Svalbard Wrap Up

I have to say that Sarah officially wins the most badass Fulbrighter award. While I really enjoyed my visit to Svalbard, I couldn’t imagine living there for more than a few months, much less the two years that Sarah intends on living there for. That being said, Longyearbyen is located in a truly beautiful area and I’m happy that I made time for the trip. Here are my tips and tricks:

  1. Bring your passport with you to Svalbard, even if you are taking a domestic flight from Norway.
  2. Svalbard is not a budget location and I wouldn’t consider it a place that people should visit in a flight of fancy. Svalbard is a very dangerous place, even though those dangers are atypical.* Be aware that Lonyearbyen is little more than a one street town and that leaving town requires going with someone who is quite knowledgeable about the area and the risks. This pretty much means that you can only leave town if you book a tour (which tends to be expensive) or if you happen to know someone who can show you around.
  3. If you are going in winter definitely keep an eye on the sort of daylight that you will be encountering. I was lucky that my trip coincided with twilight, meaning that I didn’t need a headlamp when I went hiking.
  4. Keep an eye on the weather and pack accordingly. Keep in mind that Svalbard can be VERY windy so bring a few things that are windproof.
  5. Public transportation doesn’t exist in Longyearbyen so your only options are walking or a taxi.
  6. I would highly recommend exploring the area around Longyearbyen since it’s beautiful. I would also recommend the Svalbard Gallery, Svalbard Museum, and polar bear sign.
  7. Many places will have an area for you to store your coat and boots during the winter. If you have space in your bag, I would recommend bringing a pair of slippers that you can wear whenever you are indoors.
  8. If you go in winter and go outdoors I would recommend bringing hiking boots and some sort of waterproof pants/ski pants that are designed to help keep the snow out of your shoes

*In terms of typical crime Svalbard is very safe. Most people leave their cars unlocked and keep car keys and snowmobile keys in the ignition. Apparently the crime of the decade occurred when someone had their photography equipment stolen out of their unlocked car, but that was highly unusual and something that the community found really shocking (it was also assumed that the perpetrator was a tourist as opposed to a resident). I found I had no problem leaving my very expensive camera at a table when I went to the front of a coffee shop to order something, and lost items are easily returned to their owners on the island.

On Top of the World

The next day proved to be my favorite day in Svalbard. Sarah and I woke up on the early side in order to hike one of the nearby mountains, Sarkofagen (the mountain on the left in the first picture). I hadn’t quite realized how much effort it takes to plan anything in Svalbard until talking more to Sarah. Major things that were included in our backpacks were: extra layers, water, flare gun, flares, and a rifle. If we had been scaling a mountain with more than a 30 degree incline, Sarah told me that we would’ve had to carry a shovel, probes, and avalanche beacons. These three things are used to help in the event of an avalanche. Fun fact: one of the biggest dangers with avalanches is suffocation. If you are ever caught in an avalanche you want to wrap your arm in front of your nose and mouth in order to help create an air pocket.

I will also say that there is a significant difference between hearing about polar bear preparations and actually seeing them. Soon after leaving the barracks, Daniel, the other person with us, half loaded his rifle in preparation for the hike.

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The hike itself was gorgeous. At this point in time I’ve traveled around Norway quite a bit, but Svalbard might just take the cake for the most beautiful scenery.

Luckily the path we took wasn’t too steep so we made it to the top of Sarkofagen within two hours. All in all we went from sea level to approximately 512 m (1,680 feet). We were climbing on glacier for a good part of the hike, and at one point contemplated on going into one of the glacier’s ice caves. Unfortunately, we realized that doing so would take quite a bit of time and would require getting a lot of extra gear that I lacked, such as crampons. So we soldiered on to the top of the mountain.

Some things that jumped out at me on this trip were that you could actually see the imprints left behind by former hikers. When you step in the snow you compact the snow on impact. When the weather is windy it can blow the surrounding snow away and leave a type of reverse footprint (see pictures below).

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Other fun things include picking a less steep climbing route to reduce the chance of starting/getting caught in an avalanche, my breath creating so much moisture that it caused parts of my eyelashes to freeze together, my breath creating enough moisture on one side of my face that the hair on that side of my face froze and went white with frost, and alternating between being cold in effectively -35°C weather and feeling incredibly hot due to the hike. I definitely felt like the queen of the world when I reached the peak of the mountain, and while I wasn’t technically at the North Pole I felt as though I was on top of the world.

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The hike down was much quicker, though because we did spend a lot of our time walking on snow covered glacier, it was a bit slippery at times. I definitely fell over more than once and scooted down part of the mountain on my butt. But it was all worth it.

After that we made our way down to Svalbard Gallery, a gallery with some local artwork, and then called it a day. Because Svalbard had only just achieved civil twilight, it was dark the majority of the time that I was there (wreaking absolute havoc with my circadian rhythm). That in addition to the cold weather meant that I spent a good portion of my time in Svalbard hanging out with some of Sarah’s friends and spending time indoors. I was even introduced to a Norwegian miniseries called Kampen om tungtvannet, which translates to The Battle for Heavy Water. The drama focused on the development of heavy water in Norway and how the Germans wanted to use this during World War II to try and build their own atomic bomb. The stars of the program were British and Norwegian intelligence agents who tried to disrupt the Germans and the heavy water plant. While I didn’t understand the majority of the show, it was still nice to watch. The skiing scenes also emphasized how poor my skiing is in comparison to most Norwegians.

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