After touching down in Longyearbyen, the world’s most northerly settlement, our Arctic adventure began in earnest the next day as we embarked on a week-long camping, snowmobiling and hiking tour of Svalbard. We hiked to a glacial ice cave... only, our guide Isi (alongside her four-legged friend, Jersey) had to dig out 150 cm of snow drift from the day before in order to gain access to the entrance. But when the sights that await you in the mysterious subterranean glacial world are that impressive, it’s worth the effort.
It’s hard not to feel immediately awe-struck, and you quickly forget the temperature…
Illuminated only by the head torches on our helmets, we ventured deep into the bowels of the ice cave. The cave itself – more like a series of passageways that required varying degrees of dexterity to access them – is formed as a result of the pressure of the glacial ice overhead, and summer meltwater carving out channels below. The layers of ice trap ancient secrets, including information about the oxygen and sunlight levels when the ice strata were formed.
What’s a trip to an ice cave without an obligatory subterranean tea (or in our case, hot toddy) and biscuit break? The facilities didn’t exactly extend to a café with seating, it was more of a ‘bring your own’ type affair. Adding to the allure of the experience, this gave us ample opportunity to drink in the surreal, icy wonder of our surroundings before retreating back to the comfort of our guesthouse for the night.
As our Arctic adventure continued, we discovered that when trekking in temperatures dropping to -30°c, it’s surprising how much food you need to take on board just to keep functioning. Being ‘hangry’ when it’s that cold would be a recipe for disaster for the rest of the group!
When you also add in having to pull a 30kg pulka (a small sled which you drag behind you using a harness attachment), you’re very ready to stop for a surprisingly delectable expedition-style, boil-in-the-bag meal – settled on a newly-cut snow seat, courtesy of the guides.
Is there a more beautiful experience than watching the flicker of the Northern Lights atop the peaceful adjacent mountainside? It’s hard not to feel immediately awe-struck by such a serene sight, and you quickly forget the -25°c temperature that (almost) put you off your boil-in-the-bag meal.
On our first night spent in the wilderness, sleeping in sub-zero conditions, we took shelter in an ice cave, and the hatch shown under the shimmering aurora was the entrance to our subterranean accommodation for the evening.
After descending from the surface, -6°c inside the cave felt positively balmy, and we all sought out improbably awkward looking ledges, unrolled our sleeping paraphernalia and settled in for a peaceful and unique night’s sleep (punctuated occasionally by the profound reverberation of snoring rumbling up and down the narrow passageways).
Whilst exploring the icy terrain, frankly it doesn’t matter what your pulka sled weighs, partly because it is surprisingly imperceptible when you are walking, but mostly because you get to marvel in the rugged beauty of the all-encompassing snowy landscape. And I challenge anyone not to grin from ear to ear when you take off your snowshoes, store them on the pulka, then mount your plastic steed to slide down a hill.
We’ve all heard the expression ‘a room with a view’. But when the room in question is a laavu tent, and the view in question is the stunning beauty of the mountains of the Svalbard arctic desert undulating before you, it's truly hard to find better. Overnight, we took hour-long shifts on polar bear watch, where you stand outside whilst the rest of the group sleep, armed with an air horn to call reinforcements if a bear is spotted.
What better way to round off the trip than to trade in our pulkas for snowmobiles, taking an adrenaline-fuelled ‘safari’ from Longyearbyen to the mighty Tempelfjorden Glacier. As we stood revelling in the view and eating our final boil-in-the-bag meal of the trip, it gave us the perfect opportunity to reflect on the serene majesty of Svalbard – and to pose for an obligatory group photo.