At the end of May I joined a trip to Svalbard with fellow mountain guides Jörg Wilz and David Lussier and a boat load of other new and old friends. Thanks especially to Jörg, who made it all happen, Phil Wickens, the expedition leader with Oceanwide Expeditions who brought us to the goods, as well as the Dutch crew and cook (Floris, Robert, Marika and Gabrielle) who transported us in comfort and kept us fed: 25 of us all told including crew.
In total we spent 12 days exploring the coastal ski touring that the archipelago has to offer: 7 nights on the boat and the rest in Longyearbyen. The Noorderlicht, a beautiful double-masted gaff rigged boat built in 1910, brought us into a few of the many fjords that empty into the oceans.
Made for Ski Touring
Svalbard, or Spitzbergen as it is also known, is made for skiing. Countless ski peaks rise 500 to 800 m or more directly out of the ocean, blanketed in snow and rugged glaciers as far as the eye can see. May is a good month to go there because access by boat is easy with minimal pack ice barring the way. I had very low expectations for snow and ski conditions, but I have to say I was very pleasantly surprised. While certainly not the blower powder I enjoyed day after day during this year’s endless western Canada winter, it was excellent spring ski touring and a real bonus in the last days of May when most sensible skiers have hung up their boards for the season.
My best day was actually the last day we spent skiing. An amazing day of climbing and skiing down three of Svalbard’s perfect ski peaks that rise out of a navy blue, perfectly calm fjord. The fjord was fringed with rugged, tumbling seracs and the lingering pack ice stretched into the bay. The snow was corn snow of a mostly ideal variety – soft and creamy, made for long radius, fast turns.
At the end of the day, as usual, we finished skiing and made our way onto the Noorderlicht by Zodiac. As soon as we loaded, the Noorderlicht began sailing to the next destination and we began relaxing, showering, eating, and talking about the day.
After a couple of hours our destination for the night came into view: the Russian settlement of Berentsburg, where coal mining is still in operation. It was probably around 8 pm when everyone started getting restless and talking about going for a ski tour. Really, this was the last thing I felt like doing but I thought — well, how often do I get a chance to start a ski tour at night? So I got my things together and reluctantly started the long walk up the staircase from the jetty to the town.
Barentsburg: A Soviet Era Relic
The town is a bit surreal. It’s classic Soviet era architecture with a bit of modern pizzazz from a recent facelift that renovated many of the buildings – at least the fronts of the buildings. The back sides of some of them are crumbling brick. What was especially odd was the presence of a massive Lenin sculpture in the main square, as well as a gigantic concrete slogan that read: “Communism is our Goal!” The facelift was not exactly thorough.
After walking through the town schlepping our skis with us we began the tour, at first through industrial waste including rebar and rusting metal pipes. The snow was appalling at first. But before long we gained the ridge overlooking the town and everyone’s spirits began to lift at the same time as the snow firmed up. The clouds even began to lift a bit and the views across the Isfjord were inspiring. We summited the Grønfjordfjellet a little after 11 pm and layed down 550 m of tracks, coasting into town, right to the brewery, at around midnight. At least a couple of us were still wearing sunglasses!
Arctic Brew Pub north of 79°?!
The little brewery was a curiosity. It bears a sign in front boasting of being “The World’s most Northern Brewery” which actually isn’t true anymore since Longyearbyen’s Bryggeri was built 10′ further north. But I would say it’s certainly the world’s most unlikely northern brewery, nestled into this industrial arctic harbour town. Before long our group settled down to drinking vodka shots & cold beers and chatting with the locals, who spoke of course Russian but also good English.
Finally at about 1:30 I realized that I’d been awake over 20 hours — all of it basked in sunlight — and that I was tired. I made my way by myself down to the jetty, just in time to see Robert cast off the Antigua (another beautiful sail boat) which had been moored next to us. Robert and I talked a bit in the glowing middle-night sun — he told me that he’d been visiting with one of the mates of the Antigua, a “lovely girl” he knows from his time on the sea — and then I turned in for the night.