After I arrived in Longyearbyen midday on Sunday, it didn’t take long to settle into my tent, earn my Arctic Naked Bathing Club certificate from the campsite, and cycle into town to pick up some food (pasta, feta, beans, falafel mix, nuts and chocolate). The next day, I was ready for a bit more action. I chose to hike to Nordenskiöldtoppen, the highest peak in the area, although just a little above 1000m, which takes a high estimate of seven to eight hours to get up and down.
Due to polar bears, hiking solo in Svalbard is problematic – as is cat ownership (they’re banned to help out the birds) and dying (buried bodies don’t stay buried for long due to the permafrost) – so I opted for a guided hike. I went with Poli Arctici, getting a Finnish guy called Oula as my guide. Joining the party was Nico the husky dog.
We got properly started around 10 am, the weather already looking near-perfect, and soon climbed above the low-lying clouds. Looking up, we were greeted by little auks: the delicate black and white birds you see a lot in Svalbard. I hadn’t seen this many of them yet though. Their colouring matches the monochrome landscape perfectly… especially when it’s complemented by a beautiful bright blue sky.
Longyearbyen isn’t the prettiest town, but with decent weather and a bit of altitude, it’s breathtakingly beautiful. You lose all sense of distance looking at the black and white ridges stretching out for miles in front of you. It’s a disorienting place in many ways; especially when your body is weary but it’s midnight and it’s still bright out. Google sunset in Longyearbyen and it will tell you August 25, over two months from now.
There are a few steepish sections of this hike, but they don’t last too long. Crossing the valleys and plateaus brings time to catch your breath and, especially in good weather, you’ll want to stop occasionally and take in the view anyway. We paused for some nuts and biscuits just before the final section of the climb up, taking some time to look at the fossils nestled in many of the rocks.
Holding a rock with the veins of leaves from sixty million years ago visible on its surface is another way this place has disoriented me. It’s no surprise that geologists love it here – many are based in the university in Longyearbyen, able to see from their window the layered rocks that give away their age; the bottom layer around two hundred million years old.
After negotiating some narrow rocks clumsily in our showshoes, we walked the final section to get to the top, which is marked by an old weather station. We wrote our names in the mountain book, then sat behind the hut to shelter from the wind as we ate our lunch. For me: an expedition couscous and lentil mix (actually great), followed by biscuits and hot solbaersirup, a blackberry cordial that kept appearing from guides’ packs during my hikes this trip.
After a few photos, we opted for a different route down, choosing to avoid the narrow rocks that one of the group wasn’t too fond of on the way up. It added a little bit of time to the journey, but that wasn’t a problem.
We reached the van at ground level just after 4 pm, six hours after we set up – two hours faster than the high end of the estimate. We had perfect weather (even if a bit slushy on the way down), a fairly fit group, and a probably rather lenient time estimate to start with.
The hike is a great way to spend a day around Longyearbyen: it’s not overly strenuous (the mountains here aren’t exactly the highest), but a welcome way to get your pulse up. And, of course, you have incredible scenery along the way.
I’ll be keeping these views in my mind – the mountains are unique from anything else I’ve experienced, both across the water in more vibrant Greenland and especially back in the high, fertile Swiss Alps. I want to come back, that’s for sure.