When I decided to go to Spitsbergen in winter, I was hoping to experience
only three things: cold, snow, and ice.
And boy, I was not disappointed.
Before I came here, many people asked me where the heck Spitsbergen was. Some thought it was a region in the Alps, while others had a vague idea that it was somewhere in Norway. And indeed, Spitsbergen is technically a part of Norway, but it's an island. Actually, it's part of a bigger archipelago called Svalbard, smack dab in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, the Greenland Sea, and the Norwegian Sea. The main town in Spitsbergen is Longyearbyen and that's where we crashed during our trip with the Barents travel agency.
After arriving from Oslo, visitors are greeted by a road sign with a polar bear and distances to various world capitals, which gives them an idea of how far they are from home. The airport itself is tiny and surrounded by mountains, while the center of Longyearbyen is about 2 km away. Before I arrived here, I had some images from the internet in my head and imagined Longyearbyen as a couple of shacks thrown together. That was actually completely wrong, since the town is rather large and populated by 2400 people, including 40 full-time professors (that's almost 2% of the population!).
Yeah, about the professors. There's a university here, and even though it doesn't offer any fancy degrees, it has some cool internships for biology, geology, and physics students. We actually found out about just how cool from one of the professors at that university, who we got to hang out with for a bit. Apparently, every student who comes here to study has to do a mandatory safety training where they… get thrown into an icy hole and have to go through a rescue operation. I don't remember any such attractions at my university :)
Since Spitsbergen is situated in the right spot, it's an excellent location to study the ionosphere and magnetosphere, which consequently means the Northern Lights. It's precisely here where the Scandinavian scientific association EISCAT had built its farthest north radar (the resemblance to "ICE" is hard to miss).
There are also polar stations of scientific institutions from all over the world, but Poland is definitely the leader here, as it has no less than four facilities:
There's also a sort of Noah's Ark here, basically a global pantry for the apocalypse – the Global Seed Vault, which holds top-quality seeds of all kinds of grains and plants for emergency situations. You might think that the resources of the Vault wouldn't be used quickly. However, natural disasters and military actions have written a different story for humankind: the deposited seeds were transferred for the first time in 2015 to war-ravaged Syria to rebuild destroyed crops and to help its people survive. The Vault's resources are also being lent to the countries of the Middle East affected by droughts.
Speaking of this island, it's impossible to ignore its roots, closely related to the mining industry. Over time, this region has seen a lot of mining operations, although presently, in Longyearbyen, there is only one mine active. Its product is mostly intended for export, and the remainder serves to sustain the local community. It's a sore point for Norway – if it weren't for the Svalbard power plant, they could brag about being a nation powered 100% by renewable energy. Well-preserved traces of the mining past manifest themselves literally everywhere: whether through passages to former mines inaccessible to tourists, remnants of cable cars, or finally the iconic building in the town center – the cable car terminal, Taubanesentralen. However, these traces are not limited to Longyearbyen – there are several mining settlements on the island, such as the 70 km distant Barentsburg, or the gloomy Pyramiden, which is now completely abandoned, not counting a single hotel maintained for the craziest of trappers.
Spitsbergen, despite belonging legislatively to Norway, has a set of unique laws that don't work anywhere else.
The harsh conditions prevailing at such a high geographic latitude mean that the vegetation is very poor and covers only 6-7% of the island. However, this did not prevent several species from adapting to survive in this unique environment. Moreover, for such an extreme climate, the local flora is surprisingly diverse – with over 190 species of plants. Among the most common are the four-petaled cassiopeia, a small heather with bell-shaped flowers, and the yellow-flowered Svalbard poppy, which grows in moist soils and is a real beauty. There are also saxifrages, cinquefoils, eight-petaled willows, wartwort, and woolly lousewort. The tallest of the plants – grasses – rarely exceed 10 cm in height, and the three species of "trees" growing in Svalbard (dwarf willows and birches) spread along the ground, not even reaching 5 cm.
I didn't manage to see any of these plants. Instead, I've seen a lot of snow :)
One of the most well-known animals on Svalbard is the polar bear, which I will tell you more about a little later. It's the top predator in the region and basically has no natural enemies besides humans. Their diet consists mainly of seals and other marine mammals. On land, there are also arctic foxes, whose thick fur helps them survive in the Arctic climate, Svalbard reindeer, whose corpulent build is completely different from popular depictions of how a reindeer should look like, and accidentally introduced voles.
Rich is the world of mammals living in the immediate vicinity of the water, namely seals. In the Svalbard region, there are: bearded seals, common seals, ringed seals, harp seals, hooded seals, and walruses. Occasionally, there are also other species typical of the sea, such as dolphins, dwarf whales, orcas, and sperm whales.
The bird world is very abundant. Most of these species feed in the sea and breed on land. They usually come here for the breeding season, raise their offspring, and fly south before winter – only ptarmigans remain here for the winter. There are 109 species of birds in Svalbard, of which 15 breed regularly. There are numerous colonies of auks, including guillemots, bridled guillemots, dovekies, little auks, and puffins. There are also many gulls, including the three-toed, herring, glaucous, and ivory gulls. The largest predator in this region is the glaucous gull. Other birds include skuas, ducks, red-throated divers, geese, arctic terns, fulmars, southern fulmars, red-necked phalaropes, purple sandpipers, snow buntings, and ptarmigans.
We were able to see mainly reindeer, which didn't pay any attention to humans – one of them was even walking in the city. They are so common here that we saw them on the very first day, and they were literally visible from the window of our guesthouse. There was also one arctic fox, but I didn't have time to photograph it before it hid.
After the pandemic, everyone on Svalbard pays with cards only, and no one accepts cash there any longer. The official language is Norwegian, but in most places, you can easily communicate in English. Additionally, when entering most places, you need to take off your shoes, which creates a cozy home-like atmosphere. (Apparently, this stems from the times when miners returned in dirty boots and didn't want to mess up their cabins.) To buy alcohol, you need to show your plane ticket. Alcohol is limited, but if you don't want to throw out a Polish wedding with Arctic contraband alone, or get wasted every day, it should be more than enough. The coverage works reasonably well in the city, but as you can easily imagine, it quickly deteriorates outside its boundaries.
We stayed at a small guesthouse called Hotel 102 (website), and I can confidently say that I highly recommend this place. It should be considered only as a base to sleep in, but it's cozy and nice nonetheless. We slept in a four-bed room with comfortable bunk beds. Each of us got a set of proper towels. The bathrooms were clean and surprisingly spacious. Unfortunately, I had to borrow a hairdryer from some better-prepared guests. Apart from the bathrooms, there were tiny toilets available. These were really cramped, but they did the job.
As I mentioned earlier, shoes are left in the hallway on specially designated shelves. This means that in the morning, when suddenly a few people want to get dressed there at the same time, it can sometimes get crowded. I usually get claustrophobic really fast under such circumstances, so whenever that happened, I simply went outside to get dressed on the stairs outside, not minding the cold.
There is also a shared kitchen on each of the two floors, offering clean dishes. The upper one is slightly larger and has a microwave, a gas stove, and a fridge (I recommend labeling things – after all, this is a shared space). In winter, an alternative to the fridge can also be the snow available for free under the guesthouse stairs – that's how we cooled our wine :) After breakfast, which was included in the price, we didn't have to do the dishes, but for all other meals we did. In the lower kitchen, there was a supply of tea and, imagine this, HOT CHOCOLATE. (It disappeared very quickly.) There's also free Wi-Fi.
We had breakfasts at our guesthouse, which was a buffet included in the price. There were a few types of cereal, milk, plant-based milk, waffles, jams, toast, bread, cold cuts, cheese, etc. Also, apple and orange juice. Overall, nothing fancy but it was enough to fill up.
In general our group didn't feel like cooking, but you can buy most things available in regular grocery stores at the local supermarket, so there's no problem – just be prepared to pay higher prices (although with the current inflation everything is whacky). We ate at two local restaurants – Kroa and Mary-Ann. At Kroa, they mainly serve fast food. Half of the menu is pizza, but they also have reindeer and whale burgers and various fish dishes. I liked the atmosphere – lively guests, dark wooden interiors, and friendly service. I can recommend the burgers; I didn't eat the pizza because I figured I can always have this sort of stuff back home. I don't like fish, so I can't comment on that. The second restaurant – Mary-Ann – is definitely more posh. I had wild mushroom crostini and reindeer steak and I must say, both were very tasty, but also very expensive. We had to wait a long time for the food (over an hour), including 40 minutes just for the starters, so that's a negative. As for service, the man serving us had a stone face, as is often the case in such places. But after a series of cringy dad jokes, he couldn't hold back and SMILED. (Success!) Both restaurants have their menu available online.
These are by no means the only places to eat – closer to our guesthouse was Coal Miners' Cabin, for example. Somehow we ended up never going there, but it looked promising.
There are also a few cafes. For the views and atmosphere, I recommend Stationen – there are large windows overlooking the mountains, but the menu isn't that great. In this regard, I recommend Fruene, which has many types of sweets and drinks to choose from. Finally, if you want something unique, there's Cafe Huskies, where you can pet dogs (if they let you, of course).
When planning a trip to Spitsbergen, you should be prepared for the weather, which can be very unpredictable here. As an example, our plan to ride snowmobiles for the first two days completely fell apart and we had to come up with a new strategy, when the governor banned leaving the city due to difficult weather conditions.
Also, due to the polar bears, it's important to carry a firearm outside of the urban settlements, or even better – bring an armed guide who knows how and when to use the gun.
There are quite a few places around Longyearbyen where you can go for a hiking trip even in winter.
We went to the Seed Vault, which somehow attracted me with its amazing appearance. The only thing I regret is that I didn't manage to take pictures of it at night. The path to it was easy to traverse – there were small parts where we sunk into the snow a bit, but most of the time it was very solid.
There are barely 40 km of roads in Svalbard and what's worse, they are covered with snow for the most part of the year. Both of these factors reduce the point of developing sensible car transport. Apparently, you can buy a car here for a proverbial beer, which seems like a cool idea on one hand, but on another, the car is often broken and not fixable. Plus, you have to pay to take the scrap out to Norway on the ferry. Despite this, I saw quite a few cars here, but most of them were minibuses transporting tourists.
As soon as the weather conditions allowed us to, we went on a snowmobile trip with Ruski Dom to the 70 km distant Barentsburg, where we were supposed to stay overnight. The hosts gave us very warm overalls, helmets, boots, and gloves, which largely eliminated our worries about the adequacy of our clothing and proved to be more than enough to provide proper warmth.
Each snowmobile was designed for two people, which meant that we had to agree between ourselves who was going to drive and who was going to be the passenger. To be able to drive a snowmobile, you need to have a driving license. I made a deal with my driving partner Piotrek that I would drive first, because I was really curious about how it worked. The snowmobiles we were riding were simple in construction – two forward gears, one reverse; one lever accelerates, the other brakes. There were additional buttons for controlling the lights, lever heating, seat heating, and ignition. Everything could be learned in 2 minutes.
Theory is one thing, but practice is a different story. As soon as we started, it turned out that the stupid machine just wouldn't listen to me! I drove us against the traffic and almost crashed us into a pole, not to mention the other three snowmobiles. We managed to get out of the built-up area in one piece, but we fell behind quite a bit. Overall, it was a disaster, I'm telling you. After catching up with the rest of the group just outside Longyearbreen, we quickly switched places, and I gratefully handed the controls over to my much more confident friend for the rest of the trip. Piotrek quickly turned out to be an excellent driver. It was a good setup – he was driving, and I was taking pictures. But I don't think it was exactly sane, as Piotrek liked to accelerate, and I had to hold on to the backrest with one hand to avoid falling off, while waving my camera around like a madman with the other.
Driving in one direction took about 5 hours. We had a tour of Barentsburg once we arrived, which I'll talk about separately.
The next day, we had to ride back to Longyearbyen. Our guides from Ruski Dom told us that they were intending to bring some extra snowmobiles back to Longyearbyen, which meant that each of us had to ride alone. They asked us if we agreed, and we nervously said yes. For me, this meant reliving the nightmares of the previous day when I almost crashed, but today I was determined to tame this devilish machine.
This time it was so different! First off, Barentsburg is a ghost town, so there's not much traffic, and I didn't have to worry about leaving my lane a bit. Plus, right beyond the snowmobile parking, we had a long, straight stretch where I could practice driving, speeding up and slowing down – as opposed to Longyearbyen, where I was thrown straight into traffic and chaos. I quickly got the hang of it.
And let me tell you, I fell in love with this machine. Our guide laughed that while yesterday I had been whining about driving like a numskull, today I was glued to the steering wheel and she had to force me to let go. And she had a point. It's an amazing feeling to ride through the icy wastelands with your pack, surrounded by white snow and sky, waving hello to the reindeer that peacefully watch you go.
The second day didn't go without some hiccups either: towards the end of the day, after the sun had set, we got caught in a whiteout. Our guides from Ruski Dom had to think hard about how to transport us through quite a mountainous terrain that looked like a dark blue cloud. In the end, they took us one snowmobile at a time.
To avoid unpleasant surprises while riding a snowmobile, besides having a good sense of balance, there are a few rules you need to follow. We rode in a single-file line and anyone who saw that something was wrong had to raise their hand. This applied to those in the back as well. Secondly, a common reflex from cycling is to stick your leg out when you lose balance. That's very dangerous and can result in a serious fracture – it's best to let the snowmobile tip over and wait for assistance. One last piece of advice – snowmobiles like to rock from side to side within ruts, so don't fight it too much and let it happen. If you want a smoother ride, you can ride on fresh snow.
Snowmobiles are great for winter, cars are great for limited range. So what's left? Well… dogs! One of the attractions was riding with Green Dog, a company that offers dog sled rides both in winter and summer, with the only difference being the design of the sled.
Overall, I can't say many positive things about this attraction. The company makes it seem like they care about the dogs' well-being and is registered with AECO, an organization dedicated to ethics in polar tourism. But seeing the dog houses all lined up and the dogs chained up on piss-soaked snow didn't exactly make a good impression on me. Before the ride, the dogs were whining and crying to be picked for the sled. Can you blame them, though? If I were chained up all day with barely any space to move around, I'd howl, too. Also, I saw one of the handlers hitting a dog with a leather leash to discipline him. Not cool, man.
The ride itself was enjoyable, but not exactly thrilling. The snowmobiles gave us that speed and freedom, but with the dog sleds, I was constantly aware that the doggos could get tired, hungry, need to pee or poop, etc. Taking them for walks is cool, but using them for your own amusement and transport? It just doesn't sit right with me, you know.
I searched TripAdvisor for opinions and there are folks who feel the same way. Gotta give it to the owners though, they take these comments seriously and respond politely to each one. The dogs themselves also were pumped up to run again whenever we took a break, which revealed that there's at least some truth to what we've been told, that they love to run around even if it means dragging a sled behind. But still, I can't shake this feeling that something's just not cool about it all.
The end of the ride did soften my heart a bit, though, when the guide took us to see the puppies – they were just running around freely and it was so adorable. Later on we were served chocolate with brandy, and then we were given… two weeks-old puppies to hold as well :) That was really cool.
While we were on the subject of snowmobiles, I mentioned Ruski Dom and that I'd write about Barentsburg in more detail. That place is like a ghost town. It's all empty and gloomy, and the 4-star Hotel Barentsburg is just creepy as heck with its yellow corridors and all that echo. There's literally only one pub in town and nothing else to do. In the winter, it has this end-of-the-world vibe which I find attractive, but in the summer, I heard it gets worse with all the filth and stuff from the coal mine.
And that's where we went on the snowmobile trip. The only thing keeping that town going is the local coal mine, and all the companies running here – including our snowmobile tour company – are owned by the state. It's kind of a sketchy situation, though, because even though Norway turns a blind eye to it, they're owned not by the Norwegian government, but by… the Russian one.
So what did we do here? Well, we wandered around the town. We checked out the coal mine with a guide, but they were all strict about no pictures, even with your phone, because of the risk of an explosion from the high methane concentration. But the guide actually snapped some pictures for us with their "special smartphone", lol. We also sent some postcards, and this is crazy, but the postal service actually opened up just for us because it was the weekend. In the evening, we hung out with the guides from Ruski Dom at the Red Bear (the only pub) and drank this killer drink called the "78", named after the town's latitude, 78°N. It was cool to see how chill the locals were and that we could get on well with them. Finally, we checked out the port with the historical architecture, and one of the buildings had a sick graphic with a quote from Robert Rożdiestwienski's poem. The poem talks about a sickness that comes out as this longing for snow, white, ice, and empty spaces – and when one gets hit with it, they should be left alone and not be treated.
This melancholic accent really captures the personality of this town, in which a statue of Lenin stares down the downtown area, and a massive "Our Goal is Communism" sign towers in front of the iconic Soviet-style apartment blocks. Time has stood still here, but the locals are still daydreaming about a brilliant future that pretty much embodies Soviet ideology. They're talking about ambitious projects like putting up a Hilton (yes, the American chain), building a huge in-door swimming pool, and making this place a go-to destination for tourists.
Nobody really talks politics here, and to make things even more complicated, 80% of the population are Ukrainian. Wild, huh?!
This visit will bring back good memories for me, but it's also going to be tinged with a bit of sadness.
They say that the polar bear is the king of the Arctic, and in Spitsbergen, you can definitely feel it. The borders of the town are marked by signs warning about their presence, and they're not just for show – anyone venturing outside of the town's limits is legally required to carry a firearm. Usually, polar bears live in far-off, northern parts of the island and, as I mentioned earlier, their population slightly surpasses that of human inhabitants.
Although we didn't get to see any of these predators, on the very first day, we found ourselves in a situation that, to put it mildly, was a bit unsettling.
We were all gathered for dinner in the center of Longyearbyen. After finishing the meal, we decided to split up: some of us wanted to stay in the center, while I with two others had had enough action for the day, so we decided to head back to the hotel. It was already evening, around 6-7 PM. In March on this latitude that means it was completely dark. The hotel where we were staying was located in a newly-built district, and we had a fair bit of walking to do – around 20 minutes along a frozen river, with virtually no buildings around us, except for some infrastructure like lamps and pipes.
There was nobody around us, and it was snowing heavily.
At one point, we saw the first person since leaving the town center. A girl approached us, and I figured she was going to ask us for directions. I couldn't have been more wrong when she spoke to us in English:
"Hey, are you guys headed to the hotel?"
"Hey. Yeah, why do you ask?"
"Well, is your hotel in that direction, in the new district?"
"Well, the authorities have reported a polar bear sighting in the area you're heading to. It's rare for them to come this close. If I were you, I'd hurry up. If you pick up the pace, you should be fine."
"OK. Thanks, we're heading off now."
We were a bit scared. The whole situation felt like something out of a sci-fi horror movie, like "The Thing" or something, and it felt surreal. "You should be fine." Oh, well. We left the girl who as she headed towards the town center, and we just kept walking and talking, trying to convince ourselves that it was all just a crazy coincidence. But then we heard this loud noise coming from the town, and things started to feel pretty intense.
The governor sent a helicopter to look for the polar bear. The chopper's operators shone a bright spotlight on the mountain slopes surrounding the town, which must have been incredibly powerful to pierce through the falling snow and cast such a bright glow on the white slopes. However, against the backdrop of the mountains, the light beam seemed pitifully narrow. It was then that we fully realized that the situation was no joke. To make things worse, a car pulled up beside us, and the driver instructed us to immediately take cover in a building because of the polar bear in the area. We had only a minute or two left to reach our hotel, so we didn't ask him for a ride and just continued on foot.
We arrived at our destination.
Needless to say, the adrenaline was pumping like crazy at this point. There was a freaking polar bear lurking in the area when it shouldn't have been anywhere near us. We huddled up by the safe doors of our little lodge and looked out at the mountains, watching the helicopter pilots make their search attempt. Two cars also pulled over by the side of the road and their drivers joined us in our observation. For twenty minutes, the chopper flew back and forth before it finally flew off towards the town, and the search mission was called off.
Was the bear really out there? Honestly, I don't know. Personally, I think that someone probably started a false alarm. This ending may sound anticlimactic, but the way the locals immediately approached us and the helicopter showing up just because of one report… that was pretty intense. For the first time it made me fully realize that meeting a wild animal like that is definitely no joke.
I was talking about the weapon and the risks of encountering bears, but it's important to remember that these animals are highly respected in Svalbard and are under strict protection. Every time a bear is shot, which happens very rarely, there is an investigation to verify if it was absolutely necessary. Any misuse is a criminal offense and can be a subject to imprisonment as punishment. In the unfortunate event when such a tragedy does happen, the animal's remains are often sent to scientific institutions for research, or they are stuffed and put on display in certain areas in Longyearbyen.
If you ever do come across a bear, common sense is key. Most of the time, the bear is not interested in humans because it's already well-fed. In these cases, it should be left alone. If it's acting restless, you can use a flare or a flare gun to try and scare it away. Only use the rifle if you have no other option, and the bear is charging at you. It's important to know how to handle a weapon, but what's even more important is keeping a calm head and assessing the situation. It's easy to lose control when you're scared. No weapon is going to be of any use, when you drop it or can't take aim because your hands are shaking.
Despite the risks, I still dream of seeing a bear up close. Maybe one day from a boat?
I decided to go on this trip at the end of February to experience the Arctic winter, and I wasn't disappointed. In my opinion, it was the perfect time since the almost 3-month long polar night was ending, and the day was starting to get longer, allowing for more interesting activities. This was happening at a pretty rapid pace, too, nearly 40 minutes per day.
When planning to travel at that time of the year, I knew I would face harsh cold weather, so I packed accordingly. My pack list included:
Throughout the entire week-long trip, the temperature hovered around -5°C, but towards the end, it dropped to -15°C. The city center's temperature gauge showed a "feels-like" temperature of -25°C. Essentially, I wore thermal underwear and ski pants under my jacket the whole time, and sometimes added a fleece jacket underneath as well. As for the socks, I didn't feel much of a difference whether they were regular or warm.
Generally, I don't mind extreme temperatures, but at -15°C, it was actually pretty damn cold. Especially since there was this nasty, icy wind blowing. That temperature was recorded in the center of Longyearbyen, but when I was on the outskirts, it felt way colder than when I got back to the city, so it's possible the temperature was even lower. I could've really used a balaclava or a scarf to cover my face. But still, I'm happy I experienced those conditions, and I would definitely do it again!
The crampons as well as the gaiters were pretty useless since we didn't go on any long walks. I also didn't bother with sunglasses or sunscreen since it was mostly cloudy, and we didn't hit any glaciers. The thermos and snacks were also a no-go since our outings were only a few hours long and I didn't feel hungry or thirsty. I'd treat them more as a safety net in case things went south. As for the comms, our tour guide had a satellite phone with her, so we didn't have to worry about phone signal either.
My favorite piece of equipment turned out to be the fur hat that my SO gave me – it kept my head warm and cozy throughout the whole trip. I highly recommend this type of hat over regular beanies or hoods that muffle sounds and constantly crinkle. Unfortunately, I was unlucky and left my hat in Barentsburg during our snowmobile preparations. (I'm afraid I'll end up losing my head someday.) I hope someone found it and put it to good use :) Other than that, although I am still getting the hang of walking with trekking poles, they were also very helpful for our hikes outside the city.
Those experiences may suggest that overall it's pretty chill and the winter in Svalbard is not too harsh. To some extent, there is some truth to it, considering that Longyearbyen is the fastest heating city on Earth and 50 years ago temperatures around 0°C in February were unthinkable here. However, it's also a misleading image – weather here tends to dramatically change, as evidenced by Marcin Gienieczko's story, which played out a week after our trip back to Poland. The guy went on a solo snow trekking trip and lost to nature in quite dramatic circumstances. For two days, a snowstorm, -35°C temperatures, and a wind blowing at a speed of 140 km/h made it impossible for him to leave the tent. His sled got buried; eventually, the tent went down too, and the guy had to be rescued by a helicopter. This story shows that you can't mess with the elements, and it's better to be cautious.
First off, I want to go back here for sure.
The weather messed up some of our plans, and we couldn't go to the ice cave. I really wanted to see it. I also missed out on photographing the arctic fox, although one flashed by us while we were returning from Barentsburg.
In the future, I want to spend more time inland trekking to places like Sarkofagen, Trollsteinen, Nordenskiöldfjellet, or Adventdalen. Maybe we could go slightly further on snowmobiles, but camping in those temperatures isn't for me unless there are experienced people around.
It would also be dope to see the island from different, less frequented sides and take photos of ice mountains or polar bears from a boat.
I think I really caught the Arctic Fever!
Click here to see all photos.