Imagine there’s a storm blowing up. You have minimum vision. The temperature has fallen below minus 25 C. The nearest civilisation is tens of kilometres away, and you are surrounded by glaciers and frozen fjords. Somewhere close a polar bear roams. In a situation like this you must be capable of fending for yourself.
So begins the safety warning at the museum in Longyearbyen, on the subject of venturing beyond the settlement. It goes on to explain how, if confronted by a bear, you should be sufficiently proficient with a high-powered rifle to be able to take your time and aim for the heart or lung region to ensure a kill. Prerequisites for a camping excursion are trip-wire flare systems, a pack of dogs, or the willingness to sit polar bear guard throughout the night. Which is four months long. It therefore seems particularly unfair that this is a place where it’s forbidden to die.
Svalbard, then, seems at first glance like it should be the preserve of the kind of grizzled explorers who spend weeks with a beard full of icicles. Yet it turns out that its main town, Longyearbyen, can be visited perfectly comfortably. It’s airport may be the northernmost in the world to offer regular scheduled flights, but they are offered, using completely standard aircraft – there’s even the option of low cost carrier Norwegian.
Once there, you have far more hotels and restaurants to choose from than might be expected given the sub-2500 population. The same is true of other facilities – from shops, a post office and a hospital to museums, a university and even a chocolatier! And although in winter the sun might not rise above the horizon nor the temperature rise above -10, in summer there is 24 hour daylight and a surprisingly mild climate compared to anywhere else 78 degrees north of the equator.
Whilst it’s true that a firearm is legally required to venture beyond town, on its streets they must be demonstrably unloaded and in public buildings or stores they’re prohibited entirely. So – provided you’re willing to depend on guided tours – you don’t need to spend months training at a gun club before you can visit (nor should firearm fans expect it to be some sort of wild west utopia of open carry).
Certainly, it’s remote – since the town lies slightly to the south, when you’re at the airport you will probably be amongst the northernmost thousand people on the planet. That remoteness, coupled with being part of Norway, also makes it expensive – but not impossibly. All in all, Longyearbyen is more accessible than you might think.
My own fascination with this improbable destination began almost a decade ago, when the development of the Svalbard International Seed Vault was announced. Popularly known as the ‘doomsday vault’, this complex acts a back up facility for the world’s gene banks. These themselves play a vital role in maintaining crop diversity – often the only samples of many variants exist only in the banks, as only the most profitable strains tend to persist in agriculture. Of course, conditions can shift, in which case those dormant options in the banks may become vital – SISV acts an insurance policy in case anything should happen to the banks themselves. Deep in the arctic mountainside its samples are mutiply-protected; the cold ensures their safety even if the power system fails; there is no seismic activity here; and war or other human-driven hazards seem unlikely. It opened in 2008, and the first withdrawal was made last year, prompted by the Aleppo seed bank being relocated to Beirut on account of the conflict in Syria.
It is not possible to tour the inside – by design, almost nobody goes in – which made my desire to visit sound even stranger to anyone I’ve tried to explain it to. I still struggle to articulate exactly why I wanted to get there, but standing at the vault door I felt a sense of quiet confirmation; of culmination for a goal nearly ten years in the making yet never quite stated.
A few factors combined to nudge me into finally booking this trip. Last year’s hotel-hopping and credit-card promotion chasing had given me a substantial stockpile of Club Carlson points – good for two nights at Longyearbyen’s Radisson Blu Polar. Oneworld member Finnair had announced flights from Helsinki; getting there could either be an attractive avios redemption, or – since LHR-HEL is a ‘shorthaul plus’ route on BA – get me a good chunk of the way towards regaining executive club status. Speaking of BA, their performance in 2015 presented me with a sizable bonus which I could convert into the additional leave required for an extra break – the arctic perhaps not being the best choice if you’re only going to have one summer holiday! Finally, earlier this year I’d spent far too long in the new hall of Oslo’s Fram Museum reading tales of polar adventures, in which Svalbard often appears…
An out and back LHR-HEL-LYR return looked challenging given Finnair’s three-a-week schedule to Longyearbyen with some distinctly unappealing flight times. So I decided instead on a LHR-OSL-LYR-HEL-LHR loop making use of Norwegian to get to Svalbard and exploiting the discovery that LYR-HEL-LHR would price up as an open jaw for less than the HEL-LHR leg! This would give me four full days in Longyearbyen, but (placing my faith in the midnight sun) would only require splashing out for three hotel nights given a 2:45 – AM – departure time. I’d also get three nights in Helsinki before heading home.
Barely a week after I had booked the flights and Svalbard accommodation (two on points, one for cash) than Finnair got in touch to let me know they didn’t have the rights to operate to Longyearyben, and the whole scheduled season was therefore being dropped… Some rapid replanning saw me on an out-and-back after all; but via Oslo, rather than Helsinki. To line up sensibly with Norwegian’s schedule, I had to add two more days in Longyearbyen – and with the Radisson completely full, I’d be sampling the Svalbard hotel for my final night.
That extra time turned out to be the right move as it gave me the opportunity to add a full-day excursion beyond Longyearbyen, in the shape of a fjord cruise to Pyramiden. But I also lined up a variety of activities in and around town; there are several companies who offer trips, but Spitsebergen travel provides a convenient way to book all of them.
The most adventurous was a 7km paddle across the icy waters of the Adventfjord. Due to uneven numbers and being a solo traveller, I had my own kayak – not only did that mean no one to share the work with, but apparently these are much easier to roll than a double! Fortunately they were able to find me one with a pedal-operated rudder, and our crossing to Hiorthhamn was essentially a straight line. Whilst it was undeniably a workout, I felt comfortably in control after ten minutes or so – helped by the extreme calm of the fjord. Setting off at 7pm, the plan was to catch the midnight sun; but the weather was clearly going to prevent that. Instead, we were treated to a surreal experience as the fog rolled in and swallowed our view of the far shore. When I turned away from my half dozen companions, there was barely any distinguishing between the glass-like water and the leaden sky.
That same fog conspired against a full appreciation of the scenery on my two hikes. Bolterdalen is by all accounts a beautiful valley – but I couldn’t see either side! However, it was still an enjoyable stroll that did a fine job of levelling out my sea legs; with the other hikers unable to land at the airport that morning, it was just me, my guide/guard and an excitable dog from the sledding yards. Back there, I enjoyed warm waffles and two even more excitable litters of puppies.
Much more demanding – although occasionally less foggy – was an assualt on Blomsterdalshøgda, a 300m peak looming over the airport. This was the first part of ‘seed to summit‘, a combined activity that saw us first hiking up for a picnic in the clouds before descending via the Seed vault. You can also take a bus tour to the site, but this was a good way to build the anticipation, and we learnt a lot from out scientist guide as we scrambled our way up the hillside.
Finally, it was back to the dog yards to take a whole team out for a run. With no snow on the ground, they switch to wheeled carts rather than sleds. Given the remarkable temperatures, it was hard going for the dogs – their optimal temperature is a brisk -18 – but it was still clear that they love to run, and have plenty of power in reserve. In moments when they spotted something that interested them more than the route – such as a rival dog pack, or a chance at a splash through a lake – it became clear that I wasn’t really in charge, and that use of the brakes depends largely on the dogs’ agreement! By now the fog had swapped for rain, so there was a bit more of a view, but given the expense I think this is probably best saved for winter conditions for the full experience. Then again, I’d probably have regretted travelling all this way and not giving it a try…
I was also able to happily wander the town – although not exactly pretty, this arctic outpost is certainly interesting architecturally, and the scenery supplies more than its fair share of views. There are also novelties to be found, like the 24 hour sundial; a couple of museums; and even a tiny art gallery. As usual, I collected an unreasonable number of photos, which you can browse a selection of in this gallery. In the interest of truth in advertising, I should admit a bias towards the earlier, clearer days!