63 days in the Svalbard Archipelago
WORDS & PHOTOGRAPHY: CAROLINE CÔTÉ // VINCENT COLLIARD
I first met Vincent, a French Polar Explorer, in Antarctica. One evening, sitting on a sled in front of the Gerlache Strait bordering the Antarctic Peninsula, we lit a cigarillo – and the flame started burning. Two years later we committed ourselves to an attempt at the first unsupported, full-length winter traverse of Spitsbergen, the main island of the Svalbard archipelago. We knew that the Polar Shadows expedition would be hard. This is a tale of suffering and exhaustion in the darkness and screaming winds – a tale of an uncertain future.
Njørd, the god of the wind, forces us to submit in the end. Now we have no alternative but to pitch our tent on the edge between the sea ice and the glacier. Everything, absolutely everything, is totally white. And wild. I have a gnawing feeling about that low pressure coming from the open ocean – it’s bound to change our lives, and not for the better. I have always known that the appreciation of a journey is greater when we have no idea about the outcome. For me, the absolute commitment of going unsupported represents the purest essence of adventure and exploration. But I have to remind myself of this again and again as the ferocious wind tears at our tent and we huddle there in the dark, trying desperately to conserve body heat.
Seven weeks earlier
Dawn – or something like it. It’s midday at the beginning of February, and a dim glow lights up the distant horizon. The twilight immediately overlaps the dawn here at 78 degrees north. We only have three hours of poor visibility left after collecting the last pieces of equipment from the post office, so we begin pulling our sleds along the Advent Valley, loaded up with nearly 300kg of food, fuel, and equipment shared between the two of us.
Our progress feels extremely slow, but I have to remind myself that our priority at this early stage is not mileage but to listen to our bodies. We have a long way to travel. Our skis glide across ice-carved valleys, the mystical fjords, and the frozen plateaus. After one month in the field, our routine has become a near-perfect machine. Vincent and I accomplish our daily tasks like two programmed robots. Partly this is a response to the fact that we can’t hear each other most of the time – the wind, ceaselessly bombarding the multiple layers covering our heads, has plunged us each into a bubble of isolation. Evenings in the tent are dominated by the roar of the stove, and our energy is too low to overcome it. So we save ourselves from conversation. Instead we trust the technique used by the polar bears, setting aside every calorie for a precise purpose. When they hunt, a task requiring an immense commitment of energy, they need to be sure of success in order to reach their prey.
In such a vast territory there is no room for error. Vincent is looking at me, bundled up in down clothing and hunched over a steaming pot, stabbing at the food hungrily with my spoon. I scrape every last morsel from the pot and licks the spoon afterwards, then share a look with Vince – half a smile. He knows me. For me, the all-encompassing magnitude of the adventure itself, of meeting the objective, means carrying as little weight as possible. With my past as an ultra-trail runner, I know the importance of moving lightly without anything superfluous. ‘Maybe I made a mistake,’ I said aloud, shocking Vincent out of his meditative slump, ‘in refusing to carry just a few more kilograms of soup, oatmeal, cereal bars.’ Later, I was awake at night. My body is shaking. Each day we are burning more calories than we consume, and I wasn't able to sleep. The demands of moving in the thick snow, fighting to make forward progress, stopping ourselves from sinking into the powder, are building up a calorific deficit that grows day by day.
The spectacular green polar lights swirl and vibrate to the sound of no music. Aurora dances against a navy backdrop over this vast landscape of peaks and crevasses, snowfields and silence, painting colours of extraordinary beauty and subtlety over the snows. This territory is known as the Atomfjella Glacier, where many of the mountains have names inspired by nuclear physics: Elektronfjellet, Radiumfjellet. These are the last evenings of the polar night. Soon the sun will return, banishing the aurora, but tonight the magical lights fascinate me, and I gaze into eternity for endless minutes. It is the first time since the beginning of this journey that I have taken a moment to just stand and look at the beauty around us.
We reach the plateau with the spectacular name of Åsgard, which in the old Norwegian language implies that it is the home of the Nordic gods. We wonder if these mythic figures will let us travel across the ice cap. Their power here is palpable, but I can’t think about anything other than details, details, more details. Progress, degrees, minutes, seconds. There is no room for compromise – or for romance. We are on a mission. Am I carrying the short climbing skins on my body to keep the glue at the right temperature? Do I have a fuel pump on me, warm and ready, in case the stove doesn’t start? Is the rifle to hand in the sled and easy to pull out? So goes the list of questions in my head. We don’t speak. I ski beside Vincent but I cannot see his face beneath his hood.
Vincent saw me awaked once again aware that I'm shivering uncontrollably. The thermometer reads -38 degrees C inside the tent. New questions flush through my mind. Will we be able to control our fingers and toes in such deep cold? How much harder will it make everything that was already so hard before? ‘We should wait for a bit this morning,’Vincent said, and I can hardly understand his words as they slur out through his lips. ‘Maybe it’ll get a bit warmer.’ I sat upright in my sleeping bag and look at him. ‘How are your feet?’ They have been suffering.
The cold is brutal. Sometimes there is pain, but sometimes there is nothing at all. Even the effort of skiing cannot warm Vince up today, and accelerating his pace to try and generate more body heat, but that is a dangerous tactic in the Arctic winter. The sweat on his body transforms into ice. Now he is even more at risk from hypothermia. The wind howling over the ice cap seems to cut through every single layer to chill his body to the core. He tries not to think about his feet. I turn to him after a while and say something, but he can’t hear me over the wind. ‘We should get down off the ice cap,’ he shouts to me. ‘My feet can’t take it. It will be warmer at lower elevations and maybe we can go faster on the fjord ice.’ Now we go straight north along a fjord located 1,000m below.
Pitching the tent feels like a struggle, and it is not a safe place; we have to keep our ears open for the heavy footsteps of bears. It is another layer of overhead added to the mental and physical burden we already share. Despite the need to remain vigilant, we both drop off to sleep almost immediately after devouring our evening meals, which fill us and warm our always-hungry bellies. Our wish for warmer conditions is granted in the cruellest way when, approaching the southern tip of the archipelago, icy rain arrives along with temperatures climbing towards freezing. We are simply not prepared for dealing with moisture. Down must be kept dry, as must electronics, and the only option is to stuff our 138 139 precious equipment inside our vapour barriers, which we sleep in every night. These impermeable membranes prevent water vapour from condensing in down sleeping bags and turning into big blocks of ice – an essential strategy in the Arctic winter.
Despite the challenges, our progress is good until we reach the infamous bay of Isbukta where the weather becomes calm – surprisingly calm. ‘I can’t quite believe how the conditions have changed,’ Vince tells me, and he nods his amazed agreement. But a communication comes in from Lars Ebbessen, our meteorologist back in Norway: ‘You have to hurry before it gets too bad again. There are only a few hours of stability – be careful.’ Instinctively I feel that we are on the verge of experiencing the worst conditions of the expedition so far. As I accelerate over the ice Vincent sees that I feel the same. We don’t have much time. And, after a calm interval so brief that it shocks us both, the wind once more begins to pick up, the snow blasts in with it, and temperatures spiral back down towards deeper cold. We are moving on a large patch of ice fragmented with scattered holes and icy mounds – tricky to navigate even in clear conditions, but now, with blowing snow increasingly taking over the landscape, I have to fight to orient myself. Snowflakes cake my glasses. My vision is playing tricks on me. I'm trying to show no sign of hesitation, and Vince sense that I'm determined to continue. After all, we have no choice but to move forward – to take one more step, and then another, and another.
There is no perfect place to set up camp in this hostile environment. We just have to take shelter no matter where we are. My fear is that we will not be able to pitch our tent. Caro takes the shovel out of the sled. Every gesture is complex now, with the wind roaring against us at 30m/s, plastering us with snow and pushing us back, turning the shovel into a sail. Every stroke shovelling consumes precious energy. The wind is so strong that we can barely stand up. I am beyond exhausted, and in my increasingly sluggish movements Vincent sees that I am also drawing from dwindling reserves of strength. Like two zombies, we finally drag ourselves inside the tent and feel temporarily safe for a little while. Wind batters the fabric above our heads and we take the opportunity to swallow a few protein bars before falling stiffly into our sleeping bags.
The stove’s flame flickers, and I hope that its comforting glow appeases my gloomy thoughts in these weather conditions. Although Vincent hasn’t said so, he must be sharing my doubts about the outcome of this great challenge. But we are a solid team. He knows that I can do it. This is not the only time we have been mentally and physically tested during the Polar Shadows expedition; on countless occasions we have had to trust each other and move forward. Tonight, when the winds are shrieking around us, I need him to trust me and to continue to believe and to keep a positive spirit burning. More than ever, we must be united. I want to say all of these things to him and more, but we both lie there in silence – conserving, always conserving. At midnight I realize that I hear nothing in the tent. No howling wind, no drumbeat of snow on the fabric. How is it possible? Lars had told us about strong winds raging through the night. Vincent hears my voice breaking through his thoughts: « Vincent, we’re getting buried.»
I reach out of my sleeping bag and push against the thin tent walls. Nothing. There is a solidity, now, to the atmosphere, and I feel a pulse of claustrophobia like a cold hand pressing against my chest. The walls are covered with an immense amount of snow. With growing trepidation I realize that we will need to be efficient in order to get out of here. We put our whole bodies to work, arms and feet scrambling to dig through the absurd quantity of packed snow blocking the entrance and flattening the roof. Will the tent poles be able to endure all this weight? What happens if they can’t? Vincent manages to make his way to the surface, 2m higher, but he has to jump to get his whole body out, squirming and swimming through the snow. I can’t believe it. Outside our pit, the storm is still driving long streamers of snow over this landscape of pure white. With wet snow piling up against us we take turns to clear it as it covers the tent again and again. Ice plates grow like lesions over our bodies. Our clothes become blocks of ice. Vince makes eye contact with me. My eyes are the only part of me that he can see through the snow that seems to have colonized my entire body. Together, we give everything – we keep moving forward, keep striving, keep going a little further. In the morning, after calm returns, Vincent takes his indelible pencil and write on the inner wall of the tent: somehow we made it.
After 63 days and 1,123km, Vincent and I successfully completed the first unsupported double winter crossing of the main island of Spitsbergen: Longyearbyen to the northern tip of the island, from the northern tip the southern tip, then back to Longyearbyen.
We reached Sorkapp at the southernmost point on March 20, one day before the end of winter.