Photography by Reuben Krabbe
An unlikely journey to capture a rare celestial event
ody Townsend stood over Reuben Krabbe, shaking him awake at 1 a.m. for an unceremonious changing of the guard.
“Reuben, get up. Bear watch.”
It was the photographer’s turn to patrol for polar bears.
Shielding his eyes from Townsend’s headlamp, Krabbe struggled to crawl out of his sleeping bag and quickly zip into enough down layers to ward off the subzero wind gusts outside the tent.
Townsend had no bear sightings to report, but the Aurora Borealis was putting on a show, dancing on the southern horizon. That’s how far north they had traveled—far enough for the
Northern Lights to be south of camp—to reach the arctic islands of Svalbard, Norway, with one narrow objective: to photograph skiers silhouetted against a solar eclipse.
Three years prior, looking for his next challenging project, Krabbe, a 25-year-old Canadian
photographer, dreamt up the expedition that had brought Townsend and eight others—including
Brody Leven and Chris Rubens, filmmaker Anthony Bonello, and photographer Bjarne Salén—to their frozen campsite, located in one of two places on earth with a perfect view of the total solar eclipse on March 20.
Months of planning and careful calculations determined the Norwegian archipelago between mainland Norway and the North Pole, home to 2,642 residents and equally as many polar bears, provided the ideal vantage point to see the moon completely block out the sun. Through the ages, people have sought to explain the phenomenon with fables and legends laced with misunderstanding and fear. Historically, the Vietnamese believed a giant frog was devouring the sun during an eclipse, while the ancient Greeks considered it to be a sign of angry gods. Inuit tribes in Greenland thought the eclipse was the result of the moon chasing his sister, the sun, until he finally catches up to her in the sky.
“I expected to be constantly moving, like every other expedition. But this was all about the shot. The trip was half survival.” —Brody Leven
While total solar eclipses happen as often as every 18 months, this eclipse also took place on the spring equinox—the same day the sun returned to view after six months of complete darkness in Svalbard—an occurrence so rare NASA estimates it won’t happen again for another 400,000 to 500,000 years.
“Ultimately, it was controlled chaos, predicting and narrowing down our possibilities. We had to
be emotionally prepared to get skunked,” says Krabbe, who pored over metadata of eclipse photos and studied maps and celestial charts in anticipation of the 90-second window he would have to get his shot during the event.
Despite every preparation, every precise calculation, the trip’s success was left to chance in a place where the sky is overcast 60 percent of the time in March. A cloudy sky could block the eclipse and Krabbe would be unable to get the shot he had waited three years to capture.
“To go all the way to Svalbard and try to capture the pictures and videos during an eclipse was all a bit stressful,” says Salén, the second cameraman on the trip. “It’s a risk to go and not even see the eclipse happening, but if you believe in something you should just go for it.”
Weeks before the eclipse, Krabbe and the crew met their guides, Steven Lewis, Garoar Hrafn Sigurjonsson, and Pierre Muller, in Oslo, then flew 1,268 miles north to Longyearbyen, the
largest settlement on Svalbard.
During two weeks camping on the Fridtjovbreen Glacier, preparation for the shoot included scouting for the perfect ridgeline that was both skiable and explicitly positioned for shooting
during the eclipse.
“The boys dug a hole with wind walls for serious business. This hole soon started to form a mountain. I gave up on that and built my own ladies room. Life became good again.” —Erla Johannsdottir
Down days were spent among seven tents where restlessness set in quickly. The frustration of waiting was palpable. To pass the time and keep warm, the crew started digging, moving hundreds of pounds of frozen snow to build a grand ice palace for their subterranean outdoor toilet. A snow seat perched over a long, deep trench was protected from the wind by towering walls of ice blocks stacked 10 feet high.
“We came up with this vision for the bathroom to keep from getting snow all over your butt when you had to go,” says Rubens. “We probably spent seven or eight hours moving snow.”
At night the crew would gather in the cook tent where Erla Johannsdottir, a 32-year-old Iceland native, would pull from her supply of home-cooked vacuum-sealed meals. Pytte Panna, a Swedish dish of hotdogs, potatoes, vegetables, beets, and a fried egg, became a group favorite. Johannsdottir spent two weeks preparing enough meals to feed the group of 10, which included two vegetarians, two with lactose intolerances, and one allergic to gluten.
“Usually, I can cook one big pot of bolognese for everyone on a trip,” says Johannsdottir. “In this case I had three or four pots going at the same time, making sure nothing would go into the wrong pot and risk giving someone diarrhea in 13-below temperatures.”
To save time the morning of the eclipse, the crew skipped their usual breakfast of porridge, bread, and baked beans, and opted for a quick dehydrated meal as they loaded the sleds and traversed to the photo site seven miles from camp.
Everyone followed the house rules: No stepping off the snowmobile on a glacier without probing, and you must be roped up if crossing glacier terrain. Bonello and Krabbe were tethered to Lewis, lead expedition guide. Should they fall into a crevasse on the shifting glacier while shooting, he would be their best chance of rescue.
Townsend, Leven, and Rubens were atop a wind-packed slope more than a mile away, their tiny silhouettes small enough to fit inside the sun’s golden disk as the moon began to darken its light. Each skier later complained of the brutal cold, suffering on the ridge as they waited for the photo team to give the signal. As the sun moved in the sky, Krabbe and the filmmakers continuously adjusted their position on the glacier to keep the skiers and the sun in frame. Salen stood on the ridge as well, acting as a marker for both the skiers and the distant cameramen on an otherwise barren spine. Even using protective glasses and filters for the 500-millimeter lens, it was difficult to see where they were shooting. Photographing action in dark and shifting light required Krabbe to push his camera to the limits of its ISO, letting in enough light to illuminate the movement of the skiers without overexposing the grand celestial background.
On the mountain range just behind the skiers, clouds had been building all morning. Krabbe felt the anxiety of a pending failure. “If we did get clouded out, it would have been disappointing, but I
would have been OK with it. At that point there was nothing I could do,” he says. “But it would have been much harder to look the other guys in the eye and say it, after they had invested a month of their lives into this.”
“It was the most surreal thing I have ever witnessed. I felt like we were on another planet in an alien world.” —Cody Townsend
Not more than five minutes before the eclipse began, Krabbe breathed a cold sigh of relief as the clouds began to dissipate from view.
“I’m not sure if it was the drop in temperature from the eclipse or just a beautiful coincidence, but they were gone,” he says.
As the ring of fire appeared around the fully eclipsed sun, the radios went silent. Venus shone in the sky. The skiers stopped. While the temperature dipped to 30-below, everyone stood still, watching their reward for weeks spent in the arctic desert. The sun’s atmosphere was the only source of light, casting a pulsating purple haze over the endless, snowy landscape—and then darkness.
“All around us, the ground was shimmering like shallow Caribbean water, like the sunlight was being split by small waves,” recalls Krabbe. “But above, the sun became a black hole. It looks like it’s exploding and you can understand why an eclipse has been such a terrible thing of legend in human history.”
During totality, when the last sliver of the sun disappeared, Krabbe finally set down his camera. There was nothing left to shoot.
“I’m conscience when I’m shooting of not being so in the mindset of production that I miss the experience. I stopped and just appreciated what I was seeing,” he says. “I could hear the skiers on the ridge yelling, and it was such an amazing experience I didn’t think I would have ever traveled this far to see.”
That night back at camp, the mood shifted from what had been a tense and tiring three-week waiting game to a celebratory appreciation of the rare and powerful experience the group had shared.
“I knew getting this shot was such a long shot that I held it all in an open hand,” says Krabbe. “To have it happen was an amazing euphoria.”
This story appears in the January 2015 Photo Annual issue (44.5) of POWDER, hitting newsstands December 15.