The sound of silence

At 78° north, Svalbard is both the largest continuous wilderness in Europe and the final frontier before the North Pole. In the frozen depths of winter, a snowmobile expedition is the only way to get a sense of scope in this land of bone-chilling cold and heartbreaking beauty.

 

Many who have never stepped foot on Svalbard – the archipelago midway between Norway and the North Pole – envisage a bleak, white wilderness of ice, emptiness, and polar bears. Seen in a winter blizzard, this is bang on, but then there are the days as clear as cut crystal and the brilliance they bring. Colours. Nobody ever imagines the colours. This thought plays on my mind as I cling onto a snowmobile, bouncing giddily from side to side through a gully, the lights of the main settlement of Longyearbyen fast receding.

It’s around -20°C and a bitter wind blasts my visor, stinging and finally numbing the fraction of my face exposed to the elements. My tears freeze on my eyelashes like tiny jewels, and wisps of silver-white hair escaping from my balaclava give me a premature glimpse of my older self. It’s very, very cold and beautiful beyond belief. We enter glacial valleys where the sky is painted in softest pinks, pale blues and lilacs. We rumble up slopes of downy snow, fighting to keep balance, and over frozen tundra, as the late February sun glares defiantly on the horizon after four months of absence. You can almost hear the locals’ collective sigh of relief as the rays beat down.

When we stop the snowmobiles, there is utter silence in the blue air, but for the crunch of ice underfoot. Our snowmobiles take us deeper into the Reindalen and Grøndalen valleys, where mountains, bare, muscular and denuded of trees, rise steeply in rolling masses, snow-covered for most of the year. Glowing as the light dies, they appear lit from within – some perfect pyramids, some like the prows of great ships, some like the ruins of fantasy fortresses with mighty stone ramparts and buttresses. Almost 100km into the expedition, every newly trained muscle aches as we approach the glimmer of sea in the pearl-polished twilight.

We are so lucky, our guide Marte Myskja Sæterbø admits, as we defrost over mugs of mulled wine at Isfjord Radio, a former radio and weather station turned boutique hotel in the back of beyond at Kapp Linné. The weather is exceptional for this time of year and the aurora forecast is looking promising. The incongruity of the stylishly pared-back Nordic interior doesn’t pass us by. And the level of attention devoted to food is like a small miracle given the raw and remote setting. We begin digging into Arctic specialities like smoked Svalbard reindeer but, as the wine-braised veal arrives, we down forks. The lights. The lights have arrived.

Outside, the show has begun. We stand in speechless wonder, our gaze lifted to the heavens, as greens float and ripple in the night sky – like flashes from a wizard’s wand.