.
We made our way across the bay and pulled the kayaks up on a stony beach to rest and have a bite to eat. Paddling against the wind, Magnus and Oskar took us right up to the impressive glacier front, but not too close in case a chunk of ice calved off into the water. No polar bears swam up under our kayak, although one was sighted across the fjord on the same day.
We left the Nordenskiöld glacier behind to go hiking in the ice-free mountains on the side of Billefjorden. Walking along the stony beach, we watched kittiwakes and fulmars flying above the ocean, diving for fish in the water. Now and again, chunks of ice broke off the edge of the glacier and fell into the sea, creating waves that reached across the bay and lapped at our feet.
We started clambering up the side of a mountain, taking one step forward and two backwards as the rocks moved beneath us. With his rifle slung across his shoulders, Oskar led us up the steep mountainside, and eventually we reached the summit. Getting our breath back, we dangled our legs over the edge with a drop below that plummeted to the sea.
The silence was complete, the wind had died down and the bay was mirror-flat, reflecting the clouds above. The air was so clear and the vegetation so sparse and low to the ground that there were hardly any scents in this treeless landscape. All around us were snow-capped mountains, deep fjords and the mighty glacier, an empty expanse of untouched wilderness.
We warmed up after each day by jumping from a traditional sauna into an ice-cold lake and back again. Drinking water came from melted ice blocks from the glacier, and all of our wet clothing hung up to dry around the fire. Polar bears meant that we couldn’t go far from the cabin, but after a long day on the glacier or out at sea, we were happy to stay indoors.
Replete after a meal cooked over the wood-fired stove, we curled up to the sounds of the glacier thundering outside. The midnight sun lasts for most of the summer season, from mid-April to late August, and we pulled the blinds down to sleep. The constant daylight meant that we could stay outdoors without having to worry about darkness falling before we got back.
We packed up everything and watched the Nordenskiöld glacier disappear as we rode the boat back to Longyearbyen. By the end of our arctic adventure my body was pushed to the limit, unable to take another step or stroke of the paddle. Left with a taste for polar exploration, next time we’ll come in winter to go snowmobiling, dogsledding and skiing in the polar nights.
Marcus and Kate travelled with thanks to Basecamp Spitsbergen.