We only stayed in Svalbard for four nights as I knew in the darkness there would be a limited number of things to do and see.
We spent the whole time exploring, often until late at night as the lack of daylight was disorienting. As taking photos in such dark conditions was really difficult, I’ve got nothing more than bad phone snaps from the trip, so I apologise in advance for the bad quality!
Svalbard is home to more polar bears than people, although they largely roam around the coast and out on the sea ice, they have come into the town on several occasions and sadly there have been several instances of tourists being killed over the years, as recently as this year. The risk is no joke and for your own protection, no one is advised to leave the settlement without a weapon. I’m not a fan of hunting but have to admit I can see the predicament with polar bears, we’re in their territory not the other way around so I would hope humans never come face to face with them, but in the event they do it would be a case of shoot or be eaten. A stuffed polar bear was sat on top of the baggage collection belt of the airport and their sheer size is incredible.
Although we were well aware of this before we went, I’ll happily admit to being a bit scared when I realised how real of a risk there was. Everyone we met had a story of encountering polar bears and our hotel had a piece of paper along with the menu inside each room, advertising polar bear protection stuff for hire. Dotted around the town were warning posters advising of what to do if you see one … Not terrifying at all!
Whilst I would love to see a polar bear in the wild in some ways, I’m not much of a cruise person and so doubt and hope I never will. We tried to walk to the edge of the settlement a few times to take a photo of the polar bear warning sign, but I was too creeped out to continue as it was completely dark and our head torches didn’t illuminate much besides the few metres in-front of us. The airport is outside the settlement so also had signs which I didn’t have to brave the darkness to photograph.
The weather should have been way below freezing but it has been one of the mildest Winters on record which has sad implications for the Arctic wildlife. It stayed at around -1° with the coldest being -6°, which felt pretty cold!
The settlement Longyearbyen is tiny and consists of 3 main roads which take about 10 minutes to drive. At the end of the road is a glacier which the locals refer to as the motorway as in Winter it enables them to get to other parts of Svalbard. Where the road ends there’s nothing besides parked snowmobiles.
On our second day we joined a hike with a local to see an ice cave. Having been on glacier hikes before in other counties I stupidly made a few assumptions. For one, I figured there would be transport to the glacier … Wrong. Secondly, I assumed the ice cave would be one of those beautiful big blue ones you walk right into … Very wrong. I didn’t realise how gruelling and terrifying a day this would be and whilst I can laugh about it now, it wasn’t great at the time.
Our guide was pretty much just a guy who knew where the cave was and who had a gun. He told us about his encounters with polar bears which did little to make the whole thing feel like less of a bad idea, although I was completely fascinated by his stories of life on Svalbard.
We had to walk up a very steep mountain, which was around 800m high. This was in deep snow and on completely uneven terrain. As soon as the guide pointed to where we were going I knew I was screwed, but without a gun we were unable to turn back so I had no choice but to give it a go. I watched Longyearbyen disappear behind the mountain as we climbed higher.
We walked for 3 hours in the darkness and at times it was hard to see more than a few feet in-front of you because of the snow. Walking in such deep snow and over ice was so difficult my legs felt like jelly by the time we had to cross the glacier. The glacier was covered in snow which is one of my biggest fears, we may have got married next to a glacier and I love to see them and even hike on them but they present horrible dangers when crevasses are covered by snow. Our guide told us he knew of a 30ft crevasse on our route that we would be avoiding, which was of little comfort. Every time I sank into the snow to my knees my heart would drop. I spent the entire journey up longing to be back down at the bottom and trying not to look like a complete wimp.
We arrived at a piece of snow which looked no different from any other, besides the presence of a snowman which looked weirdly out of place when in such a remote location. My dreams of a walk-in ice cave disappeared pretty quickly when the guide moved a piece of snow covered wood to reveal a small hole in the ground.
I’m not ashamed to admit I completely panicked and couldn’t even speak to say I didn’t want to do it. I mumbled I would just wait up there but the guide explained it was too cold so in I went.
The inside of the cave was white and covered in amazing ice stalagmites. A ladder from somewhere else on the glacier most likely used for ice climbing had traveled with the moving glacier and ended up visible in the cave.
I was so relieved to get out of the cave. I was freezing and terrified, aware of the long journey we had to get home. Thankfully on the way down we could take a far quicker route and gravity helped tremendously, although I did end up with black and blue legs from falling over so many times. When we got back to the hotel I dived straight into the hot tub and did feel proud I had endured it, although if I’m honest it was only because I had no choice!
Lesson learned, don’t make assumptions about things. Our guide and the other Norwegians who came with us were all really nice and helped me make it to the top, although I felt bad for slowing them down!
The next day was our last full day in Svalbard and thankfully we had a less strenuous activity planned, husky dog sledging.
We were assigned a dog pack who we had to take from their leashes and prepare for sledging. They were so excited to be going they were making a huge amount of noise. There were 90 dogs in the yard and they all were desperate to get to go.
As there wasn’t much snow on the ground we went on wheels, it was scary at times as the dogs would randomly go off the side of a ledge to follow the leader as the crow flies, but we had a lot of fun. We rode out to one of the old mines and had a nice view of the moon to give a little light.
I loved our trip to Svalbard, it felt like a real adventure and I loved experiencing life that far North for a few days.