Tom Harper in Svalbard

Tom Harper in Svalbard

It’s twenty below zero.  I’ve been driving a snowmobile at 60 kmh, but my face mask has slipped: in seconds, the wind has cut my cheek raw.  My nose is white with frostbite, and my glasses have steamed up.  I take off my gloves to adjust the mask, but I can’t get it right.  Too slow: suddenly, my fingers feel swollen like balloons, so numb I can’t move a thing.

If I can’t move my fingers, I won’t get my gloves back on.  If I don’t get my gloves back on, I’ll never be able to drive the snowmobile.  If I can’t drive the snowmobile…  I’m fifty kilometres from the nearest habitation, fifty kilometres of ice and snow and mountains.  No chance.

Is this really worth it, just for a book?

I’ve come to Svalbard, an Arctic archipelago with a land-mass the size of Ireland and a population the size of Ambridge. A thousand kilometres north of Norway, it’s about as close as you can get to the north pole without having to eat your boots. I’m here to research my new book, Zodiac Station, which takes place in a scientific research base on an isolated Arctic island.  The island in the book is called Utgard, named for the ‘out-world’ of Viking cosmology, on the edge of the earth where giants roamed. You can’t go there because it doesn’t exist, but it’s a kissing-cousin to Svalbard: a place of snow, ice and mountains, where the only way to get around is by snowmobile; a place littered with glaciers, abandoned mines and plenty of hungry polar bears (on Svalbard, they outnumber the humans). 

The only town of any size on Svalbard is Longyearbyen – originally a coal-mining company town, now mostly given over to tourism (the coal-mines are still active). With its functional architecture, limited amenities and abundant supply of woolly hats, it reminds me of an unusually flat ski resort.  I begin my trip here, staying in an old miners’ barracks right on the edge of town. It’s well-kept, comfortable, and much cheaper than the high end places in town: the catch is that it’s a twenty minute walk into the centre. I set off, and within ten paces I’m scuttling back into the hostel for extra gloves, extra hats and extra jumpers. This is what minus twenty feels like.

There’s an abandoned Soviet mining town on my fictional island of Utgard, and – happy coincidence! – there’s also one on Svalbard, called Pyramiden. Although administered by Norway, Svalbard is international territory: by law, anyone can settle on Svalbard and exploit its resources.  It’s a right the Soviet Union exercised enthusiastically during the cold war, seeing Svalbard as a strategic point on their northern flank.

Unfortunately, the road to Pyramiden goes across a fjord.  It ought to be frozen at this time of year but, thanks to the wonders of global warming, the ice isn’t thick enough to take the weight of a vehicle. So I take the next best option: an almost-abandoned Russian mining town called Barentsburg. All the guidebooks describe this as a place where time’s stood still since the nineteen eighties, but when I get there it seems that time’s speeded up again. A lot of the buildings sport new cladding, and the signs are freshly painted. A gaggle of Russian miners troop up the street at the end of their shift. But there are plenty of buildings which haven’t been touched (many sporting faded workers-paradise murals and slogans), and Lenin’s bust still surveys the square with a sneer of (extremely) cold command. I slurp Russian soup in the hotel restaurant.

Nearly two-thirds of Svalbard is covered with glaciers, all riddled with caves and tunnels carved by the summer meltwater. There are glacier caves on Utgard, too: dark places nursing unspeakable secrets. So that’s where I go. Feeling like Alice, I crawl through a hole in the snow, slide down a chute and come out in wonderland. Hexagonal ice crystals, thin and shiny as plastic, glint from the ceiling like diamonds. I’m right underneath the glacier, here; should I ever forget the thousands of tons of ice over my head (did I mention global warming?), I only have to look at the icicles hanging down from the cave roof, bowing out under the pressure.

My scientists on Utgard will travel by snowmobile – and they’ll go to some lonely places.  To tick both boxes, I join a group heading for the remote (even by Svalbard standards) east coast. Driving a snowmobile is relatively straightforward: a handlebar-mounted paddle accelerator, which you press with your thumb, and a handbrake like a bicycle’s for emergency stops. The hard part is staying warm. The snowmobile suits they give us – ultra-insulated onesies – do a good job, but gripping the handlebars forces blood out of your hands and leaves them vulnerable, even through three pairs of mittens. Worse, if you wear glasses, the breath you exhale mists them up in no time; but if you let in air to defog them, you quickly end up with frostbite. I make a note that no-one in my book will wear glasses or they’ll spend the whole novel blind.

But all the cold and the inconvenience are worth it. For three days, I’m riding in a cold, snowy heaven. Vast mountain-lined valleys stretch to the horizon everywhere you look. I drive over sea ice, holding my breath each time I cross one of the cracks, and stand by a vast green glacier front driving into the sea. I go to the very eastern edge of Svalbard, where my whole field of vision reduces to two blocks of colour: grey-white ice, grey-blue sky, and a line where they meet somewhere near Russia. I nearly get lost in a whiteout, when the clouds come down and mountains, sky and snow become indistinguishable. Eventually, I can’t even tell up from down.  Then a shaft of sun breaks in and fills the cloud with an ethereal light. We race back down a frozen fjord into the sunset.

We spend our nights in a cabin. Drifted snow accumulates in the bedrooms and never melts; windows wrapped in barbed wire guard against polar bears. A night-time visit to the pee flag outside is an anxious experience.

The third day is the easiest. Blue skies, sunshine dazzling off the snow as we head back to Longyearbyen. Everyone’s in high spirits. Then it happens. First, I fall behind while I try to wipe my glasses. Then, going at top speed to catch up, my facemask slips. I don’t want to drop any further behind, so I don’t stop to adjust it; in seconds, I can feel the wind cut a livid scar into my cheek.  At the next stop, I take off my gloves to fix the mask. But it won’t sit right, and my fingers are clumsy.  I try to put my gloves back on to warm my hands – but by now my fingers are so fat with cold I can’t get them into the mittens. The others start to move off.

Later, I remember what one of the scientists I interviewed told me: in the field, small things get big very quickly.  At the time, I’m too cold to think. I’m shivering uncontrollably, so frustrated and embarrassed by my incompetence I don’t even ask for help.

Fortunately, I’m in good hands. Yann, one of the guides, swoops back. He forces me to do jumping jacks until my blood starts flowing, and plies me with hot tea and chocolate. He straps up the mask properly, and gives me a handwarmer to slot in my gloves. The drive home from there is the most comfortable I’ve been the entire trip. The welt on my cheek peels horribly, like bad sunburn; a small piece of my nose that scabbed off takes a long time to grown back. Even now, it’s very sensitive to cold.

Is this really worth it, just for a book?