“When I arrived in 1995, it was quite common that the whole Isfjord [the inlet outside Longyearbyen] would freeze,” says Hilde. “I could drive more than 50km across it on my snowmobile, seals would always give birth to their cubs on the sea ice, and the polar bears never had any challenges getting any food.”
Hungry polar bears are obviously not great for the islands’ human inhabitants, but the greater threat comes from the landscape itself. Landslides and avalanches are increasingly frequent as the winters become less stable. “We have to evacuate parts of the city every summer now,” Hendrik tells us on our tour, while Hilde tells the story of a catastrophic avalanche in 2015, which “buried 17 people inside their houses, sweeping some buildings 80 metres,” and killing two people – including a two-year-old child.
“I feel connected here. Like I’m a part of something bigger”
Faced with such hardship, you might think locals would start to pack up and leave. But the small amount of time I’ve spent in Svalbard is enough to make me realise that there’s something about the place that will always exert a pull on people. It’s the same magnetic attraction that drew Amundsen and his ilk to the frozen polar regions time and again, even at the expense of their own lives.
It’s not easy to put your finger on what that appeal is, exactly, but Hilde perhaps explains it best: “It’s the light, it’s the nature, it is the wildlife, it’s all of those things, but it’s mostly the feeling it gives me – it’s a grounding. I feel both vulnerable, and humbled because of all the forces around me. At the same time, being out here, in this very harsh environment, I feel very strong. It might sound like a bit much, but I feel connected here. Like I’m a part of something bigger.”
Tristan’s trip was organised by The North Face. You can read his review of their Summit Series Ski Touring gear on our sister site, Outdoors Magic.