Cold | Experiencing Svalbard

Cold | Experiencing Svalbard

Guest Post by Goal Zero Ambassador Brody Leven

Cold. I don’t know a better word to explain it. It was just so cold that I didn’t even know what to do with myself on Svalbard. So, I did what I do know how to do: I climbed mountains and skied down them. For three weeks, I did this with members of the elite Salomon Freeski TV crew, with whom I’d traveled to the northernmost inhabited landmass on the planet, halfway between Norway and the North Pole, to ski. But the cold was nearly debilitating. We were above the Arctic Circle. It hurt. It’s hard to explain how cold it was, but it’s even harder to comprehend having never experienced it.

The cold. After mentioning the cold, the story is over. It was terribly cold. The coldest I’ve ever been. Our Arctic guide said it was ******* cold. Colder than Patagonia, colder than Denali, colder than Iceland, colder than Vermont. Bone-freezing cold. The cold that you can’t escape, that any layers of clothing fail to keep warm, that numbs your toes for the entire duration of the trip–and, in my case, for the following 6 weeks. The cold in which it’s dermatology suicide to have any skin showing. Gore-tex facemask under a buff behind 6 collars. Climbing mountains–an aerobic activity–in two wool long johns, insulated pants, Gore-tex shells, AND down pants. Overboots covering heated ski boots. Glove liners, down mittens, overmittens. Seven layers on a torso, including two down jackets and an expedition coat. 40 below zero windchill. 12 pound sleeping bags. Frozen water bottles. Frozen fingers. Frozen toes. Frozen nose. My inflatable sleeping pad had a hole in it, so I stacked up 3 foam pads beneath it and shivered on those every night for 2 weeks. There is a good reason we were the first ski film crew to shoot in Svalbard during winter. My nose still has black spots. My left toes are still numb. 2 weeks after returning to Salt Lake City, I went for a sunny run on a 65-degree day. People were running without shirts, sweating, drinking water. I was on the side of the trail, folded in half, on the verge of puking from the pain in my frostbitten fingers.

I will remember Svalbard for a long time to come–it won’t let me forget it.

Sun on Svalbard wasn’t reliable. That didn’t help to create any hope for escape from the cold. We were there during a transformative time of year, as the Polar Winter quickly shifted to the Midnight Sun. On Instagram, I explain it like this:

We couldn’t have visited Svalbard at a more interesting time of year. Due to its latitude at 78+ degrees north, the islands see huge variations in the amount of sunlight received. For six months of the year, the sun doesn’t crest the horizon. All winter, it’s dark.

Polar winter.

Then, sometime in February, the sun peaks over the horizon and lights up some of the hills for the first time in months. The town of Longyearbyen celebrates. Soon thereafter, our team showed up. Our 3pm flight arrival greeted us with relative late-afternoon light, and a sunset chasing us soon. But in March, the days are quickly trying to reach what the arctic soon features: midnight sun. To achieve that in little over a month, sunlight increases by 90 minutes EACH day, with the sun rising 45 minutes earlier and setting 45 minutes later. So although we had limited daylight when we arrived in Svalbard, by the time we left 3 weeks later, it was barely getting dark.


That is really, really weird. Your internal clock gets screwed up. You expect daylight when there is only dancing Aurora Borealis. You are too tired to look for the polar bears that you must, for the sake of safety, look for. The timing for filming sunrise and sunset ski shots change on a daily basis, and our crew found itself struggling to time it properly. Sometimes, the sun veiled itself entirely behind the moon. Other times, it was masked by what appeared to be a severe snowstorm, but was actually only a severe windstorm, ripping glacial snow sideways around our base camp. Spitzbergen, the main island of Svalbard, only receives an average of 30 centimeters of snow each year. But during two weeks on the glacier, our team woke up to find its tents buried on more than one occasion. The weather predicted what we would ski, but we couldn’t predict the weather.

Without reliable sun, a stashed power source on a Flip 10, Flip 20, Venture 30, and Sherpa 100 was plenty to charge my camera, iPhone, GoPro, headlamp, Delorme InReach, and VHF radio for our entire time at our glacial base camp. While the rest of the trip’s members chose to rely on large, fossil-fuel guzzling, gas-powered generators, it felt good to head to my tent and quietly plug my gizmos into a small stash of Goal Zero gear. It was quieter, more environmentally-friendly, field rechargeable, smaller, lighter, and way cooler looking. Unfortunately, it didn’t keep my fingers any warmer.


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