Travel: Bears, lights and action – a snowmobile safari is the ultimate arctic adventure
Motoring across frozen desert and camping on ice, Sarah Marshall ventures into the deep freeze
FACED with a gaping icy plateau and a taunting mob of unforgiving mountain peaks, I've no idea where I'm going. Rattling in the restless, scornful wind, a sign depicting a polar bear is the only indication of what lies ahead. Not even the sun, an explorer's sure-fire navigational tool, is yet to rear its cheery head.
Only 30km of tarmac connects the far-flung Arctic community of Longyearbyen, living year-round at 78-degrees north in the Svalbard archipelago, and as I embark on a winter adventure across main island Spitsbergen, I've quite literally come to the end of the road.
During winter, the only way to explore this glacial wilderness is by snowmobile, so it's no surprise the motor-powered vehicles outnumber people at least two-to-one. Any tourist with a driving licence can rev up an engine for a few hours, but to truly get a sense of life on the frozen frontier, I've chosen to travel for several days.
Venturing across Arctic desert
A night spent cocooned in the log cabin loveliness of Longyearbyen's Basecamp Hotel was essential preparation for my 72-hour, 300km snowmobile safari, and as snow crystals form on the tips of my eyelashes, I fondly recall the toe-tingling warmth of log fires like an all-too-distant memory.
Led by Norwegian guide Marthe, an elfin creature who's hardier than she looks, our caravan of thundering snow camels sets off across Arctic desert, spewing clouds of diamond dust in our wake.
For four months, the sun disappears completely at this latitude, plunging Svalbard into a never-ending dawn and dusk. But in February, the first spidery rays creep above a jagged horizon, flooding valley floors and frozen rivers with a bitter lemon glow.
Crossing Adventdalen (the main valley closest to Longyearbyen), we slalom through twists and turns carved out by meandering summer channels, and I grip my driver in a wrestling hold as I nervously ride pillion.
Pumped-up, muscular mountains grow thinner and sharper as we head west, explaining why 16th century Dutch navigator Willem Barentsz named this island Spitsbergen – which translates as "pointed mountains".
Although there are no trees growing this far north, the landscape is anything but barren; curves, colours, shapes and shadows give inanimate geological formations their own life force. Once the short-lived sun has faded, skies simmer in a fushia haze, eventually cooling to a bone-chilling blue, allowing sparkling constellations to light our way.
Bedding down at a former radio station
Having burned almost 100km of fuel, I'm relieved to see the inky outline of Isfjord Radio, a former radio and weather station originally built on the coast at Kapp Linne in 1933, and now transformed into a comfortable hotel.
Steaming mugs of hot apple juice spiced with chilli and Calvados greet us, as do equally exhilarating streaks of aurora, rippling above a defunct transmission tower like an electromagnetic welcome telegram in space.
During a gourmet tasting menu, featuring bearded seal and smoked reindeer, conversation turns to hunting.
"We get our supplies from Tommy Sandal," explains our host.
"He's one of the few trappers living in Svalbard."
I discover enigmatic Tommy leads an elusive existence in a simple wooden hut at Austfjordneset. It's a reminder that although we're lucky enough to be wrapped up in a warm, cosy hotel, outside its cosseting walls, this is a difficult place to survive.
Hours later, the Northern Lights are still raging, although the threat of polar bears (coupled with a sleepy rifle-bearer) keeps us safely locked indoors.
Discovering a Soviet-era relic
A blinding sunrise allows us to fully appreciate hazy views from Kapp Linne's shoreline, with waves of wind-sculpted snow rolling indistinguishably into the sea.
Climbing up towards Gronfjordbreane glacier, we ride into a glitter storm and I imagine myself inside an enormous snow globe.
Marthe seizes the opportunity to run through the nuances of snowflake varietals.
"This is overflate or surface snow," she announces, scattering handfuls of crystalline confetti with wide-eyed wonder.
"Then you have 'fokk' snow, the stuff carried and compacted by wind. Get caught in that, and you're really fokked," she says with a wink, a mischievous glow bouncing from the ice to her eyes.
Across the Gronfjorden, black smoke forms an incongruous cloud above Barentsburg, a Russian mining town with 350 inhabitants, mainly from the Ukraine. Austere architecture and a bust of Lenin set a Soviet-era picture, and soulless hotels echo with emptiness.
Artem, an optimistic 20-something from the motherland, is three weeks into his job at the Hotel Barentsburg. He offers us the bar's signature 78 Degrees North cocktail, which claims to have an alcoholic strength equal to the town's latitude, and when we decline, he seems genuinely perturbed to wave his only customers goodbye.
Camping on ice
Short days bring the onset of darkness far sooner than desired, meaning we're left travelling in a black-out with only GPS to direct us to Tempelfjorden. Now conditioned to the cold, and lip-cracking minus 20-degree C temperatures, we plan to fully embrace the Arctic by camping on ice.
Heated with a warm air circulation system, the canvas tents at North Pole Camp provide a surprisingly alluring retreat.
Our chef, Marcus, prepares a meal inspired by great polar expeditions, including 'Beef a la Lindstrom', made with long-life ingredients favoured by Roald Amundsen's chef.
After dinner entertainment consists of a flame-spinning show by multi-talented Marcus – eclipsed only by someone accidentally stumbling over the camp's firework-strapped tripwire, announcing his midnight wee in a blaze of pyrotechnics.
Following flocks of birds home
Burning torches and two doe-eyed huskies are enough to keep bears at bay, leaving us with one final day in the deep freeze. Aside from a shy, retreating Arctic fox swept up in a snowdrift with his pearly-white coat, animals have eluded us on this adventure.
But pulses beat in the swirling brash ice of Sassenfjorden, where several walruses are hauled out on floes.
At the water's edge stands Fredheim, a hut once inhabited by 1920s trapper Hilmar Nois, whose tragic wife gave birth here alone in the dark season.
"She eventually went crazy," sighs Marthe, reflecting on the crushing isolation often suffered in this part of the world.
Today, there are no signs of her sorrow, as frosty robes slip slowly from the emaciated ribs of mountains and returning snow buntings announce the beginnings of spring.
Flying above our heads, they have a sense of purpose and direction, reading peaks and plateaus like routes on a map. It's proof even wilderness is navigable – as long as you're prepared to let go and allow nature to guide the way.
How to get there:
Basecamp Explorer (basecampexplorer.com/spitsbergen) offer several multi-day snowmobile safari, including a 3-day At The Rim of the West Coast trip from 17,990 NOK (£1,609) per person.
Rooms at the Basecamp Hotel in Longyearbyen start from 1150 NOK (£103) per night.
For more information on the destination, go to visitnorway.com