In case it is not on your radar, Svalbard is a remote archipelago in the Arctic Ocean between Greenland and Russia. It came under Norwegian sovereignty in 1920, but it’s actually closer to the North Pole than it is to Oslo. On Spitsbergen, the largest island, is the capital, Longyearbyen, named after an American mining executive who established the life-giving Arctic Coal Company in 1906. Svalbard, which covers an area three times the size of Wales, is home to the world’s most northerly permanent residents – just 2,642 of them, according to the 2012 census, compared with almost 3,000 polar bears. Those with survival in mind rarely leave civilisation without a rifle.
Unless you’re a cross-country skier, getting about in an environment that is 60 per cent glacier, 27 per cent rock and 13 per cent land in winter is a choice between a dog sled and a snowmobile. Huskies, the workhorses of the modern era, forever willing and brave, stole the limelight briefly by transporting Amundsen to the South Pole ahead of Scott in 1911, only to get eaten for their pains. Their descendants cross Svalbard’s wilderness with the same enthusiasm. In the spirit of Amundsen, I plan to test drive the dogs up the glacier, then rip the snowmobile across the moonscape to a historic sailing ship locked in sea ice. Silence versus speed? An irresistibly potent choice, especially with those polar bears in the picture.
I leave Heathrow for Longyearbyen via Oslo. The plane touches down in Svalbard’s tiny airport at 00.30, but thankfully, Trappers Hotel is only 10 minutes away. My room is a luxurious replica of yesteryear: a wood cabin, but with ensuite and fierce central heating to combat the -20°C outside. Within moments, I’m cocooned in crisp, white linen – and fast asleep.
In an archipelago with a modest 30km of highway, all drives are short, so we soon pull up at the dog yard. In the autumn, 89 huskies howl to be chosen for the daily sled trails; by March, they watch speculatively from their raised wooden kennels. Overnight snow makes for a hard day in harness on the 12km route to the ice caves. Do they know something I don’t? I suspect the answer is yes.
“Grab Dido between your knees and pull the harness over her head.” Thea, my Finnish instructor, doesn’t take “no way” for an answer. Her employers use Alaskan rather than Greenlandic huskies because they’re bred for sociability, but Dido makes no move to greet me. When I yank her chain, she emerges with a sigh to submit patiently to the all‑too‑familiar fumblings of a rookie musher. Impeded by my Arctic onesie and felt-lined boots, I grab Dido by the scruff of the neck and attach her to the lead chain in the dog line and repeat until all seven dogs are attached.
My team races downhill into the blizzard. Why are they galloping like greyhounds pursuing an electric hare, rather than trotting in disciplined ranks as Thea’s are? In the deafening thrum of the storm, my mittened hands grip the sledge bar, while my feet slither on the icy runners; to lift one to stamp on the spiked, steel brake bar seems impossibly ambitious. Seeing nothing, I do nothing. Similarly blinded, Dido drags her mates off the sketchy track into deeper, slowing-down snow. Humiliation narrowly averted.
Time for the gruelling glacier ascent. This is stressful because the dogs need help, especially in such unforgiving conditions. As they strain and slow, I step off and push, stumbling as my feet sink into Thea’s footprints. The dogs pant and I puff, wondering if 400 vertical metres will ever end. When I’m good to get back on the runners, I’m intoxicated by exertion and an adrenaline high.
Rule one: put down red-metal anchors to hold the teams in place so we don’t have to walk home. Rule two: dispense seal-blubber snacks. They’re probably tastier than our rehydrated pot-lunches – the packaging suggests chicken curry, beef stew or spaghetti bolognese, but it’s hard to tell which. Afterwards we descend into the meltwater channel 40m below the Longyear glacier. In intense darkness, our head torches pick out hints of vibrant blue and turquoise amid walls of tangled icicles; our voices echo off the ice roof that glints high above our heads.
By now my team respond to my cries of “haw” and “gee” – left and right – as I pose like a ballerina on the runners. In my dreams at least. The dogs swoop freely down the mountain, accelerating into a gallop as they close in on the yard. Once I’ve stripped off their harnesses, I dispense high-energy pellets mixed with assorted intestines. My love offering is accepted; we’re the best of friends now.
You’d be lucky to find a restaurant as good as Huset anywhere in Norway, so coming upon it in Longyearbyen is amazing. Its extensive cellars contain around 20,000 bottles, headed by vintage Krug at NKr24,900 (about £2,460) a bottle and 1834 Madeira at £50 a glass. I enjoy a sumptuous six‑course dégustation menu, each dish with its own wine; I linger a while, but tomorrow is another rapidly approaching day.
Charlotta, known as Charlie, never leaves her snowmobile without a 30-06‑calibre Ruger rifle, a flare gun and a sheathed knife on her belt. She has never confronted a polar bear, but the reindeer in her freezer testify to her shooting ability. I hang on to that thought as I struggle into moon suit, helmet, balaclava, boots and mittens, in preparation for a 200km day trip accompanied only by this 23-year-old girl guide. The cumbersome protection is essential when riding a scarlet 600cc Lynx, a Canadian snowmobile designed to cross snow and ice at 100kph. Regrettably, I soon discover that coming off is much easier than getting on. First a snowdrift, then a rock, and we’ve barely been going for an hour. If Charlie is discouraged by my dramatic tumbles, she manages to conceal it. Clearly a Svalbard childhood is a masterclass in cool.
Faint sunshine filtered through cloud creates an eerie landscape, the diffused rays picking out the mountain tops in misty gold. Now I can follow Charlie’s tracks, which eliminates unpredictable hazards. Our speed increases in wide undulating valleys, but slows on cambered slopes and alarming descents. The heated hand throttle creates a throaty roar as the Lynx snarls up vertiginous hillsides into 90-degree chicanes.
I halt triumphantly beside Charlie in the ghost town of Pyramiden, a former coal mine bought by the Russians from the Swedes in 1927. Summer visitors stay overnight in the refurbished Tulip Hotel, but in winter a skeleton staff of four occupy a 1950s complex built to house 2,500. Their work detail is to serve soup, sausage and salad to passing snowmobilers, a lunch that is fuel not feast.
After a brief sighting of the world’s most northerly statue of Lenin, we blast off for the 70km stretch to Tempelfjorden to stay on Noorderlicht, a ship built as a Baltic lightvessel in 1910. High winds ripping across the landscape create swaths of sastrugi, one of 50 snow types defined in the Sámi (Lapp) language. This one’s not particularly snowmobile-friendly, and I cling white-knuckled to the handlebars as I swerve and skid across the ruts.
The unpredictable skies clear in time for the evening sun to touch the rich-red, twin‑masted ship with magic. I exchange land for ice-covered water, sastrugi giving way to a dancefloor-smooth surface dusted lightly with snow. After a swift 7km, I climb the gangplank to meet my Dutch hosts, Ted van Broechkhuysen and his partner, Maakie. Noorderlicht freezes into the fjord in February, then floats free as the ice melts in mid‑May to host cruises through the summer season. The saloon, dining room, 10 double cabins and shower rooms gleam with highly polished mahogany from Myanmar. Four Bavarians on an extended dog-sled trip are drinking beer in the bar, while their husky teams bed down on the ice.
In the tiny galley, chef Jackie prepares a magnificent feast of beetroot carpaccio with feta and pine nuts, roasted venison with iron jackets (baked potatoes) and homemade tiramisu. Ted, a man of few words but a subversive sense of humour, pours the red wine generously. By mid-April, it will be light 24/7 for four months straight, so no chance of seeing the aurora borealis, but on deck after dinner I catch an unpolluted sky with a million stars. Then it’s a deep and dreamless sleep.
On a perfect blue-sky morning – a rarity in these parts – Charlie and I zip back to Longyearbyen. En route, we spot wild reindeer. The Lynx flies down Svalbard’s first runway – built to evacuate a severely injured miner in 1959 – on the way into town. There’s time for a bowl of delicious mushroom soup in the Svalbar pub, though sadly not enough for a game of pool, before check-in for the 14.45 to Heathrow via Tromsø and Oslo.
Arriving promptly at my workstation after the commuter slog, my fingers Google Svalbard for a last look at the pristine wilderness I’ve left behind. But why should it be the last? Although I suppose rebooking better wait until lunchtime. Φ