- By Mike and Fiona Thornewill

Fiona on the Van Post Glacier

We landed at Longyearbyen about 2am the pilot announcing it was only – 3 degrees. Secretly I thought how wonderful! Though by the look on Mike’s face he wasn’t quite as delighted. As we stood waiting in arrivals, I noticed few women, which only made my heels feel even more out of place amidst everybody’s funny boots. We were supposed to be met by either Robin Buzza or one of his helpers but I didn’t have a clue who to look for. Clearly it wasn’t a Thomsons holiday with a representative holding up a placard.

As the hall emptied a smiley young man came up to us. “Hi I’m Laurens, you must be Mike and Fiona?” he announced in a German sounding accent. Glancing first at Mike, his gaze fell quickly on me. I can only guess, what he thought to my short skirt and vanity case, which no doubt confused his spotting us earlier, but if he disapproved of my polar wear he never let on. Soon Laurens was driving us through a land of snowdrifts and ‘beware of polar bear’ signs to Robin’s cabin in the Bolter valley. Miles from anywhere, I started to wonder where on earth I’d come to, but at least I could crash out. Gosh I was tired.

The lie in never came, the silence interrupted by a voice, almost South African: “Good morning it’s 9.00am, if you can be at my cabin for 9.30 and we’ll go through your briefing.” …Oh, so I’ve joined the army I thought. Responding reluctantly, I pulled my clothes on and stepped outside with Mike into a grey morning. There was a light wind blowing in my face that was collecting snow into tall drifts. A few brisk strides saw us across the yard to Robin’s porch where we were told to leave our shoes. Ushering us to take a seat in his living room he went elsewhere to make a drink. I can remember the sound of panpipe music in the background and on the walls lots of stunning Arctic pictures. One especially caught my eye; Robin crouched nose to nose with a young polar bear and only a shovel between them. Gosh I didn’t want to meet any of those… Robin soon returned with a tray of tea and biscuits and sat down next to a sledge covered with an animal skin. I mentioned the sledge made quite an interesting sofa, to which, he replied: “Got it from Ran Fiennes after the Trans Globe Expedition.” I could sense Robin possessed a certain aura of respect and being straight talker who offered few words, he could make a silence uncomfortable.

We were entertained first with a slide show about dog sledging and then a no uncertain terms lecture about the dangers of polar bears and how to deal with them. To me, bears were fluffy white things best seen in picture books, I didn’t need to see them close up thank you.

Having discussed our intended route, which would traverse the Island to the east coast and back, we went outside for a kit inspection. Fortunately Mike seemed to have brought the right gear and we were only short of skis and boots. Well you should have seen what I got! Being used to downhill skis with colourful markings, I was not a little surprised to be given what looked to me like two scruffy planks of wood. The boots had no support, weren’t exactly elegant but I knew as soon as I put my feet inside they were going to be warm and warmth was at the top of my list.

Robin then announced he wouldn’t be making the journey himself and placed us in the hands of Laurens and another member of his staff; a tall Norwegian lady called Yana. A friend of Laurens called Gert, would also be on the team. During the afternoon there were introductions, before we all got down to the business of loading sledges and harnessing dogs. There seemed so much to learn and I started to seriously wonder what I was doing preparing to leave a cosy cabin in the middle of an Arctic wilderness.

I’d waited for a long time to experience a moment such as this; setting off on a real Arctic expedition, but here I was. The evening wore a clearing sky as the sun carved a gradually descending arc into a northern skyline of snow topped hills. Heading east, tied by a trace to one of two sledges, towed by twenty-two enthusiastic dogs we left the Bolter valley behind. I found the skiing difficult with antiquated skis and non-existent edges …my competence at ‘downhill’ was of no consequence here.

We set up our red pyramid tent in the twilight, the thermometer falling through –10 degrees Celsius. It didn’t feel that cold because the air was calm and the effort of the afternoon delayed the chill. We staked the dogs out in a circle around us to reduce the threat from bears. Feeding time followed; when the dogs would turn frantic; barking and straining to the point of strangulation at the end of their chains. After handing out a diet of frozen fish we retired to our tents to cook our own meal. The heat of the stove and hot food was welcomed before snuggling into our sleeping bags. Soon, we fell into a long and fitful sleep atop a Reindeer skin mat.

The following morning was grim. The wind got up, had turned through 180 degrees and blown no small amount of snow through a slit in the door. Everything was covered in snow including us. Though we brushed away what we could, the inevitable heat of the stove started to creep moisture into our kit. What I remember more than anything; is how unfazed Fiona was. She just giggled at my complaining and said: “What are you going on about? What do you expect when you camp in the snow!”

After Mike’s moaning about our damp start, we struck camp and headed east into a grey morning chasing the sound of panting dogs. The skiing was difficult with such primitive kit, but I didn’t care, I was enjoying myself. I felt as though I was traveling through one of Ranulph Fiennes’s picture books. It was wonderful and at some point that morning, it dawned on me; I could do this too.

Over the next few days our route took us through valleys, along a huge fiord and onto a glacier called the ‘Van Post.’ All the while we learned more about dog driving and how to live in the cold. Our fourth evening saw us camped at 2000 feet at the top of the glacier. Here the journey changed its character:

Sunset near Longyerbyen

We were savoring the last warmth from the stove before we turned it off for the night, when suddenly the dogs began to howl. Mike and I knew without looking, it must be a bear. My adrenaline kicked in and I thought: “Oh shit, what happens now?” Not knowing what to expect we pulled on our boots, a duvet and peered out the door. In the twilight some thirty meters away stood a Polar Bear. We quickly got out the tent and joined up with Yana, Laurens and Gert. My pulse was racing and I stood nervously with the cutting wind driving through my thin trouser layer. The bear began to circle, whereupon Laurens let off a flare, then another. The bear jumped up a bank, stood a while and slowly appeared to loose interest retreating into the gloom. We kept a lookout for twenty minutes in case it returned, but it didn’t show and so we retired for the night. You don’t sleep quite so well, when you know there’s only a millimeter of nylon between you and the wilderness.

Later that night a storm blew up from the West and the tent shook and flapped violently as the wind screamed over it. I was glad I wasn’t outside. Gosh bears and Arctic gales can be a tad intimidating all in one evening! The next day strong winds pinned us down and I was pleased to remain indoors.

Another wild night followed, but by morning on the sixth day, though still blowing a near gale, the clouds had cleared to reveal a deep blue sky with a yellow sun hugging the horizon. It was also much colder, the glass having fallen to minus twenty. The wind made travel conditions difficult and at one point during the afternoon my hands refused to warm up and my goggles froze over. I became concerned; an Arctic experience was all very well, but I didn’t need to do the frostbite bit. We therefore called a short day and headed for shelter in a moraine field a few miles away. Had I not been so damn cold I would have marveled at the day’s wild beauty; Wind blasting the snow so hard along the ground that I could see nothing below my knees. Only the distant mountains protruded above the maelstrom. Awesome.

Laurens was driving the lead sledge with Fiona and Gert. I followed together with Yana some fifty meters behind, not too close or the dogs became hard to control. At times we struggled to keep sight of Laurens’s sledge, the wind-borne snow, blowing right over it. Traveling in these conditions was serious enough, let alone with Fiona having numb fingers. I became more concerned still, when I saw Fiona increasingly falling over, no doubt struggling to see through her frozen goggles. Eventually I saw Gert help Fiona onto the sledge and wrap a survival blanket around her. I didn’t like it at all, I was virtually helpless to protect her. At one point we crossed over an area of polished blue ice. Suddenly the dog team lost their footing and the sledge went over on to its side. Completely out of control and impossible to stay upright the wind pushed us sliding and crawling to the far side, where fortunately we reached the shelter of a large boulder field. Here we re-grouped and hastily put up camp. Our situation could easily have escalated into something much more serious, but before long the stove was roaring away and we started to warm up.

As Fiona warmed her frost-nipped fingers I asked: “Were you frightened?” She replied: “Not really, because there was nothing I could do about it. - Pointless worrying. You guys were doing all you could, so I just sang songs to myself.” Our journey was showing me a side to Fiona I had never seen. This girl was strong.

After a week in the cold, our tent was beginning to resemble the inside of a snow cave; the walls were white over with hoarfrost and all our clothes seemed to be iced up. That night the thermometer hit minus 24, the coldest temperature I had ever experienced. I sat and marveled at Fiona pulling apart the frozen fabric of her sleeping bag preparing for bed. Conditions were not comfortable and I felt proud of her ability to deal with it and say nothing.

The adventure wasn’t yet over; about 4am we were woken by a solitary and sudden howl from the dog outside our tent, then followed howls from everywhere. Alarmed, I pulled on my boots and duvet before glancing a look out the door. In the dark, only fifteen feet away from me was a polar bear. It was pre-occupied in trying to get food off the sledge. I was a little unsure what to do, but it didn’t seem ready to leave. I knew the bear hadn’t seen me and I thought surprise might be the best form of defence. Picking up my ski stick by the door I emerged quickly and yelled at the bear. The bear jumped backwards and stopped. I stood still as we stared at each other. I knew Laurens would arrive with the gun soon enough and so I continued to shout and growl at the bear who seemed more curious of me than frightened. A flare flew over my head bathing the night in a green glow, I could see the bear more clearly now. A second flare hit the bear on his back, it starred on impact and the bear bolted. Laurens arrived smiling as ever; “ Great to see so much wildlife on this trip Mike.”

The journey continued in glorious weather, and on our tenth day, and quite elated, we arrived back at Robin’s cabin. The only event of note during our last few days had been a third polar bear encounter. But that time, I had the presence of mind to take some pictures.

Flying home, a delay in Oslo, gave us just enough time to visit the ‘Fram’ museum. Admiring the boat, I reflected on our journey and thought of the early pioneers of polar exploration: Nansen and Amundsen. My mind was contemplating a new plan, this time in the south, but would Fiona agree?