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Spitsbergen: On top of the world

Having been watching the snowmobiles of Spitsbergen all morning, I’m pretty sure I can handle them. So, in temperatures of -20 degrees, I squeeze into my snowsuit, don my balaclava and helmet and clamber on, ready for a serene glide across the frozen wilderness.

Spitsbergen: On top of the world

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As I’ve no driver’s license, today I’m just a passenger, seated behind a fellow tourist who’s as new to this as I am. But within seconds of zipping off, it’s clear this won’t be the smooth ride I’d imagined, as the snowmobile makes excitable work of the lumps, divots and patches of uneven ground that have been lurking unseen beneath the snow.

After 10 or 20 nervous minutes we speed up to around 50kmph, and it’s becoming clear it’s a bumpier ride for me (sat bolt upright, gripping little handles by my side) than for my driver (hunched comfortably over the handlebar). As his confidence grows, he begins attempting ever more outlandish manoeuvres — speeding up over little bumps, taking corners with cavalier haste —oblivious to the fact that his cargo is being jostled around like a sapling in a gale.

We’re heading north, from Longyearbyen, the capital of Spitsbergen, deep into an expanse of unfurling white nothingness. The frozen, monochrome landscape is as dazzling as I hoped it would be, having ventured about as close to the North Pole as it’s possible to comfortably get. As we down head into a narrow valley, the majestic, snowy mountains that have been brooding in the distance take a huge step towards us, forming sudden steep walls of white on either side.

Having clung on like a nervous limpet for the first few miles, I’m now beginning to relax, and soon my posture softens and my limbs loosen. What had initially felt challenging now feels exhilarating, never more so than when we emerge from the valley out onto open ground, pulling to a final stop by the edge of a cliff overlooking a fjord.

I remove my helmet and waddle towards the edge and, as I admire the view, I’m struck afresh at nature’s ability to paint such magnificent pictures using so few colours.

After several minutes and countless photos, my group head back to their snowmobiles, where our guide is handing out coffee and warm blackcurrant. I’m tempted, but decide instead to move in the other direction, edging as close to the cliff edge as I can. Sure, I’m enjoying the scenery, but there’s more to it than that — because, unless I’m very much mistaken, as I stand here alone, for these few moments I’m the northernmost tourist in the world. It really has been a day of firsts.