The world's most northerly destination
Svalbard is the northernmost destination in the world, and the only truly accessible destination that can be referred to as High Arctic. This means that ordinary tourists can go on trips to untamed wilderness without having to set up an expedition. www.nordnorge.com joined a small group of Svalbard visitors on a trip to Barentsburg.
Dressed for the occasion
First, we were issued with our equipment: a thick woollen sweater, balaclava, robust mittens, thick socks, sturdy boots, cold-weather suit, goggles and helmet. Then, we received a quick introduction to the art of snowmobile driving: accelerator to the right, brake to the left. Of course, we were also shown the dead man's switch — the emergency brake under the left hand that stops the snowmobile instantly in an emergency. And a few tips on technique: on a right-hand slope, you stick your bottom out and lean to the left.
There were three guides for our group of 12, and all were armed because of the danger of polar bears. In case of the unexpected, there was extra petrol for the snowmobiles, dry clothes and emergency provisions. Our guides had a lot of experience of the wilderness, spending much of their time in Svalbard in the middle of nature, away from settlements. We felt well taken care of!
Over the mountain
We set off, driving right through Longyearbyen and up on the snowmobile track over the Longyear Glacier. The first part of the trip was slow, twisting and turning over the snowdrifts of the mountain. After a few kilometres, we stopped for a quick break so that our guides could check that everyone was all right. When a snowmobile group stops, the guides direct you to park in formation and turn off the engines, which keeps everyone together.
When we came down from the mountain to the west of Longyearbyen and onto the flat, we could drive faster. At a cruising speed of 50–60 km/h, we crossed frozen marshes, a fjord delta, narrow riverbeds and wide valley bottoms in a landscape of pure white. Occasionally, we glimpsed the open water of the Isfjord on the horizon. The Svalbard reindeer grazing in the distance didn't seem to mind us. We stopped for a few coffee breaks en route, and at the Semmelbu hut, we heard that a polar bear had been seen there the day before. We didn't see a bear ourselves though — 15 snowmobiles make far too much noise.
It was a fast run down Grøndalen and out onto the sea ice of the Grønfjord. We eventually reached Barentsburg, where we slowed right down — no speeding in a built-up area. We parked in formation in front of Hotel Barentsburg, the guides secured their weapons and we were ready for lunch. The hotel is also the dining hall for this little community; we ate Russian pirog and pelmeni, and had the chance to buy Russian souvenirs.
At the last coffee stop on the way back, we prepared ourselves mentally for the final challenge — Fardalsbakken. You need a good speed to get up the hill onto the Longyear Glacier, or else you grind to a halt. Everyone stopped at the bottom and gaps of 20 seconds were allowed between us. One by one, we opened the throttles and everyone got up. There was a great atmosphere at the top, though the guides would have fetched anyone who got stuck. Then all we had to do was drive down the Longyear Glacier in the blue twilight, with the lights of Longyearbyen below us.
Snowmobile on Svalbard
People on Svalbard love driving snowmobiles, and there are lots of organised snowmobile trips. Even in January, when it's dark, you can go on short trips with headlights in the dark, either over the frozen Adventfjord or up to the Fredhamn cabin at the top of Todalen. Barentsburg and the "Noorderlicht" schooner, frozen into the ice in Tempelfjord, are within a day's travel. Anyone who does not suffer from back problems and has decent eyesight and a driving licence can go on the shorter snowmobile trips with no previous experience. Beginners are given a full briefing.
There are also longer day trips to Isfjord Radio at Kapp Linné, the abandoned Pyramiden mining village and the east coast. The longest trips are five days, overnighting in tents and cabins. Some snowmobile experience is an advantage, and you should be used to the outdoors. You can also hire snowmobiles for solo trips, as long as you have a weapon licence and your own weapon or permission to rent one.
All available Svalbard trips can be found on Svalbard Reiseliv's website www.visitsvalbard.com