The sun rose on Longyearbyen as quickly as my head had hit the pillow the night before. The dogs had definitely worn me out. I opened my curtains to a blinding welcome as the sun reflected off the snow and through my window.
After checking my itinerary, it was time to layer-up. A six-hour snowmobile expedition into the colossus Sassen Valley awaited us. The group met down in the hotel entrance where the shoes were kept; it is impolite to wear shoes indoors in Norway, a rule that I would more than welcome in the UK. In anticipation for a day of driving snowmobiles, the group proceeded to show off their driver’s licenses revealing glimpses of their younger selves. As I still remain parked on a provisional license I was unable to get into the hot seat. However, Paul Levien, of BCD M&I, very kindly agreed to be my chauffeur for the day meaning I would not miss out on this incredible experience. In no time at all the mini bus arrived and day two in the northernmost town in the world began.
We were dropped off outside a building very much like a car dealership, only for snowmobiles, which sat on the edge of the town’s limits. As we clambered out of the mini bus we were instructed to make the most of what warmth we could because when we reached the glaciers the temperature would plummet to an excruciating -20 degrees. Inside the building where the gear was kept were pictures on the walls of polar bears with chests puffed out and black eyes that stared through the lens at you as you walked around the room reminding us whose territory we were trespassing into. Beside them were pictures of groups, similar to ours, huddled together as a team in their thick blue, arctic-proof overalls. As I stared back and forth between the polar bears and the explorers I began to wonder whether they were promotional images or missing posters.
But you don’t travel to almost the North Pole to worry about things like that so we grabbed our gear and suited up. Just to give you an idea of how incredibly prepared/terrified of freezing to death I was I equipped myself with three pairs of knee length socks, a pair of long johns, the £80 Ralph Lauren jogging bottoms I won’t care to mention again, and a pair of windproof trousers. Two t-shirts, a jumper, a thermal hoody, and a waterproof coat hugged my torso. With two pairs of gloves, three neck warmers wrapped around my face, and a full-headed helmet, I was ready to begin.
In single file and led by our bearded and adept instructors we moved out from within Longyearbyen’s town limits and headed toward the wilderness. Hitting speeds of 40 and 50kmh we passed between the mountains; the only people for miles around. Each of our helmets had the option of a visor but I happily risked getting frostbite on my cheeks to take in the view. We carried on through the valley, stopping only to catch a glimpse of the Svalbard reindeer perched in the snow.
Our first stop was Villa Fredheim, a cabin built by Hilmar Nois. Nois famously spent 38 winters on Svalbard hunting polar bears and anything else he could find for food and warmth. The cabin amazingly still stands beside the ocean, which draws nearer and nearer each year. It was here that we were most likely to spot a polar bear we were told however, due to the unusually warm winter Svalbard had, by its standards anyway, there wasn’t a lot of ice forming on the shore, which meant there weren’t many seals, which meant the polar bears were hunting elsewhere.
After several star jumps beside our snow mobiles to get the blood running back to our toes we turned round and headed to one of Hilmar Nois original bear traps, which like his frosty abode, still stands today. Inspecting the wooden structure perched against a boulder we decided it was time for lunch. An arctic fox had been caught in the trap so we took the opportunity to sample some of the fresh, local cuisine. Of course this isn’t true. The guides passed around packets of hearty meals to which we added boiling water to like a Svalbard-style Pot Noodle. I don’t why but wolfing down a chicken curry in the middle of the arctic tundra was one of the most bizarre yet wonderful experiences of my life; two things which regularly intertwined throughout my stay in Longyearbyen.
As the sun sunk behind the highest mountain we hopped back onto the skidoos and headed back. It was on this final leg of the trip when Paul Levien decided to test out the true power in our snowmobile routinely slowing down only to jerk the throttle and make up the lost distance in a nano-second. I live to tell the tale so no complaints from me.
Within 30 minutes of parking the skidoos and returning our gear we were back at the Spitsbergen Hotel, sat beside the fire, slurping hot chocolate and waiting for our bones to thaw. Once they had we were back on the bus and transported to Camp Barentz for our ‘wilderness evening’. Gathered round a cauldron of bubbling reindeer stew we toasted a fine day of exploration with chilled stubbies and a warming shot of brown liquor. The reindeer stew was immense and I unashamedly helped myself to three servings whilst the group’s alcohol intake kept up impressively. Whispers circled the fire that we were heading to the local bars and we were ready to see what Longyearbyen’s nightlife was made of.
The Radisson seemed to be the common starting point and wasn’t too dissimilar from the average après-ski style bar. The next establishment was something a little bit more special, however. As it turned out, hidden away in the northernmost town in the world is an establishment possessing the 6th largest collection of spirits of any bar, pub or club known to man. What a gem we had unearthed! We stamped our feet back into our boots and marched down the street towards the bar. Kicking them off again we entered and scoped out the room in amazement. Two sides of the building wallpapered in vodkas, rums, whiskies, tequilas, gins and god-knows-what-else. The place was rammed and the atmosphere was jubilant. Imagine living in a town with some of the best scenery on the planet, incredible wildlife, almost no tax laws and a bar with the 6th largest collection of spirits in the world. Who would want to leave this place?!
A band made up of three men who looked like they’d sampled the bar’s alcohol collection three times over churned out bluesy rock n’ roll in the corner, soundtracking the evening perfectly as we sampled the bar’s arsenal. What a perfect way to mark my last night in Svalbard.
Like most things, all good fam trips must come to an end and over the course of my three connections back to London Heathrow, I looked back on my time on an island I can only hope to visit again.