I was hoping to avoid the near-compulsory snowmobiling trip in Svalbard since I tried it in Iceland a couple of years ago and found it a bit scarier than I’d anticipated. However, since Svalbard only has about thirty miles of road on the entire archipelago, if you want to leave the town (and you do because there’s not a lot in Longyearbyen once you’ve done the sightseeing tour and the Polar Museum), you more or less have to get on a snow scooter.
Chief among my worries was that I might roll the thing and when I discovered that we were to have a scooter each instead of sharing them in pairs, I was even more worried. However, these things were much bigger and sturdier than the one I drove in Iceland and the unflappable Alex never mentioned anything about keeping your feet on the runners at all times so as to not get your leg broken when the scooter rolled and I began to think maybe it wouldn’t happen after all. I reluctantly admitted that I, alone in the group, had driven a snow scooter before but I pointed out that the one I’d driven had been much smaller. Alex looked at me like I’d said something weird and told us “these are the small ones”. I’ve since done a wee bit of research on the subject of snow scooters and I conclude that the Icelandic ones were definitely a lot smaller.
As per usual, we were dressed for the occasion, in big overalls and padded boots and my personal favourite, the balaclava and the helmet. I don’t like the balaclava because I really don’t like things touching my neck but this one had a slit down each side so I could drape it carefully. The only trouble was that it was a bit big and it needed regular readjustments to stop bits of my face freezing when it slipped aside.
As usual also, the first bit was the hardest because it was a little bit rocky, we had to cross two roads and those roads had slopes leading up to them. It also didn’t help that the engines were cold and therefore a bit juddery or that snowmobiles work best when they’re going fast. All in all, the first ten minutes were terrible and I spent most of them clinging to the handlebars and making unhappy squeaking noises, desperate to either abandon the scooter and walk back or get on the back of Alex’s scooter where it was safer, Alex being most unlikely to crash.
It got better. It always gets better. The snow evened out a bit, I got used to the throttle so it became less like a kangaroo, we stopped a couple of times in fairly quick succession so Alex could check we were all getting on ok and then we stopped because in the darkness, Alex had spotted a herd of wild reindeer. They didn’t run – they were nervous about us but given that there’s so little food, they decided to take their chances on us not killing them rather than use any of their precious energy reserves running away from us and the food. They kept an eye on us but they stayed where they were and we didn’t harm them or frighten them. I tried taking photos but my camera really wasn’t meant to take photos of reindeer fifty metres away in the dark.
We carried on, heading east-ish along Adventsdalen, the valley which grows out of the Adventsfjord. Actually, when I say “valley”, I mean “swamp” although in November it’s frozen solid and only a few miles further on it was used as the (winter-only) airport until a proper airport was built on solid ground in 1975. I’m very fond of the story of this airport – it consists of one wooden hut which served as both terminals and there was no actual runway, there was just a stretch of frozen swamp with a car at each end with its lights on to give the pilots something to aim at.
Gradually, the lights of Longyearbyen vanished into the distance. Longyearbyen is a tiny little place, a mile and a half square, two thousand souls and yet I swear it creates more light pollution than a big city like London. You can see the orange glow coming out of the narrow valley for miles around but eventually we left it behind. We were out in the wilds now, the obligatory rifle strapped to Alex’s scooter in case we met any polar bears (spoiler alert: we didn’t).
It was dark, of course, but it wasn’t pitch black. That’s the thing about Svalbard in November – you soon learn to distinguish different shades of night and this one was definitely royal blue and although we needed our headlights on to drive the scooters, we didn’t have any other sources of light when we stopped and we could see perfectly well – the abandoned iron bedsteads that are now both a landmark and the end of a race, the plastic cups of coffee or hot blackcurrant, the snowy mountains. The reindeer, come to that.
We’d made three or four stops on our journey eleven miles up the valley but we went back without a single stop which took nearly forty minutes. I began to push the speed up, just a little, up to a top speed of 25 mph, still not entirely comfortable with any kind of cornering or any kind of sideways slope, no matter how trivial. My right hand kept getting cramp from holding the throttle, so I had to adjust my grip every five minutes – the regular stops on the way up the valley had allowed me to stretch out that hand but now I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t let go and stretch it because then the scooter would stop. Even shifting my hand noticeably lost me speed. Had it not been for that, I would have enjoyed the drive back immensely. I did manage to fiddle with my handlebar controls with my left hand. The handlebars are heated and you can cycle through eleven heat settings by pressing the blue button. I’d decided before we even set off that I’d leave them alone. After all, I was wearing windproof fleece-lined leather gloves and if they could protect my hands from the Arctic wind, they certainly didn’t need heating. But then they got a little bit chilly on the way back and there was something to fiddle with so I did. And it turns out that you can make your hands sweat through thick winter gloves and then you have to turn your heated handlebars back down.
Like the first bit, the last bit was scary – rocky, with slopes and roads to cross and once the terrain becomes uneven, the scooter starts jumping again. You spend nearly two hours thinking you’ve got the hang of it, only to discover that you really haven’t once you get back on the difficult bit of track.
The last thing to do was refuse to get off the scooter so I could have my photo taken and then I slithered off it, with one leg half-dead because apparently I wasn’t quite sitting correctly on it. I don’t think there’s really a wrong way of doing it – you sit on and hook your feet under the hooks (which conveniently keep them in place and stop them being shattered if the scooter does roll, I suppose). Photo taken, I hopped and slithered across the snow, across the road and back into the building, to get out of all the heavy clothes and the balaclava and the helmet, which had been crushing my ears just enough to make everything a bit muffled.
I’m still not a convert to the snow scooter but I hate them a bit less than I did.