Editor’s Note: This is part one of a three-part story, detailing the author’s recent sail and ski trip in the Norway’s Arctic.
Helga and I will be up by 9 a.m. Have a good night.”
Stein, our captain, is serious. You would know if he was joking. Any one of these hazards could present major safety issues to our expedition. But this is where we are staying for the night, and although there’s inherent danger, it’s another transcendent location.
We’re floating in the Greenland Sea near Svalbard, Norway. And we’re here to ski. Svalbard is an archipelago less than 600 miles from the North Pole. It’s a wild place to visit, let alone ski. But that’s our point for being here. We’ve come because Ice Axe Expeditions facilitates such trips to remote corners of the globe, and the terrain accessible by boat in this part of the world is nothing short of mind-blowing.
A camping spot is determined once Stein and first mate Helga either set anchor or tie-off our temporary home to an ice sheet with rope and ice screws. This home is a 62-foot sailboat named “Arctica II,” which is specially equipped for the rugged travel conditions that come with exploring for ski descents above the Arctic Circle. The hazard watch changes each evening. We post up in a different locale every night, and as a result, each unique place offers new hazards.
Once the crew is sleeping, the rest of us choose shifts so at least one person is always up through the night. There are eight of us, not counting Stein and Helga, but not everyone needs to stay up all night. However, with beer, scotch, and salty snacks widely available, few regulars are more than happy to keep watch over the ship, look out for the evenings’ wildlife show, and recount another day in this paradise for intrepid skiers.
Night is a relative term at 79 degrees north. While some are understandably tired from sailing and skiing all day, others find it difficult to sleep when the sun is shining as brightly at 4 a.m. as it would be if it were high noon. It’s all part of ski touring in the land of the midnight sun. Where else do you start your day at 2 a.m. under full radiant sunlight, have guides skiing with flare guns and rifles in case of a polar bear encounter, or factor in the ease of a zodiac landing with where you want to ski?
“I need some more ass!”
Laughter erupts from the table. Tuborg and Carlsburg are fine enough, but the beer we’ve taken the greatest liking to is Aass. Go figure.
The conversation switches to Jon recounting a couloir he, Alex Do, and I found ourselves in earlier that day. After an initial lap with the whole group, the three of us hoped to access a large couloir that spit right down to the icy ocean. Stopped by an overhanging cornice via a separate steep, wind-loaded approach couloir, the only way to safely ski the 50-plus-degree slope was to release a wind slab. Jon agreed to go on belay and cut the slope. With Alex on watch, I gave Jon enough rope slack so he could turn and wash the hazard down the line safely. Once the slab released, the three of us picked our way down the couloir.
We knew based on our exact location and from prior knowledge that we were the only three humans to have ever climbed or skied down this beautiful steep slice of obscure snow. In a land of thousands of aesthetic lines, many of which have never seen a set of ski tracks, the moment was pure and special. Svalbard is full of these experiences, some of which come in the absence of actually skiing. The scenery is overwhelmingly beautiful and difficult to take in at times. It’s that remarkable of a place.
Jon reached for some more Aass and offered yet another cheers to the day. Joel Baier, Alex Do, Andrew Eisenstark, and I remain awake. Kendra Nardi, Tracey Burton, and Jenny Corser are asleep. We’re just scratching the surface of our trip and it already feels like we’ve experienced a lifetime of memories. But before the rest of us could share our own anecdotes from the day, a bearded seal pops up from a nearby ice hole. Grabbing the binoculars it becomes clear that numerous seals are now spread out all around us, littered as far as the eye can see, sleeping on the ice sheet we’re currently using as an anchor.