When you fly into Longyearbyen, Svalbard, the first thing you notice is the mind-bending scenery outside the window of the plane. This land was made for skiing and riding.
The second thing I noticed was an older lady carrying a hulking .30-06 rifle over her shoulder on the street.
What’s going on here?
I was shortly thereafter informed of the 3 rules of Longyearbyen, Svalbard.
#1. It’s illegal leave town without a gun
- You have to have a rifle if you leave town. It’s the law. Why? Polar bears… Over 3,000 of them.
#2. It’s illegal to die
- Death is against the law in Longyearbyen. They only have a small graveyard that stopped accepting new burials over 70 years ago. Why? Because the bodies never decompose… Scientists found the bodies perfectly preserved due to the permafrost… If you get sick or are close to death, they literally ship you back to Norway. Tchau!
#3. It’s illegal to have a cat
- Dogs rule, cats drool. Why? Svalbard is home to a huge Arctic bird population. Cats kill the birds and now they aren’t allowed anywhere in the archipelago.
As soon as I heard these 3 rules, I knew this was going to be an epic trip.
- Longyearbyen is the furtherest north city on Earth
- Svalbard is kind of Norway’s but there are are also Russian settlements and coal mines there
- The sun doesn’t set in Svalbard for 4 months
- Longyearbyen was founded by an America named John Longyear
From the get-go, I was swimming in new experiences, seeing new things, and not allowing my brain time to catch up. I met the crew, moved into my room at the Radison in Longyearbyen, ate dinner, and quickly found myself in a NYC style whiskey bar drinking fine imported bourbon with group of people from all over the world that I already felt comfortable with. The next twist came when we rolled out of the dark, musky, windowless bar into the blazing sunlight at 11:30pm.
It hit me, again… This is going to be an epic trip.
The next day we found ourselves in the 62-foot Arctica II sailboat – a seaworthy ship captained and first mated by Stien & Helga from Norway. We were 8 clients, 2 guides, the captain, and first mate in that 62-foot boat. Downstairs, the boat has a galley, small living space, and 5 rooms (each with a bathroom) that slept all 12 of us comfortably. Upstairs is the bridge and a common room for dining and hanging out. This was our happy home for next 7 days.
This trip was one of the best trips of my life. It was simply surreal to be in a small sailboat charging around these massive peaks and fjords with the sun simply running circles in the sky. The sun never set, never rose, just spun around in wide circles playing games with our shadows from every direction. It took a few days for me to fully understand what was going on all around me. When I was able to finally digest this place and its charms, I felt like I was on higher ground. Higher latitude ground, at least. Svalbard is pure magic.
Great skiing, reindeer everywhere, ghost towns, icebergs, sea ice, crystal clear water, walrus, seals, a 5-star floating hotel, the constant threat of Polar Bears, not going anywhere without two .30-06 rifles, delicious meals, all the IsBjorn beer you could drink, and the heart stopping polar plunge made this trip nearly too much fun to fully psychologically understand.
In our 7 days in the high Arctic, we skied 2 isles, 2 glaciers, sailed through 5 different fjords, and reached a latitude as high as 79º North, by far the furthest north or south I’ve ever been. The skiing was corny and fun every day we skied and we certainly found some long, sustained steep runs that got the blood pumping.
It was simply badass arriving on a remote peak with nothing man made in sight then calling our ship via radio to come pick us up where we calculated our arrival on the beach. Watching the distant ship turn and b-line directly for us from the top of a wind swept peak was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had anywhere. Felt like a precise, tactical military operation. Except we were just skiing, have a ball, and drinking beer. Too cool.
2016 SVALBARD TRIP SKIING DETAILS:
Day 1: Transit from Longyearbyen
- Everyone aboard at about 2:00pm, did the safety briefing with Stein and Helga, had pizza delivered, drank a couple of IsBjorn beers, and then headed out into the wild at about 5:00pm.
Day 2: Snowdomen Peak
- Our first day on snow was an exciting one. We chose glaciated terrain of Snowdomen peak and had a guide in the lead fall into a crevasse. He was remarkably completely unhurt and was able to extract himself. We just had to throw him a rope. Todd is a stud. Our other guide dropped a leg into a crevasse on the ski down and I had to throw him a rope and he pulled himself out easily. After those two crack insertions, we were spooked and did two more laps on lower down, non-glaciated terrain. Skies were sunny, snow was corny, and the skiing was great. 3 runs in total.
Day 3: Blomstrandbreen Glacier and Bloomstrandhalvoya Island
- This day started off socked in and foggy. We skinned up the large Blomstrandbreen Glacier with ropes hoping for the fog to lift. It didn’t so we skied back down by following our skin/pole tracks back to the beach. After an delicious soup lunch, the fog lifted and we had an excellent climb and ski of Bloomstrandhalvoya Island. We skied the steepest terrain of the trip and it was a long sustained pitch. We saw some old Polar Bear prints on the skin up and they were absolutely intimidating. We skied 2,000′ in the morning and 1,300′ in the afternoon.
Day 4: Trongdalen Valley
- We skinned up a long valley, past grazing Reindeer, and up mellow terrain to the base of a alpine cirque. At the base of the cirque there were two peaks to ski from. We chose the one to the south first and found steep, sustained skiing from top to bottom in corn snow up top and punchy snow down low. A fun run. We then tried the opposing peak and found excellent skiing in corn snow top to bottom. Some from our group did a second lap on this second peak. Weather was tough with snow/mist all day. 3,700′ of skiing on 3 runs.
Day 5: St. Jonsfjorden
- We awoke early to light winds. During breakfast, the wind began to howl and the rain began to pour… We waited to see what would happen in Signeheim bay for a bit before pulling anchor and sailing south to St. James. Pretty rough seas on the voyage south, but not traumatic. No skiing this day.
Day 6: Transit via Kongsfjord to Ghost Town of Pyramiden
- This was a long day of sailing in rough seas. Overcast skies, high winds, rain. We sailed all day, then arrived in the Russian coal mining town of Pyramiden under clearing skies. The Russians stopped mining here in 1997 and the place is a real ghost town. It’s eerie, other worldly, very Russian feeling complete with Vladimir Lenin statue, and beers are only $3 (beers are about $10 in Norway). Pyramiden is a photographers dream. Incredible, contrasting vistas of pristine nature and discarded humanity. We had an excellent time in Pryamiden complete with a full tour of the facilities and a bit of partying with some real Longyearbyen locals. One of which got real friendly with us, ended up kissing Elizabeth (photos below) and attempting drunken headstands on our table. Good times!
Day 7: Billefjorden, Campbellryggen Peak & the Mathlesondalen Drainage
- Sailed in sunny weather from Pyramiden docks through blown-in sea ice across the Billefjorden fjord for about 30 minutes to an attractive zone with a 2,800′ peak called Campbellryggen. Skinned and booted up to the summit. Skied back down where we’d climbed up in really fun, fast, responsive corn. Skied right back to the shore where the Zodiac came and picked us up.
- We ate a delicious lunch and moved a couple miles southwest to the end of the Mathlesondalen drainage that holds some beefy peaks. We skinned up the drainage and only had to boot the last bit to the summit. Sunny, clear, no wind, warm. Incredible views of a bizarre, glassy sea with snow clad peaks on every side. Skiing was superb with a fun little spine/wind lip we all slashed apart in the drainage.
- From the top of this peak, I felt the coolest I’ve ever felt anywhere. The Arctica II had sailed a ways away to safe harbor during our climb. We called them on the radio while eating lunch on the summit and let them know we were about to drop in. From the summit, while eating lunch, we watched the Arctica II motor towards us to pick us up exactly where we planned on arriving on the shore. It was an amazing feeling. Felt like the execution of a precise military operation. This trip is wild…
- We skied right to the water’s edge and were picked up by the Arctica II. We sailed to a safe spot across the fjord and had a terrific last dinner aboard the ship in Skanbukta bay. After dinner we sailed to Longyearbyen.
Day 8: Longyearbyen & Home
- Woke up, packed up the gear, disembarked, high fived, flew home.
I can’t express enough how sublime, intense, wonderful, luxurious, and unique this trip was. Sublime views and skiing, intense weather and wildlife, luxurious anytime we were on the ship, and a relentlessly unique experience full of firsts, once-in-a-lifetimes, and no ways. There’s simply nothing like Svalbard. Svalbard is a world unto its own.
Ice Axe Expeditions will be cruising to Svalbard to ski again in May 2017. I’ve been invited to guide the trip again and I’d love to share this experience with you and yours.
If interested, please email me here for the ski trip of a lifetime:
There’s really nothing more that I can convey to you in words about this place. I’ll let the 100 photos below tell the rest of the story. Many of the photos below are from our great clients. Thanks to everyone.