Svalbard, formerly known by its Dutch name Spitsbergen, is a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. Situated north of mainland Europe, it is about midway between continental Norway and the North Pole.
Administratively, the archipelago is not part of any Norwegian county, but rather forms an unincorporated area administered by a state-appointed governor. Since 2002, Svalbard‘s main settlement, Longyearbyen, has had an elected local government, somewhat similar to mainland municipalities.
Other settlements include the Russian mining community of Barentsburg, the research station of Ny-Ålesund, and the mining outpost of Sveagruva. Svalbard is the northernmost settlement in the world with a permanent civilian population.
We spent 10 days in this extraordinary place, staying two days in Pyramiden, an abandoned Russian mining settlement, and hiking from Longyearbyen to Barentsburg. It was a special adventure: really way up north, and we carried a rifle as a protection against polar bears.
We were staying overnight mostly outside of human settlements in the real arctic wilderness. Svalbard is a vast land not for the fain-hearted. This is a place where “deep north” gets its true meaning.
Longyearbyen Camping is situated at 78º 15´ north. There is no other camping site further north with comparable facilities anywhere else on the Earth. To the North pole, it is just another 1300 km, mostly across the drifting ice of the Arctic Ocean. The mass tourism of North Cape in Norway is as far south, as some of the Mediterranean mass resorts from London.
Overnight stay figures vary widely from year to year and have been anything between 1500 to 3400 annually during the last years, with guests from 15-30 countries. In other words: a small, cosy campsite with the atmosphere of a big international family on most days.
We spent a few days in the camp in between our trips. In the beginning of August, sunset and sunrise merged into a one beautiful natural phenomenon. We witnessed this lightning performance with a bottle of Caol Ila Scotch - what to ask more…
In the middle of summer, surface temperatures of the water near the shore are usually somewhere between 4° and 8°C. Since summer 2008, Longyearbyen camping staff issue Arctic Naked-bathing Certificate. Acquiring a serious certificate requires fulfilment of certain conditions - in this case this means: in front of a witness from the campsite staff a hearty rush from a nice pebble beach into the Advent Fjord, a full dive, and some swimming strokes in the sea - of course naked!
Coal mining history is visible all round Longyearbyen.
The American industrialist John Munroe Longyear visited Spitsbergen as a tourist in 1901, where he met with an expedition prospecting for coal. He returned to Spitsbergen 1903, where he met Henrik B. Næss in Adventfjorden, who gave him samples and information on coal fields. Along with his associate Frederick Ayer, Longyear bought the Norwegian claims on the west side of Adventfjorden, and expanded the claims significantly the following year. In 1906, the Boston-based Arctic Coal Company, with Ayer and Longyear as the main shareholders, started mining in Mine 1a, after having built docks and housing.
From 1907 to 1987, the mining companies operated a network of aerial tramways to transport coal from the mines to the port.
Longyearbyen is the largest settlement and the administrative center of Svalbard.
As of 2008, the town had a population of 2,040. Longyearbyen is located in the valley of Longyeardalen and on the shore of Adventfjorden, a bay of Isfjorden located on the west coast of Spitsbergen.
Since 2002, Longyearbyen Community Council has had many of the same responsibilities of a municipality, including utilities, education, cultural facilities, fire department, roads and ports. The town is the seat of the Governor of Svalbard. It is the world‘s northernmost settlement of any kind with greater than 1,000 permanent residents.
According to Svalbard regulations one must carry a weapon as a protection against polar bears when staying outside of human settlements.
The guns that may be rented are mostly WW2 Mauser brand 30.06/7.62 mm high powered rifles in a fairly bad condition - but they work. Some shops and outfitters rent modern rifles of the same calibre that are somewhat less heavy and clumsy - at a higher fee. Anything less powerful is fairly useless against a polar bear.
Not far from Longyearbyen, there is a shooting range used for shooting practise before setting out on a trip outside the town. It is a rather strange feeling to test the rifle, as is having it tied to your backpack on the trail…
It was an extraordinary but cold boat journey from Longyearbyen to Pyramiden. Fresh fish were grilled and served onboard, followed by a digestive - a shot of whisky with natural ice!
The Nordenskiöldbreen glacier in the Billefjorden fjord we visited was an awesome sight and we admired patches of blue colour in the ice - blue ice occurs when snow falls on a glacier, is compressed, and becomes part of a glacier that winds its way toward a body of water. During its travels, air bubbles that are trapped in the ice are squeezed out, and the size of the ice crystals increases, making it blue.
Pyramiden (meaning “the pyramid“ in most Scandinavian languages; called Пирамида, Piramida, in Russian) is a former Russian settlement and coal mining community on the archipelago of Svalbard.
Founded by Sweden in 1910 and sold to the Soviet Union in 1927, Pyramiden was closed in 1998 and has since remained largely abandoned with most of its infrastructure and buildings still in place. Until 2007, Pyramiden was practically a ghost town where, within the buildings, things remained largely as they were when the settlement was abandoned in a hurry.
Since 2007, Trust Arktikugol has been renovating the former hotel and upgrading the infrastructure, including building a new power station with diesel generators, in order to accommodate tourists in the old settlement. Up to 30 workers have been living in the settlement year round to maintain the facilities and guide the tourists visiting from Longyearbyen.
As of 2013, the Tulip hotel has been reopened and it is possible to stay overnight in Pyramiden. The Tulip hotel also houses a small museum. In addition, there is a small hotel built of old shipping containers near the harbour.
There are, however and luckily, no plans to renovate and reopen the whole settlement.
It‘s hard to describe how we felt when Pyramiden town appeared and became more and more visible as our boat approached Pyramiden port. Ghost city that plays strong with one‘s emotions - no matter if you remember Bradbury‘s books or Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road, or any of those B-movies dealing with post-apocalyptic scenarios.
We were extremely lucky - when all the tourists were going back to the boat after a few hours visit, leaving us in Pyramiden alone, the guide of the tourist group told us that the two most beautiful days of Spitsbergen summer were just forecast. He was right - and the 2-nights stay here gave us unforgettable memories.
There are no restrictions on visiting Pyramiden that is still owned by Trust Arktikugol, but visitors are not allowed to enter any buildings without permission even if they are open.
While most buildings are now locked, breaking into the buildings, vandalism and theft of “souvenirs“ have become a serious threat to Pyramiden as it contributes to the accelerating deterioration of the buildings.
We could not resist the temptation of exploring some of the (open) buildings. There was a list of swimming schedule still available at the pool. Old Russian newspapers. Former gym. Skiing storeroom. Cooking pots in the kitchen.
It was a real return in time into the past.
We camped right in the middle of the grassy town “square”.
During the night, we kept a watch: it is not uncommon that in winter polar bears wander through the ghost town. In our case, however, we were only visited by a few polar foxes, and otherwise the town was silent only as a ghost city may be.
The next day, we decided to climb the Pyramiden mountain (Reuterskiöldfjellet (?)) above the town.
Once a day, a tourist boat from Longyearbyen approaches the glacier before reaching Pyramiden; except this regular tourist intermezzo, the arctic landscape remains awesome, majestic and silent.
Climbing Pyramiden mountain was a spectacular endeavour.
The all-around views over majestic arctic landscape were incomparable. We were there alone: completely free, with no civilization in close proximity to us, just with the ghost town below where we pitched tents forming our base camp.
We left Pyramiden on the next day onboard of another tourist boat that came from Longyearbyen with herd of day-trippers. It was the time to get ready for another northern adventure...
The distance from Longyearbyen to Barentsburg is about 55 km but there are no roads connecting the two settlements. Most contact between the two is by boat, snowmobile, or helicopter. We opted for hiking.
There are a few scattered houses to the west from Longyearbyen. For some time, we hiked on a gravel road that ends at the edge of the Bjørndalen valley. Here we turned to the south and started to gently ascend into the arctic wilderness.
It was a long hike. It took us several hours to reach the top of the pass where we encountered foggy weather and were crossing last patches of snow (it was late August!).
Then we continued on a rough track for another two or three hours, slowly descending to a bay called Colesbukta.
Footprint of a polar bear. Have you ever seen it?
In the true arctic wilderness, with no help around, it does not make you feel comfortable…
We reached the Colesbukta bay after exhausting 14-hours long hike.
The weather cleared up a bit, and the views across nearby peaks and the Arctic Ocean were undoubtedly magical: low light of the setting (or rising?) sun breaking through thick clouds was illuminating the unspoiled wild nature.
From this place, we still had to walk for one more hour to the Rusanovodden hut where we aimed to stay overnight.
We spent a night in the Rusanovodden hut which is an open cabin and ‘museum‘ built by the Russians from Barentsburg in the memory of Vladimir Aleksandrovich Rusanov, 1875-1913, a Russian geologist, who visited Novaya Zemlya every year from 1907 to 1911, and who claimed the property at Grumantbyen in 1912.
The hut officially sleeps 6 in one of the bunk rooms, however the museum offers large floorspace and foldable camping beds. It features a stove, tables, seating, six mattresses on bunk beds, and some basic and informative museum (in Russian).
We decided to stay in the hut for two nights, aiming to make a short trip from Colesbukta to another former settlement called Grumantbyen.
Colesbukta was originally a whaling station. The 19th century saw coal mining attempts in the bay itself and after the World War II the establishment of the settlement of Colesbukta, a more suitable port for the nearby Russian mine of Grumant. A narrow-gauge railway of about 6km connected the two settlements, clearly Spitsbergen’s longest surface railway, much of which was sheltered in a wooden construction against winter snowdrift. Together with Grumantbyen, Colesbukta closed with the end of coal mining, but until 1988 did serve as a Russian base for exploratory coal drilling. In Grumantbyen itself, there are just few buildings left, most of them crumbling, and one can only guess where most of the others stood.
There are still ruins of the wooden-covered railway that increase moods of desolation and silent emptiness of the barren arctic landscape. The view of the former settlement of Grumant is impressive and quite moving - and does look like a colourful painting…
The next day, we continued hiking along the coast in the western direction towards the Russian settlement of Barentsburg.
It was cloudy, but luckily without any rain. In Colesbukta, there were other ruins of the former port, and not far from here, we had to cross several ice-cold rivers barefoot.
Along the way, there were several cabins that seemed to be occasionally used, most likely by visitors from Longyearbyen.
The need and desire for a “summer cottage” seem to be unstoppable even in the remotest areas of the deep north :-).
We pitched our tents at the seaside above a small gorge. During the evening, it became cold…
Luckily, there was some drift wood at the sea coast, and we even found a broken wooden cart with some black coal! Around the campfire, everything looked more optimistic, and we enjoyed our evening meals, cups of tea - and a few shots of whiskey we still got.
It took us just a few hours to reach the Russian settlement of Barenstburg on the next day.
Barentsburg (Russian: Баренцбург) is the second largest settlement on Svalbard, with about 500 inhabitants (2007), almost entirely Russians and Ukrainians. Barentsburg started as a Dutch mining town in the 1920s.
In 1932 the Dutch sold their concession to the Soviet Union, and since 1932 the Russian state-owned Arktikugol Trust has been operating the town and running the coal mining industry.
Orientation in Barentsburg is easy enough. It‘s some 220 steps up the stairs from the dock to the settlement, where more or less everything is along the main street, ulitsa Ivana Starostina.
The town posses everything one may expect from an old Russian town in a stage of slow decline: a Lenin statue, a museum with stuffed polar bears, a dinosaur footprint and lots of rocks, a sports centre with a pool, and a few propaganda posters and slogans.
We spent the night in the Barenstburg hotel.
Reasonably new (1988) and newly renovated in 2012, it is quite in a good shape though in a bit of a dormitory students style, and usually eerily empty. It has some interesting decoration, too.
Apparently, our not-announced visit was surprising for the hotel staff, and they had some hard time getting enough food for the hungry hikers.
The surroundings of Barenstburg create unusual combination of beautiful arctic landscape and industrial apocalypse.
Really strange to see, it is worth hiking around the town, and if one manages to leave the main street of the city (a few drunk locals are a constant here), the sublime beauty of the landscape may overcame mixed feelings gained in this Russian outpost.
The following afternoon, we took a boat ride to Longyearbyen on another tourist boat.
On the way back, we saw the ruins of Grumantbyen once more, and admired magnificent cliffs along the coastline.
It was a week in the harsh arctic area where mankind continues to exist and fight with brutal conditions.
Vast majority of the visiting people spent their nights in a comfortable accommodation in Longyearbyen (there is even a Radisson SAS hotel), and explore the country on a suitable day trips.
We did it differently. Unforgettable memories is a cliché, but in this case, there is no better description or comparison of what we experienced in Svalbard.