At the top of our first objective, the wind strength and acceleration increases 10-fold. When you're in the arctic, a north wind is really, really cold. Go figure.
Nobody is all that comfortable on the switchover at top, but the wind has deposited a nice coating below us that we're all looking forward to skiing. The wind blows so strong it's hard to take in the view from the top. But a look to the north reveals one of the prettiest lines I've ever seen. It's a strip of near vertical snow guarded by deep rock walls. The line looks like something a couloir skier would draw if they had the opportunity to create the perfect line.
But accessing that line involves more sailing, against the wind, in some incredibly choppy seas. Moreover, we need to get off this peak, safely, and reassess how to shield ourselves from the fierce wind and enjoy the quality snow.
We make tentative turns at first until a third of the way down when the wind finally backs off. This also happens to be where several inches of windblown powder has collected. Relieved to be out of the blasting wind, the group enjoys some incredibly good snow at 79 degrees north.
Andrew's fired up and asks if people are ready for another lap. The crew is ready, but Alex, Jon and myself are looking to the east. An aesthetic couloir stares right at us, eliciting interest. Here's where our flexibility as a group comes into play, as Andrew takes the majority for another run of the good stuff, and I take Jon and Alex into the unknown.
The three of us cross the glacier, skin as high as possible, and switch over to crampon and ice-axe mode. The climbing is relatively quick, the walls of the couloir are attractive, and while the wind is howling at top, it's tolerable. We take a look out from the apex of our line to enjoy a new vantage. As we gaze back at where we came from, Andrew's leading the other members of our crew through some legitimate arctic pow. It's a pretty cool sight to take in, something akin to actually living in a ski movie.
Alex drops in first. Jon follows and I bring up the rear. The skiing is a little variable, but the line is rewarding. Back on the glacier, remembering the paw prints we saw earlier, we do our best to balance remaining aware of the inherent danger around us, and not giving into exploding with joy over how blown away we collectively are to share in this experience.
It's no easy feat to get to Svalbard, let alone facilitate a trip to this far corner of the globe, but that's exactly the function of Doug Stoup's company Ice Axe Expeditions. From the Amazon to Antarctica, Ice Axe specializes in making trips like this a reality. Doug is also aware that places like Svalbard are indicators to climate change and that those who are motivated enough to travel to such places are seeing them as dramatic changes are taking place.
We're sailing again and we're almost at the end of our trip. I've noticed on the maps Andrew and I study that there are lines that show a historic baseline for the many glaciers that guard each fjord. The maps highlight the recession of these glaciers. It's hugely noticeable and becomes even more real while looking at the monitors Stein uses to navigate the boat. At times, while Andrew and I are talking with Stein about potential places to anchor, explore and ski, the monitor will tell us we're on land. Of course we're not. Rather, we're sailing in a boat, but the glaciers have receded so much in the past 10 to 20 years, the maps and nautical data haven't caught up yet. To see a nautical map show you that less than 20 years ago you'd be on land while you're currently sailing on water is surreal. This crisis of glacial retreat is interestingly juxtaposed by the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Longyearben, which stores copies of plant seeds found in global gene banks in case of a major worldly catastrophe. Toss in that your passport gets stamped like you're leaving the E.U. when you fly to Svalbard and that it's a demilitarized, free economic zone and it'd be hard for the place to get anymore interesting.
None of us can believe we're sailing back to port at Longyearben. We didn't get to see a polar bear, and back on land a glass of "Aass" is going to cost $15 or so, but we did manage to endure a slew of unique daily hazards and share in as good of a ski trip that could possibly be experienced.
I dose off. As my eyes close all I see are sets of tracks on slope. Tracks. Beautiful etches on snow like an artist leaves in brushstrokes on canvass.
For more information on sail and ski trips in Norway’s arctic, check out Ice Axe Expeditions for an itinerary and guiding service.