Svalbard may well be the most beautiful place that I’ve ever been to. It is also probably the toughest, and the storm that hit in the early morning of our penultimate day camping on the south of the island kicked off a mean old struggle that only ended when we were pulled out by a rescue helicopter around eight hours later. But we survived, and such adventures give life a few welcome contours.
Existence out in the field is not comfortable, but nor is it particularly unbearable. The rough parts of the day-to-day this high in the Arctic are comparatively small tradeoffs for the fact that each time you open your eyes you open them into a dream land of mountains, glaciers, frozen fjords and unfeasibly, indescribably gorgeous skies. The landscape is wild, powerful and vast, dotted very occasionally with the rusting and crumbling debris of old mining and trapping outposts, the traces of some hardy soul’s broken down dreams.
Principal enemies are cold and moisture, and conversation sitting round at breakfast or supper time revolves mostly around who has cold feet and hands (which is almost always everyone), and how frosty they are. When out hiking you are careful to adjust your clothing so you don’t sweat, because moisture freezes as soon as you cool down, chilling you suddenly. Even if your feet don’t feel too cold, when you reach into the toes of your boots you will find ice there.
We had tents, but it was bitterly cold in them, so we spent the first day after three snowmobiles dumped the five of us and our kit in a valley on the southern end of Spitsbergen digging a snow cave – a gangway in the snow, leading to a tunnel which reached a couple of metres into the drift-covered hillside and ended in a sort of hallway with two sleeping chambers branching off it. The temperature inside it was around -6, but with decent sleeping bags and insulation mats, that felt quite warm. I spent most of the day working scrunched in the tunnel, hacking at the tight-packed snow with the blade of a spade and not realising how wet I was getting until I came out into the fresh air and my clothes immediately set solid, like a suit made of paper. When I took off my balaclava, the soft polyester had turned into a hard-frozen helmet.
The Arctic is a great place for reforming lazy people, because to be warm you have to be working, walking or sleeping. Just sitting around is not pleasant at all, and even on one day when we had a complete white-out, we took the GPS and our snowshoes and went out walking for an hour or so, just to get warm. There was no wind, and with visibility down to just a few feet and the snow soft under our shoes it felt like we were drifting through clouds. If you lose feeling in a finger or a toe, which happens pretty often, you have to get it back straight away so as not to get frostbitten. For fingers, windmilling your arms to drive the blood back into them is an excellent method, while for toes, a combination of curling, rubbing, stamping and kicking seems to do the trick.
Then there is the polar bear watch. Numbers of bears in the archipelago are uncertain, but the figures I’ve seen would seem to indicate that there are more of them than there are people. Turns out they are actually sea mammals, living out on the ice and mostly only coming ashore to cub, but every now and again, particularly in the winter, some of them decide to walk the land for a bit. If they do approach you, it’s mostly just because they’re curious, but if they’re hungry then they can be dangerous, which is why everyone who ventures outside the main settlement of Longyearbyne goes armed. Hang around in town for a while and every now and again you’ll pass someone with a rifle case or a pump-action shotgun over their shoulder. There are signs outside the supermarket and the bank reminding you not to bring guns inside, and the bars have weapon lockers, sort of like a benign Wild West.
As with all camps in the wild, ours was rigged with tripwires and alarm mines, but if it’s stormy, or if you’re sleeping in a snow cave as we were, you probably won’t hear them, so throughout the night some lucky soul has to be standing watch, stamping outside in the cold, wearing an insulated scooter suit and a signal pistol slung across their chest. We stood watches of an hour and a half each, with whoever got the first turn taking another one at the end of the night, then finishing by melting some snow for tea and waking everyone else up.
Sounds miserable but actually the night shifts weren’t so bad, depending on which one you got. It’s light, or at least twilight, almost right through the night at this time of year, which means sunset and sunrise seem to go on for most of the night, and often you can’t really tell which one you are watching. So you just stand looking out across the sweeping valley and the jagged, white mountains bathed in oranges and pinks and blues and notice that one looks like a seal or a squid, or you try and guess the distances to one peak or another. The air is so clear and cold and the light is so good that your sense of perspective gets muddled. GPS readings while out walking will tell you that a mountain that seems gigantic is scarcely 500 metres high, while what looks like a short toddle across the valley to its base is over four kilometres.
But we had no trouble on our watches – the polar bears weren’t interested in us. One day, out near the sparse ruins of an old mining outpost called Camp Morton – just a couple of old huts, rusted wagons, iced-over rail tracks and the remains of a coal heap – we saw a big male dozing out on the frozen fjord a comfortable distance away. C and K, the two guides, had their guns and the flare pistol ready, but he seemed barely to notice us, raising his head lazily then settling it back on the snow.
On the day of the big storm, I did my second shift around 5.30am. I’d taken first watch the evening before and it had been a lovely, bitingly cold evening, but with a murkiness on the horizon which gave you the dim feeling that we’d have white-out the next day. By the time C shook me awake for my early morning shift, the wind was getting up and the snow was beginning to fall. Over the course of an hour and a half or so it worsened, and three or four times I took the shovel and cleared the passageway to our tunnel entrance. I woke K (the only girl) for her turn, and crawled back into my sleeping bag in the little white boudoir.
It was K who woke me again round 8ish. During her shift the storm had come down hard, and the snow was falling too fast for one person to clear it, so she’d woken C to help. They in turn had roused A and D, the uncle and nephew pair who completed our five-man group (all apart from me, by the way, were German), and they had taken over the shovelling.
The tents were less than 50 metres away, but they might have been 500 for all the use that was. It’s difficult to express properly how bad visibility was. It wasn’t just the volume of snow in the air, but the way the wind sliced it across your face and hammered at your eyes, freezing the snow to your mask and skin and gluing your eyelids. Saying that you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face would be a mild exaggeration, but at one point I was shouting to find where C was when in fact I could have reached out and touched him. Anyway, even if we could have got to the tents, it was far from sure that they were still there.
Even with two people working, D and A were having trouble keeping the gangway to the tunnel clear of snow, so the hastily-devised plan was to try and rig one of the tarpaulins that we were sleeping on across the entrance to the cave, thus letting the snow blow across it rather than building up in the doorway. We would drive a spade into the snow and anchor it with a loop of rope through a reinforced hole in the top corner of the tarp. I hurriedly pulled on my clothes, and the remaining three of us slithered out through the slim passageway into the storm. Out of the relative shelter of the gangway, the wind and snow knocked you flat. It was the sort of wind that feels like it is pulling pieces out of you, and the only way to keep hold of the tarp was to pin it down with our bodyweight, sprawling on top of it like ungainly sea creatures flopping around on the beach. We planted the spade deep and managed to tie the tarp on to it in the right position, heaping snow blocks on top to weight it down, but as soon as we let it go, the wind ripped the metal ring clean out of the corner of the sheeting, and snow once more poured into the entrance.
‘Halt!’ shouted C, and, beaten, we scrabbled back into the cave. A didn’t hear, and there was an awful moment back in the chamber when we realised he was missing, but K went quickly back out again and found him just outside the entrance, still shovelling.
So the idea of diverting the snow had failed, and all we could do was keep trying to clear the entry and hope that the storm slackened a little. By now the gangway was filling up rapidly, and there was only space for one person to stand in it and shovel, with another person wedged in the tunnel entrance, pushing the snow out with their feet. For what must have been at least a couple of hours we worked frantically, tiring more and more quickly each time we took our turn out in the gangway. The muscles across my shoulders burned, and the snow covering the front of my balaclava had frozen into a thick layer of ice, meaning I couldn’t breathe properly, but it was still better than trying to work with a bare face. The snow was building up so fast that after you’d shovelled 15 or 20 strokes in front of you, your legs were buried most of the way to the knee, so you had to turn round and try to clear enough space to stand in. It was like bailing out a ship riddled with holes, and there was no possibility of keeping pace. Inside the cave, someone’s penknife had a little digital barometer in the handle, and as we rested between shifts we watched it loitering around 110, desperately willing it to drop.
Then everything seemed to happen very quickly. The gangway was gone, and the entry to the tunnel was just a rapidly dwindling hole. I was outside shovelling as fast as I could, when the hole began suddenly to fill even faster. I shouted into the tunnel that I couldn’t keep it open, and a moment later C emerged struggling and wriggling from the entry. His shoulders only just fitted, and he nearly stuck half way. We frantically tried to make a lid out of the tarpaulin, which was stuck in a drift to the side, but again we couldn’t hold it. The snow cave was going to be blocked.
‘Tell them they need to get out!’ he roared over the screaming wind. There was a short delay, then K’s head appeared at the bottom of the hole.
‘We can’t get out!’
I shouted up to C.
‘Tell them they have to!’ he called back.
‘Get to the tents!’ shouted K from the tunnel.
There was no choice. We slung the tarp as best we could over what was left of the hole, and the snow streamed across it, sealing the other three inside. Somehow C and I managed to get a hold of each other, then slowly began to drag ourselves down the slope, heads down and half blind, driven sideways by the gale and sinking deep into the drift snow, hoping desperately that we could find the tents in all the white and the wind. I was clutching the shovel, in case we needed to dig our way in.
It seemed a very long way to the big tepee that we used for cooking and eating.
‘It’s full of snow!’ shouted C, peering through the door.
We made for the two sleeping tents, kicking through the slack tripwires, but when we got to the tents they were trashed. The poles had snapped, and they were almost covered by snow mounds. So, still linked together, we stumbled back to the big tent and crawled under the door.
Inside, everything was buried in a deep snowdrift, and the canopy was flapping loose at one side. We secured it by dragging the pelmet inside and heaping snow blocks on it, then sat back exhausted on the snow. It was freezing cold, and the canvas rattled around us, but at least we were safe from the wind. Suddenly there was relative calm. I pulled down my ice-covered face mask and breathed deeply.
‘You ok?’ Asked C.
‘Yeah, I’m alright. You?’
‘Considering the situation, ok.’
There were a pair of snowshoes poking out of the drift by the entrance, so we took one each and sat on them in silence for a minute. C checked his watch. It was about midday. The losing battle for the gangway had gone on for at least four hours.
‘How much air do you think they have?’ I asked.
‘They have plenty, for now, at least enough for a few hours I think. And maybe the air holes are still open.’ Each sleeping chamber had an air shaft, which would of course be covered in powder snow, but if it wasn’t too deep then the air would get through. It was disquieting all the same to think of K, D and A trapped underground.
C’s morale was not easily dented, but even he was contemplative for a few moments.
‘This is a crazy situation’, he said. ‘We have no way of communicating with them.’
‘But we can find them by the blue tarpaulin, right?’
‘Right, and they have an activated avalanche beacon in there too.’ We all carried avalanche beacons when we were out walking – they’re usually set to ‘send’, but if you switch it to ‘search’ then you can use it to pretty accurately find someone else under the snow. So at least we wouldn’t lose the location of the snow cave.
Still, at least they would be warm, and we were frozen. My gloves had already set solid, and my inner clothes were wet too. Some of C’s toes were going numb.
‘And they have the gummy bears.’
‘Shit, I thought you put them in your inside pocket last night to thaw.’
‘I did, but then I put them in my sleeping bag.’
‘So they have it alright in there then. Apart from maybe not having all that much air.’
Because we were tired and cold, our brains weren’t working very fast, and it was a short while before C suddenly remembered with delight that in his rucksack, somewhere under the snow by the door, there was a 2-man bivouac bag. He took the shovel and dug it out.
The first thing that came out of the bag was his camera.
‘It’s maybe not so funny, but I think this should be documented’, he said, quickly snapping a few pictures with the zeal of a paparazzo. Somewhere among the thousands of photos on the hard drive of my laptop is a shot of me in the snow-filled tent, still half-smiling for the camera despite the trials of the morning. Next out of the rucksack was the bivvy bag.
‘I have never used one of these before’, he announced proudly. ‘I bought this one maybe ten years ago.’
I had never used a bivvy bag either, despite having carried them on countless occasions. It’s one of those pieces of emergency kit that gets carted around year after year, but always remains taped up at the bottom of your bag. We opened it up and got inside. It was essentially just a big synthetic bag with reflective material on the inside, but pretty soon the ice on my trousers began to melt. The tent shook violently and banged against my shoulder. A few minutes later, it occurred to us that the snowshoes probably weren’t very insulating, so we excavated D’s nicely-packed rucksack from one side of the tent, shovelled ourselves out a little bench to place it on, then got back in the bivvy bag again and sat down. We were cold, wet and tired, but cheery enough. If your spirits are still bright then nothing is quite so bad.
‘There is a gun buried under here somewhere too’, said C. But we didn’t bother digging for it. No bear in its right mind ought to have been hunting that afternoon.
C looked at his watch again.
‘K’s boyfriend will probably be flying into Longyearbyne around now.’ At that point I did not know V, but even so there was something rather nasty in the thought of this unknown fellow arriving cheerily into the airport, freshly on holiday and looking forwards to seeing his girlfriend the next afternoon, unaware that she was at that moment trapped in the half-darkness under a metre or so of hard-blown snow. In the age of mobile phones, email, Facebook and all that, a lack of communication somehow seems more striking than it might have done even a few years ago. I thought about what the people I knew might be doing at that moment as I sat in a bivvy bag on top of a snowdrift.
‘How are your feet?’ Asked C.
‘All good. How about yours?’
‘One of them is getting very cold. It would be bad to lose my toes. I need my feet – I’m a climber.’
‘I think it would be bad to lose my fingers. I wouldn’t be able to play my violin without them.’ C brightened immediately.
‘You’re a musician? So am I.’
‘Yeah, though I don’t really play it so much these days. I used to play in orchestras and string quartets. My brother and I have been practising the Bach double violin concerto for at least a year or two, and we can play the first two movements. Give it another couple of years and we might be able to play it all. How about you? What do you play?’
‘I play the trombone. The best instrument. All trombone players will tell you that.’
‘What, in brass bands, or orchestras, or just solo?’
‘I play in – I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of this – a trombone choir.’
‘A trombone choir? I have never heard of a trombone choir. What sort of music is it?’
‘A lot of church music, but also other kinds too. Sometimes we play classical music, or more modern things like jazz.’
‘Do you come from a musical family?’
‘Yes. Except my mother. But the rest of us are musicians. She likes it, but she is just not musical.’ He smiled, ‘My mother’s singing is terrible.’
‘My mum’s a soprano. My brother plays the clarinet and violin too. My dad didn’t really play, but he loved music. Oh, and my granddad was a pub pianist.’
‘A pub pianist?’
‘You know, before they had juke boxes and stereos in bars, they had a guy playing the piano in the corner. Of course that wasn’t all he played, and it wasn’t his main job, but some evenings he used to earn some extra money playing piano in a pub. People were always asking him if he knew one song or another, and apparently he used to say “You sing it, I’ll play it”.’ C laughed, then we both fell suddenly silent as the wind dropped away. There was a moment of hope that the storm might be easing, then it came back harder than ever. The tent rattled and strained at its edges.
‘This tent is our lifeline I think.’
‘What shall we do if it blows away?’ I asked, rubbing my fingers against my palms inside my hard-frozen mittens. ‘Make for what’s left of the other tents? They might not be much good, but it’ll be better than being outside.’
‘Yeah, I think we will have to do that.’
We tried to put together a broader plan too. If the storm didn’t abate, and we couldn’t dig the others out by ourselves, there was a last resort. It was a bright green emergency beacon, about the size of a 1980s walkman, with a fold-out aerial. It was registered to the company we were out with and had a GPS locator, so if we activated it, search and rescue would be able to find us. It would take a long time though. First the signal went to Paris, then it was relayed to Oslo, then Tromso, then the sysselmann in Longyearbyne. Then the governor’s office would call the guy who ran our company and see if he had any groups in the field, and if so, they would send out a rescue party.
‘It’s too windy for a helicopter I think, but they have some Snow Cats they could send out. Those things with the closed cabins. They will just have to make their way slowly out here.’ On much faster snowmobiles it had taken us a good two or three hours to cross the island, so at such a rate, rescue was a distant prospect.
Anyway, the beacon was really just another one of those pieces of safety kit that you carry around safe in the knowledge that you only have it so you won’t need it. Before we even considered activating it we were going to have to try to dig K and the others out ourselves. We waited a couple of hours in the vain hope that the blizzard would die down, wiggling our feet and keeping our spirits up with occasional patches of conversation, but the wind showed no signs of easing. Going back out into the storm was pretty much the last thing I wanted to do, but we didn’t have any other option. If the air holes were sealed then we were running out of time. Buried near the door were a couple of aluminium avalanche shovels, much lighter than the heavy steel effort we’d been using before, and, armed with these, we once again crawled out into the gale.
Linked together, we fought our way back up the hill, where we found some bits of the bright blue tarpaulin still sticking out of the snow. The storm was as vile as ever, but we dug away the snow from the top of the tarp and lifted it up. Looking down into the half-light filtering through the blue plastic, there was a sort of funnel reaching down into the ground, and we couldn’t tell whether it was open or closed at the bottom. We shouted down the hole, but nothing came back. D later told me K was calling back to us that they were fine, but the wind was so loud we couldn’t hear a thing. The hole was quite deep, and if we started digging into the side of it, the snow we dislodged would fill it in without us definitely being able to open it up again. So, once again beaten, we waded back down to our tent, taking a small detour to get one of the metal food chests that were placed a little way from the camp. The end of C’s nose had got out of his balaclava, and was covered in ice.
Back inside, out of the storm, we started to chill more quickly than we had the time before. We hadn’t drunk or eaten anything since the previous evening, so we nibbled on some biscuits.
‘You alright?’ asked C.
‘Yeah all good. Well, I mean, I’ve had better days, but for a cold tired man, not so bad. You?’
‘Considering the situation, ok.’ His nose was now going red where the ice had been. Painful, but at least it wasn’t frostbitten. It was still red when we shook hands and said goodbye in the airport a week later.
We tried to do cod mathematics in our heads about how many cubic metres of air there were in the cave, how often you breathed and how much you air you took in. The fact was though that we couldn’t dig them out by ourselves, and there was no telling how long the storm would go on.
‘Even if the air holes are open, it’s not a lot of air for three people’, said C, thoughtfully.
There were too many unknowns, and if there was a real risk, it was time to swallow our pride. Slowly and deliberately, C opened up the cover of the emergency beacon, held down the two buttons together, then laid it on the floor in front of us. The lights flickered and winked as it found the satellites it needed, then a steady green light began to flash. The signal had gone out. In Paris, someone knew where we were.
‘Do you have any hobbies?’ asked C, apropos of nothing.
I tried to think.
‘You know, I’m not sure I do. I mean, I can’t think of anything… oh, I draw cartoons sometimes. But not often. Actually I mainly just work, watch films and go to the pub. Doesn’t sound very exciting but that’s mostly my life. You?’ He thought for a moment too.
‘Climbing, and slacklining.’
‘You put up a line and you walk on it.’
‘Yeah, except it’s a line, rather than a rope, and it’s slack. And you don’t have anything to help you balance.’
‘Well, I think anyone can learn it quite quickly. I have really bad balance and I learned it, so if I can, anyone can.’
We chatted on and off for an hour or so, lapsing into silence every now and again. It was suddenly beginning to get very cold. The front of my jacket was covered in ice, to the point where I couldn’t have taken it off if I wanted to, and the bottom of my balaclava was a thick frozen slug around my throat.
‘I’m beginning to shiver’, said C.
‘So am I a bit.’ I’d been trying to persuade myself it was just the tent shaking, but it was definitely me.
There was the noise of a plane going overhead.
‘The four o’clock flight to Svea’, I observed drily. Svea was a working mine on our side of the island.
‘That’s not a plane’, said C, sitting up quickly. He was right. It passed overhead and died away.
‘They’re trying to find us.’
‘Maybe it’s too rough for them to land in our side valley.’
The low humming got louder again, then began to crescendo until it became a roar. The tent was hammering even more ferociously. C scrabbled out of the bivvy bag, grabbing his red Gore-Tex jacket, tying one sleeve round a support by the tent door and pushing the rest of it out of the flap to make a sort of flag. It was barely an hour and a quarter since we had turned on the beacon. We crouched by the door, waiting, the helicopter engine now very close by. Two gloved hands suddenly pulled the door partly open and a head came through.
‘What has happened?’ Shouted the rescue man over the noise of the engines and the storm.
‘There are three people trapped in a snow cave up there! The storm filled the entrance with snow and we couldn’t keep it open!’ C shouted back.
‘How many persons in total?’
‘Five. Three in the cave and two in here.’
‘Do you have shovels? Are you able to help us? Are you hurt?’
‘We’re just a bit cold and tired, but we can help.’
‘Come on then!’
We grabbed our avalanche shovels, pushed out into the wind and stumbled up the hill toward the peeping blue corners, trying to keep pace with the four rescue men powering up the slope in front of us. Behind us the hulking Super Puma rescue helicopter was crouched on the valley floor scarcely fifty metres from the tepee. One of the men took his shovel and scored a v-shape in the snow pointing into the tarp.
‘Dig in this triangle!’ he roared.
The rescue men were awesome. They were strong and fresh and this was what they did. The four of them attacked the cave entrance, stabbing and scraping at the snow, with C and me doggedly pulling it clear in their wake. My concept of time at this point is not very accurate, but the tunnel must have been open in barely a couple of minutes.
K emerged, a huge smile of relief across her face, and flung her arms round us both.
‘When we heard the helicopter we thought something had happened to you!’ She shouted. D and A were right behind her, and in minutes we were all in the Super Puma as it lifted off the valley floor and rose above the storm. The medic wrapped heat packs round D’s hands where he had a bit of frostbite, and a man from the governor’s office took a statement from C at the front of the cabin. I was tucked quietly away in the back corner. They offered me a heat pack too, but I was already thawing nicely enough in the warmth of the cabin. I took my hood down, put on a pair of ear defenders and sat gazing out of the window at the whiteness below.
Back at our base in Longyearbyne, we were met by U, who ran the company, and K’s boyfriend, V. We warmed ourselves through with hot showers, and V rose admirably to the occasion, making tea and lending out his clothes until there was pretty much nothing left in his rucksack. Most of our belongings were still buried in the camp.
It turned out that they had been alright in the snow hole. K, like C, was not a panicker, and when the entrance closed they had made sure the air holes were still open then just got into their sleeping bags for warmth and waited for it all to blow over. In much the same way that we had been worrying about them and not really thinking so much about our own considerable problems, they had been worried about us, not knowing whether we had even made it to the tents or not.
As we sat drinking our tea, C said with a small smile,
‘You know, it was starting to get really cold in there. I think another couple of hours and we would have been completely frozen.’
But we were all safe, and bar a little frostbite, the Arctic did not hurt us this time. U booked us a table at a restaurant in town, and I found a shirt and tie that I’d left at our base. No-one wears a tie in Longyearbyne, but I put mine on anyway, in the face of a little good-natured mockery, and we went for dinner. And of course a drink.
It’s funny how you can begin and end a day.