We have the good fortune to live near a lot of great skiing, though like a lot of avid skiers who live in Salt Lake City it’s not a coincidence that we live here. The combination of terrain that varies from wild to mild and is easily accessible, the quantity and quality of snow, and easy access to a relatively livable city that doesn’t have the trappings or cost of living of a resort town was what lured us here and keeps us in SLC despite growing a bit weary of big city life. We literally can see a lot of amazing lines from our house that we ski pretty often, and mostly in great powder. So why would we choose to spend a buncha money and fly a long ways to a place that averages around 100 inches of snow per year when the Wasatch averages 450 inches? Because that place is Svalbard.
Svalbard lies north of Norway….by a long ways. It’s 500 miles past Norway’s last point of land, and is at 76 degrees north, which in turn is about 500 miles from the North Pole, and thus gained some fame around 1900 since it was the closest community to launch expeditions to get to the North Pole.
As such, it’s widely regarded as one of the most inhospitable communities on the planet; the typical highs in the summer is 46 degrees and in May the temps are mostly in the high teens to low 20’s. Which is nice, because even though it’s a veritable desert….the snow doesn’t really melt. Svalbard proves that you truly don’t need a lot of snow to ski!
It’s easy to consider that Svalbard is an island since that’s how it’s shown on big maps, but it’s really more of an archipelago with a lot of islands, most of which are glacier-covered and have no human habitation. There’s essentially one town – Longyearben – so if you want to ski on the islands of Svalbard, you need…..a boat!
Our old pal Jeannie Wall tried to put together a trip to Svalbard about three or four years ago but we couldn’t get it together for that year, then of course covid made it impossible for 2020 and 2021. But she persevered and stayed in touch with her friend Kris Erickson – an Chamonix and Morocco-based American guide who had done his own trip to Svalbard some years before with a great Norwegian sailboat captain, and with covid waning Jeannie reinvigorated a crew to head for Svalbard for some great Northern skiing.
One problem with going to Svalbard is timing; even though Spring has plenty cold temps, Svalbard -like many arctic and antarctic areas – is feeling the effects of climate change more acutely than in the middle latitudes; according to a recent BBC story: “Experts from the Norwegian Polar Institute are among those who calculate it is heating six times faster than the global average. The consensus is that the temperature in Svalbard has jumped 7 degrees F in the past 50 years.” Seven degrees is a lot, and there have been tales in recent years of skiers getting skunked by slush. Of course, getting skunked by slush is a heckuva lot better than being a starved/stranded polar bear or having your home destroyed by rising sea levels, but it does add a bit of urgency to the desire to go skiing there while you still can. However, the painful irony of flying from Salt Lake City and the huge associated carbon emission that in turn creates global warming in the pursuit of skiing was not lost on us, but….we chose to go anyway. Not too much different, I suppose, by the coal mining that happens in Svalbard and other northern areas that are feeling big effects of global warming, not that that fact made us feel any better about our decision.
For being the biggest “city” in Svalbard, Longyearben is remarkably small and unassuming, with basically an airport, a boat port, one main street, a grocery store, a few bars, restaurants, and hotels, and a coupla museums.
We spent a day longer than we anticipated in Longyearben awaiting Jeannie’s skis, which inexplicably did not make it though her duffel did, but it worked out fine because in addition to the above services, due to the growing popularity of backcountry skiing there’s a shop that rents ski gear – even for little people – and there’s good skiing literally right out of the edge of town, so we had a nice time, and it gave the boat crew another day to get our lovely craft ready; the crossing from Norway was burly enough that even the stalwart captain Oyvand:
and his laconic first mate Dave the Englishman (and the especially the new-to-sailing second mate Ben) were still a little worn out from the effort. Sea ice made manuvering the boat a big deal:
But with a bit of sun and a lot of work the boat was ready to go:
And we were off!
A bit about the boat. Neither Ashley nor I are really boat people, and the extent of my sailing consisted of being ballast in an evening regatta a few years ago in New Zealand with Andy Windle, and at that I think I screwed up even the simple act of scrambling my carcass from one side of the boat to the other! But the truth is that on a bigger boat and a trip like this the crew runs the boat and the best thing folks like us could do is stay out of the way, and since we were ostensibly there to ski and not sail, for efficiency we just motored 100% of the time. Among her many amazing talents (near-Olympian nordic skier, world class skimo racer, veteran outdoor industry apparel expert, and very accomplished climber) Jeannie also has a sailing background and was pretty interested in that aspect, but for my part I just liked to get up on the frigid deck every once in a while and holler at no one: “avast there ye lubbers! Throw up the main jib and jibe on the port galley, ye scallawag!” or get out on the bowsprit and yell “I’m King O’ The World!” (it helped to have icebergs floating in the water for the latter).
Beyond Ashley, Jeannie and I we had a fantastic “crew”, that of course – with such a long time between proposing the trip and actually going on the trip, had experienced a significant changeover from original to final folks: skier/climber and pro potter Kim Hall from Salt Lake:
Jason McCune-Sanders, telemarketer from Vermont who had joined not only on BC hut trips in the past but also on Utah canyoneering escapades,
Robin Folweiler from Jackson, one of Ashley’s closest pals from 30-odd years ago who shares Ashley’s wacky sense of humor and huge laugh, and is the undisputed queen of Jackson’s nordic and mtb communities:
Amy Fulwyler, Robin’s great friend from Jackson, also a nordic phenom:
another stellar Vermonter/telemarketer who literally signed onto the trip something like only 10 days prior. It’s one thing to sign onto a trip in the US at the last minute, but it’s quite another to rally to nearly the north pole at the last minute, especially as Bobby’s work – as a general contractor/builder – is finally just winding up in the spring.
And of course my little Buddy Ashley,
The mix of 5 women and 3 men made for a nice change from the typical trip dood-fest.
Svalbard is interesting in that you gotta have a guide to travel about there. We haven’t done a guided trip in more than 20 years, but Jeannie’s friendship with Kris Erickson assured us that he’d be understanding of our general snobbery!
and he brought with him another western US-Chamonix transplant Danny Uhlmann:
One of the main reasons that you gotta have guides in Svalbard is this:
Yep, polar bears are there, and Svalbard is one of the prime spots in the world to see them. We of course were keen to see those amazing beasts ourselves, but after having a couple of grizzly charges in Alaska a few years ago and then being pretty terrified of encountering a polar bear at the Beaufort Sea coast end of that trip I was a little less keen than most other folks on the boat. It’s illegal to be anywhere In Svalbard outside the city limits of Longyearben without a big ol’ gun (a few people per gun) and it’s kind of a big deal for guides; they typically need to rent guns there and be familiar with guns/hunting/shooting, which is not a typical skill for mountain guides. Kris kind of made my eyebrows go up a couple of weeks before the trip when he asked “are any of you folks hunters?” As it turned out, I ended up being the one person with a flare gun; considering that real guns with real bullets many times don’t kill those white behemoths, a flare gun kinda seemed silly, but without actually firing it the prospect of having something that might at least startle a bear provided some solace.
We “sailed” out of Longyearben and basically headed for protected fjords where the arctic winds may have deposited that meager amount of snow on lee islands and slopes instead of stripping it off the windward sides, and based on Kris and Oyvand’s trip of a few years prior they had a pretty good sense of where to go. I noted earlier that Ashley and I aren’t boat people, but I at least have an inner ear and stomach that can tolerate them; Ashley is not so lucky, so on the first big journey to the ski zone Ashley was the only one of us allowed on the “bridge” (deck?) hanging with the crew and keeping a keen eye on the terra firmas off in the distance.
The next few days we fell into a nice routine; a leisurely morning, followed by a sequence of getting bodies, skis, and guns to an ice-covered shoreline, head out into the white hills, and hike and ski the various hills and mountains that we ogled from the boat. The days were not intense; we were skiing maybe 4-5000 feet per day at a casual pace, and we had an expected array of snow, with a surprising amount of nice soft mid-boot powder (with the requisite bit of windjack at times). We had such a fun and entertaining posse that the long “nights” (there was no “night” in May at 76 degrees north) were full of stories, laughs, games, and copious eating.
Over time we’ve found – and we’re not the first – that the quality of trips is more a function of the quality of the people you’re with than the quality of the trip itself, and that fact is even more emphasized on a boat; we had a total of 13 people more or less stuffed into a very small space for a week, and we got along so famously that I think we coulda gone another!
Getting the crew onto shore was always a bit of a deal; we had to make sure that we could get up onto the ice that was on the shores because sometimes it was just a wall of sea ice caused by lapping waves, a gun had to be on the first shuttle across, we had to make sure that we didn’t slip getting into the rubberized raft with our ski boots and tumble into the sub-freezing sea, hope that there were no waves between the sailboat and shore that would splash up and over the gunwales of the zodiac and soak us, then hop out onto the slippery rock or icy shore without the freezing lapping waves coming over the ski boots, etc.
But somehow it always worked out, and once on shore we’d skin a bit of flats and then climb the many 2+ thousand foot peaks that ringed all the fjords.
And the skiing was great:
One day we went a little out of the way (that is, out of the best skiing zone) to go to the spot where other tour boats had gone to see a “pile” of walruses. I’m not sure if the word for a group of walruses is indeed a “pile”, but that’s what is should be:
Not surprisingly, they all were sporting some number of wounds in various phases; even if a walrus is careful, those tusks seem to pretty much be everywhere and in the way!
Around the third day we got a good reminder of the perils of committing to a big trip. I mentioned that we had a wide array of conditions, and after descending an icy couloir and into some of the windjack below Robin had a twisting crash and felt the unmistakable pop of her ACL. She was stoic about it, but it was difficult for her to simply bob around in the boat with the crew for several days while her peeps were out skiing. Fortunately, Robin is as strong and committed as they come, and by midsummer she was back on her bike and is back to skiing confidently in this season’s good early season snows.
An unlikely addition to Oyvand’s boat was a hot tub! It was wood fired, which I thought was a bit odd; the nearest tree to Svalbard is likely 500 miles away in northern Norway, and even there – where Oyvand is based – I doubt that there’s a ton of wood, and would he have sailed/motored with a bunch of wood across the Arctic Ocean? But amazingly, near the walruses there were old timbers – from shipwrecks? – that would suffice for a day of heating the hot tub. My second concern was equally basic: creating a fire on the deck of a wooden sailboat? But I kept my mouth shut and after another fine day of skiing returned to find the hot tub in fine form:
which in turn enabled refreshing plunges into sub-32 degree salt water
Like all skiers and sailors, Oyvand kept a good pulse on the weather, and on the first of a few legs working our way slowly back towards Longyearben he warned us in his typical well-understated way that it “might get a little rough.” Ashley plunked herself again in her well-worn spot next to Oyvand as he gallantly tried to keep the boat facing straight into the waves, but at one point I was walking through the main area of the boat all proud of myself for being able to overcome the rock n rollin’ of the boat when we got a big one and I got flung over the dining table and upside down on the other side like I’d been punched in a barroom brawl! Fully upside down in a heap in the corner with my legs on the table I struggled to get up, and just as I got upright another wave threw me across the room again. I decided to plunk myself down for the next bit of sailing.
On our way back to Longyearben we stopped at decrepit dock that serviced some dilapidated buildings that had housed some Soviets in the 80’s; military? optimistic miners? Not sure, but some interesting history there:
and if the Soviets were into ski touring, there was some nice skiing literally out their doors:
Back in Longyearben we had a final night dinner – where the crew, who had been “dry” all week did a fair bit of yo ho hoing over a barrel of rum making up for lost time, and we then all burned a bunch more fossil fuels to fly back to Oslo and beyond.
As a non-boat person I found that the concept of skiing off a boat to be pretty fun; once I got accustomed to the tight quarters and realized the value of keeping my gear-strewing to a dull roar it was super comfortable – and was nice and warm, despite the air temp never getting above 20 degrees – and indeed realized that skiing in a snow desert off the ocean can indeed make for good skiing!
Thanks again to Captain Oyvand, First Mate Dave, Second Mate Ben for tolerating a bunch of land lubbers/ski pigs, guides Kris and Danny for toting the guns around and sniffing about for good terrain with good snow quality (and I poached some of Kris’s photos here, and he’s a pro photographer!), Jason, Bobby, Robin, Amy, Kim, and Ash for being great ski pards, and of course Jeannie for having the vision and persevering for years to finally make this unusual trip happen.