Icebound: Spitsbergen in winter

With its creaking glaciers, dazzling aurora and the chance to sleep aboard an icy schooner, there’s no better time to visit Spitsbergen, says Nigel Richardson

8 mins

Once in Mexico City I met a woman from the north of Norway, where darkness reigns for three months of the year. What do people do all day there? I asked. “In the summer we fish and make love,” she said, flicking flies from her perspiring brow. “In the winter we don’t fish.”

Twenty-five years later, high in the Arctic Circle, I was reminded of this conversation. It was late February, the temperature was -27°C and my guide, Klaus Ryberg, and I had just parked our snowmobiles next to a collection of wooden huts. This is one of the most famous sites in the lore of Arctic endurance: the place where a Norwegian trapper called Hilmar Nøis spent 38 sunless winters, the last being in the 1960s.

It is called Villa Fredheim, but despite this rather promising appellation it is hard to imagine it as a love shack. Shack, yes. That’s precisely what it is; or, rather, two shacks, with the odd reindeer antler dotted about. Romantic it ain’t. In the winter Hilmar Nøis did not fish, but neither did he get in the love groove. He trapped and killed reindeer, Arctic foxes, ptarmigan, seals and polar bears. All around where we now crunched our boots, carcasses once turned the snow red.

Many kilometres from the nearest human habitation, Villa Fredheim is just about the loneliest dwelling you are ever likely to come across. It stands on the edge of a fjord on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, an hour’s flying time north of the mainland of Norway and nearer the North Pole than it is to Oslo.

I was here on a short winter break from London where – this suddenly seemed absurd – a single snowfall had recently paralysed an entire capital city. Here it is lack of snow that grinds things to a halt. An information leaflet for visitors to Spitsbergen makes the succinct point that ‘road connections to other towns or settlements are non-existent’. Beneath its thick wadding of winter snow, the island is a forbidding mix of rock and glacier, with just 13% covered in vegetation.

Thus, courtesy of the snowmobile, deep winter is the best time to travel. For all their drawbacks of pollution and noise, these pesky motorbikes-on-skis are a lifeline in the Arctic winter. Gliding as easily over the gentle ups and downs as a finger over a map, we had covered the 50km to Villa Fredheim in a couple of hours, with plenty of detours and stops.

Utter isolation...

In that time we had seen no one, nor encountered any human habitation until we reached Hilmar Nøis’s hideaway. All was white and undulating, as mysterious as a dustsheet cast protectively over furniture. Spitsbergen is the principal landmass of the archipelago of Svalbard, one of the world’s last pristine wildernesses, where the estimated 3,000 polar bears easily outnumber the human population. The question is: for how long will it stay this way?

I had come here counter-intuitively, in defiance of my usual winter impulse to seek a few days’ warm sun in Egypt or North Africa. What I found was one of those rare landscapes almost entirely untouched by mankind, where humans feel thrillingly superfluous, so ill-equipped are we to survive in such terrain and conditions.

So it was depressing to learn that as global warming melts the polar ice cap, competing nations are now scrambling to find oil beneath it and shipping lanes through it. Although Svalbard is nominally Norwegian, until 1920 it was international common land. The treaty by which it was granted to Norway also allows signatory nations to continue to pursue maritime, industrial and research activities.

This accounts for the presence of a Russian mining settlement in the west of Spitsbergen, and for the scientists from many nations who come to study the seas, the glaciers, the northern lights – and what might lie beneath the polar ice cap. Just 1,100km from the North Pole at their nearest point, these Arctic islands may be under threat as never before and I felt fortunate to be seeing them now.

Apart from the cold – enough to turn eyelashes into pelmets of frozen tears – and crevasses, the biggest danger to us was posed by polar bears, which explained why Klaus was packing a high-velocity rifle on the side of his snowmobile (strictly for self-protection; the hunting of bears was banned in 1973). He pointed past Villa Fredheim to Tempelfjord beyond. In the thick snow, the shoreline had disappeared. The frozen fjord was a wide, perfectly flat white valley. “See the ship?” said Klaus. “That’s where we sleep tonight.”

The Arctic light can play tricks on the eye, confusing horizontals and verticals and distorting distances. From here, 7km away, the ship looked like a model on a white linen tablecloth. Presently, I fancied, a bearded giant would reach down and insert her in a bottle. We gunned the snowmobile engines and slithered down onto the tablecloth.

The ship was a two-masted...

Dutch-owned schooner called Noorderlicht – Northern Light – with ten cabins and a capacity of 20 guests; each autumn she is deliberately left to freeze into the ice of the fjord so that over the winter she can serve as one of the most excitingly and remotely located hotels in the world. It is about 60km from the ship to Svalbard’s capital, Longyearbyen, an old coal-mining settlement of 2,000 souls housed in insulated, coloured boxes.

We had set off from Longyearbyen that morning with Klaus in expansive mood. Though polar night – the three months of darkness that my friend of long ago had intimated she spent à deux between the sheets – had finished in the middle of February, the sun remained so low in the sky that it wasn’t due to be visible in Longyearbyen till the end of the month. But Klaus knew that at some point during our journey it would appear. And it was an emotional moment when it did.

As an orange glow burst between two low hills to the east, Klaus slewed his snowmobile to a halt and stood up in the saddle, lifting his arms in triumph. “This is the first time since November that I see the sun,” he said, pounding one mittened fist into the other. “I just had to stop.”

Most of the 30,000 visitors who come to Spitsbergen each year do so in summer, when temperatures reach a balmy 5°C. But locals reckon late February is the best time to be here. The sun is on a roll, each day appearing 20 minutes earlier and going down 20 minutes later as it speeds towards the day in mid-April when it forgets to set altogether. Then, for four months, it will shine all the time, playing havoc with human body clocks. For now, it suffused the snowscape with a pearlescent light.

The snow on the frozen fjord sparkled as we approached the Noorderlicht. From 2km out she looked sinister and spectral, like Gustav Doré’s ice-bound ship in his illustrations of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (‘The ice was here, the ice was there/The ice was all around’). Closer still, she manifested colour – maroon and cream, like the livery of an old railway company – and took on a welcoming aspect.

Steam blew cheerily from a vent

A small black dog appeared at the top of the gangplank. This was Ijsbrand (‘Burning Ice’ in Dutch), a 13-year-old mutt who is famous in Spitsbergen for having faced down a polar bear and made it run away. Ten minutes later the scourge of bully bears was curled asleep on his bed in the cabin and we, divested of polar suits and balaclavas, were drinking hot chocolate and eating cinnamon biscuits supplied by the Noorderlicht’s First Mate, Maaike Groeneveld.

In this snug world of polished brass and wood, it was tempting to follow Ijsbrand’s example and curl up. But the day, said Klaus, was not over. Taking advantage of that lingering light, we jumped back aboard the snowmobiles and sped 17km east across the fjord to the 30m-high wall of the Tuna Glacier.

By this time the light was flat, the snow an expressionless grey. But the jagged, fluted wall of the glacier belonged to a different palette, being – to quote Coleridge’s poem again – ‘As green as emerald’. How could this be? “The formation of the crystals,” said Klaus. “They reflect blues and greens.” Somehow, as a desert flower finds moisture in the bone-dry air, a glacier extracts colour even from monochrome twilight.

As we raced back to the Noorderlicht night was finally falling, the tangerine blush of sunset was backlighting the snowy western peaks, and a star – “Venus!” said some later; “No, Jupiter!” said others – hung bright as a snowmobile headlight above the ship’s bowsprit.

There were unscheduled guests for supper aboard the Noorderlicht. Ingrid and Mikal, friends of Maaike, appeared out of the dusk, having spent 11 days skiing and camping in northern Spitsbergen. These wilderness freaks were the spiritual heirs of Hilmar Nøis, recharging their batteries through isolation and danger. And as they had chosen to traverse the kingdom of the ice bear, there were plenty of the latter.

They explained that each night they would rig a trip wire round their tent, primed to set off a distress flare if disturbed by an inquisitive bear. But such risks were worth running for the privilege of being part of this sparkling emptiness. “Everything is so fresh,” said Ingrid, “it is like opening a new book.”

As my companions explained, the book of the Arctic now has a shelf life. The defacers and book-burners are closing in and we need to turn its clean and beautiful pages while we can. But this was no thought to end the evening on.

At 9pm we all tumbled out on deck. The stars trembled and pulsed and the aurora borealis flared in the southern sky – not green but an ectoplasmic white shape that billowed and stretched before fading like a dream. A German woman called Christiane Ritter spent a winter on Spitsbergen in 1935: ‘I am catching glimpses of the last great mystery,’ she wrote. ‘In the face of it, human reasoning will disappear into nothing.’ 

The author travelled with Activities Abroad

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