During spring break of my freshman year I travelled to the Norwegian island of Svalbard, 600 miles from the North Pole. I was helping set up an Arctic skills course that a couple of my friends were running themselves. We had met on a previous expedition a year and a half ago on the same island. I would have helped run the course but Princeton’s schedule made that impossible.
We spent the week mirroring the course and working through the logistics of doing everything with 12+ people. The course involved heavy amounts of hiking and survival skills with some ice climbing, snowmobiling, cave exploring, emergency medicine and rifle skills all in temperatures well below zero.
The island of Svalbard itself is a very unusual place. Its main city, Longyearbyen is the farthest Northern settlement in the entire world with a population of roughly 2000 people. Even so, Longyearbyen has three schools covering every grade level, a small transfer university, a very modern museum and a rec center with a pool and a bowling alley. But even with all of this normalcy, it’s not uncommon to walk through town and see a reindeer sitting by the side of a road resting a bit and watching the traffic go by, traffic that usually consists of snowmobiles.
Svalbard as a whole has about as many polar bears as people, and because of this, their laws regarding safety are very strange. If you’re outside the city limits of Longyearbyen you are legally obligated to carry a working rifle with you at all times. Shooting a polar bear bears the same weight as murder; if a polar bear is shot, a full criminal investigation takes place along with an autopsy of the bear. You may only shoot a polar bear if it is less than 30m from you, anything farther away and the shooter can be charged with murder. It’s a fine balance between trying to preserve the species and trying to protect citizens who wish to explore the island as much as possible. It’s a wonderful and surreal place to experience.
When we were snowmobiling or exploring the town, we’d try to spend nine to ten hours out in the wild hiking or finding good locations to teach certain skills. We’d wake up early in the morning, grab a massive breakfast normally very full of carbs and start packing our packs. Even in a regular day hike we brought rope, ice axes, small saws among our everyday gear. We’d make a small lunch and boil water to put into our thermoses and head out. I wore wool leggings under my rain pants, an undershirt under my thin, athletic wool sweater, and a thick fleece sweater with a rain jacket on top. We were out in up to -25C weather, but even then I wouldn’t put on more layers. More layers means more sweat that can freeze whenever you stop to catch your breath or drink water. So the fewer layers you can wear without being cold while moving, the better.
It turns out that building an igloo isn’t that complicated as long as you have two or three pairs of hands, a hand-saw and the right snow conditions. You simply saw bricks out of a top layer of snow that is conveniently a little less than one foot thick. You have to saw the top edges at an angle so that the layers of bricks eventually converge in a dome-like structure. My first igloo was not perfect, but I could have slept soundly and safely inside of it for a night or two without a problem, adequately protected from the wind.
But telling you how to build an igloo won’t help you one bit towards actually building one. It would take an hour or two to learn with the right instructions once you were in the right environment. The most difficult part is getting that far north in the first place. It’s uncomplicated, but it takes a lot of effort and determination, and it’s completely and utterly worth every effort.
~ Atleigh Forden '16
Check it out
The Program: http://www.ne-expeditions.co.uk/
The Program's Facebook (cool photos!): https://www.facebook.com/pages/Northern-Exposure/375155239209027
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