Not so long ago, in a land far far away, I spent ten days on a rocky, icy landscape, bathed in the eternal sun. This far away land was Svalbard – a distant Norwegian archipelago at 79 degrees north. We set up base camp on a remote fjord and explored the neighbouring glaciers and peaks.
I was part of a trip organised by High Places. Our base camp consisted of a large orange dome which was the mess and hanging out tent. Then we had 3 small sleeping tents. This and a few logs to sit on, a fire, and an outside loo around the corner was to be our home for the next while.
During the day we would make hikes through this barren, cold landscape. In the night – a night as light as the day – we would sleep. And we would watch for bears.
Time loses its meaning on Svalbard. The sun doesn’t set. The sun doesn’t get near the horizon. It just precesses around the sky in never ending circles. We decided to lose time, collectively, as a group. In this eternal day, we would define ‘night’ as we pleased. As a group, we decided that 22:00 would be when we go to bed – by definition. Ten hours later (8 hours sleep and 2 hours bear watch), we would get up, and it would be 08:00 – by definition. We would hide our watches, and eat when we are hungry, and sleep when we are tired. So was our time on Svalbard. Away from the world, in a timeless land of rock, ice and snow.
Sam, our guide, who did keep an eye on the real time, told us later that within 3 days we were 6 hours behind real time. Our days had been long. Our hikes had been long.
Our walks took us along rocky fjord shores and across glacial streams. Water from the glacier melts and flows down into the fjord, fanning out into long tentacles. In order to cross these icy melts, you walk to where it is most braided and cross one little stream after the next, wearing neoprene socks for the cold, and sandals for the pointy rocks.
A glacier is a beautiful expanse of turquoise blue ice, etching its way down a valley. A moraine is a pile of rocks and sludge that the glacier vomits out at the bottom. We had to cross our fair share of moraines.
Crossing all these obstacles, we were able to walk in a land of rock, cloud, ice and snow. Across glaciers, over ice sheets and up mountains.
Every ‘night’ was punctuated with bear watch. Polar bears roam around Svalbard, and, although not their first choice, a human could make for a tasty (if lean) morsel. At a different time each night, I was woken to be the only person awake at our camp, panning the landscape for polar bears. On these watches, armed with an alarm flare, I would sit on our little log in front of the mess tent, write my journal, and do some exercises. The daily two hours of bear watch became a favourite time of the day. Alone in this arctic landscape, I gazed over the fjord and soaked in the peace and tranquility. Seagulls would fly past. Arctic terns would hover above the water and then dive, dining on the fish swimming below the surface of the still fjord waters. The light would change as clouds came and went. The wind would pick up and die off. And I was here, alone, now.
On our only multiple day trek, at our advanced base camp, I presided over the most spectacular views of the whole trip during my polar bear watch, accompanied only by Genou – the guide’s dog. It was 3am, the skies had cleared, and the sun bathed the whole lunar landscape in the most amazing light.
That day saw us climb up a glacier onto the wide ice sheet above. Bathed in sun (the best weather of the trip), we trudged through the slushy snow on the ice sheet towards a nunatuk – a mountain surrounded by ice. We had beautiful views, but, due to the sludge, didn’t make it to the nunatuk.
Svalbard, apart from being a destination for tourists seeking the barren beautify of the far north, it is also a mining island. Mining still takes place there. A lot of the unused mining infrastructure, although decaying, is protected, and touching or tampering with it is against the law. Consequently, there are pylons and posts, worn and decrepit roads. There is also an (almost) abandoned Russian mining town – Pyramiden.
A captivating sight. Mining buildings and equipment, rusting and decaying in this bleak, polar desert. Walking through this ghost town, it feels like planet earth after society has collapsed, and humanity has left. Svalbard is truly at the end of the earth.
Copyright: Matthew Harris (lambchopeindhoven)