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Svalbard: Winter’s spell

A snowmobile ride through Norway’s far north reveals the power — both dangerous and benign — of Mother Nature

Svalbard: Winter’s spell
Image: Renato Granieri

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Marte is clambering over her snowmobile, waving at the others behind me to stop. Meanwhile, I’m parked precariously on a soaring white hill, carefully applying enough gas to stop myself from slowly sliding backwards. “I’m stuck,” she calls out when the others catch up. “Turn off your engines. And remember your hand brakes!” I am reassured; it appears even the most seasoned snowmobilers get stuck.

Following her orders, we jump off the scooter and trudge uphill to help her, the fluffy virgin snow coming well up our shins. “You guys pull, and I’ll slowly back it up,” she announces. “Just don’t stand too close behind me unless you want to be under the scooter.”

We begin heaving it backwards, though I fear I’m doing little to help. My arms ache from the past two days of driving around Spitsbergen, the largest island of northern Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, and I’m convinced this snowmobile is as heavy as a horse. Marte, our guide, fiddles with the levers and buttons and slowly the vehicle starts to edge back. But our efforts are ultimately no good; it buries itself deeper into the dense snow. A new tactic: now armed with the giant shovel she keeps on the back of the scooter, she begins digging a path out, hurling flurries of snow over her head.

We give it another shot. With an aggressive growl from the engine, Marte zips up the hill, sending a shower of snowflakes in her wake. Relieved, I can just about hear her cheer over the sigh of relief echoing inside my helmet before we follow suit, careful to trace the fresh, safe track she has just carved through the snow.

Eskerfossen

Image: Renato Granieri

When we all slow to a halt some minutes later, I take off the helmet, sacrificing my cheeks to the tingling cold, and look out below us. Tempelfjord stretches far and wide into the distance, flanked by soaring, table-like mountains draped in snow, the inky-blue water scattered with icebergs.

“Worth getting stuck for, eh?” Marte says with a grin. She seems so pleased I almost think it was part of a plan. “Over there,” she continues, pointing to a faraway point, “is where two glaciers meet. The ice breaks off and floats into the fjord, but last year was strange — we didn’t have as much sea ice as this year.”

I wonder if it’s an effect of global warming. “I don’t know if it’s just a cycle,” she says, “but something is changing. And up here in Svalbard we really see it.”

Isfjorden

Image: Renato Granieri

In this wintry Eden, ice is everything. Over two-thirds of Svalbard is made up of the stuff, and the islands’ spectacular wildlife revolves around it. There isn’t a single tree here, and not the faintest smudge of green can be seen on this vast canvas of white. But in the summer, as if by magic, the snowy cloak is shed to reveal a more colourful scene, punctuated by purple lousewort and saxifrage.

We descend carefully, and cross the ice to the shores of Tempelfjord itself. Once distant dots from the hilltop, the icebergs are much larger now, and there are hundreds of them, all different sizes and shades of white, sitting like gravestones off the shoreline; some ugly, some beautiful. Glancing quickly, the cumbersome clumps could, just for a moment, be polar bears.

Marte waves us to a halt. She edges ahead alone, circling the area like a falcon, before beckoning us forward. As we park up, she explains: “I needed to check this place for bears. They can leap out of the water pretty quickly here.” She slings the rifle over her shoulder, telling us to stay near and not to get too close to the water’s edge.

The government here makes no secret of the danger of polar bears; there are plenty of warning posters, it’s law that anyone leaving towns and villages must take a gun with them, and there’s a specific bureaucratic procedure should anyone have to shoot a bear in self-defence. Deadly carnivores or not, they are Svalbard’s shameless poster children; the fuzzy beasts appear on nearly every piece of merchandise I see.

Regardless, I’m drawn to the shoreline, ignoring the risk of an ursine ambush to admire the cubist chunks of ice like works in a gallery. The peace is interrupted abruptly; our attention grabbed by a splash somewhere ahead. A seal, perhaps — or more likely, a fish — but my inner child longs for the main attraction, hoping a hulking white beast will heave himself out of the water and shake himself dry on the ice. No such luck. Nothing appears.

Walrus in Svalbard

Image: Visit Norway

“Hvalross!” shouts Brita Gundersen, another guide, pointing to a far-off lump of ice. “Walrus!” There’s a flutter of excitement as we realise her well-trained eyes are right. Through the binoculars I make out a lolloping brown blob on the ice — a mother basking in the sunlight. Beside her, bobbing up and down in the water, is her calf, desperately trying to keep up, doing his utmost to copy his mum. It’s no polar bear, but a pair of walruses come a close second.

We take lunch in the shelter of the trapper’s lodge, a lone red-and-white cabin close to the water. Dotted around the islands, these humble little sheds are outposts for hunters (called trappers up here) to bed down and keep warm when out in the wilderness. They’re startlingly isolated, and completely at the mercy of the elements, but strangely rather charming — humans’ tiny stake in this land claimed by nature. As we tuck into instant couscous and steaming cups of purple saft (fruit cordial), Marte tells us the story of this little station: it was home to a famous trapper in the 1920s and his small family, but his wife slowly went mad and he divorced her, then moved away and remarried. I wonder if the dark, cold winters drove her mad. “Maybe,” says Marte indifferently. “We can’t be certain.” Well, I deduce — it was either the winters or her husband.

We zoom off, the sun now at its deepest and most lustrous, spreading its honey-coloured warmth across Svalbard for the last few moments of the day. It’s dazzling, in fact; I can only vaguely make out the scooter in front of me as we glide across the sun-drenched ice, my vision worsened still by the billowing wisps of snow. Soon the light will disappear, cloaking the islands in an usual violet-blue darkness. But we’re not returning to civilisation just yet; we wind our way through a frozen gorge before the rock faces either side open up to reveal a mighty pillar of frozen water, which, ordinarily, would have tumbled down the rock face, shattering the silence I have become accustomed to. Now, bound by winter’s powerful spell, Eskerfossen waterfall is fast asleep. I go to touch it, before I’m warned off by Brita. The icy ground is riddled with cracks and, more menacingly, sabre-like icicles hang precariously above our heads. Obediently, I step back. When it’s this powerful, you don’t mess with winter.

Essentials

Basecamp Explorer offers two days of snowmobiling, with one night at North Pole Camp from NOK 9,990 (£953), full board, or from NOK 6,990 (£667) if you don’t want to drive your own snowmobile. visitnorway.com basecampexplorer.com 

Published in the December 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)