NEXT TO THE NORTH POLE: SNOWKITING SVALBARD
When Kari Schibevaag fell in love with the Svalbard on her first trip out there in 2016, she committed herself to seeing it a second time in a way nobody else had. Located miles above the Arctic Circle, the archipelago of Svalbard is a punishing landscape, formed as a result of multiple ice ages. The islands are located so far up on the northern hemisphere that you may not see the sun rise or set, depending on the season.
Being a twelve-time world snowkite champion, this form of transport seemed an obvious choice for her expedition. Using only wind power, she chose Tom Magne Jonassen, Cecilie Rydberg, Jørgen Faksvåg and Lars Oven to make up the Green Wing Expedition Group. Their route would see them undertaking the ambitious and challenging journey from the north to the south of this unrelenting environment.
Once her team had been chosen, Kari had to find a sponsor who could supply her team with kit that would not fail in +2/-35°C temperatures. This meant putting equipment and kit under stress tests to ensure that they were as close to perfect for the conditions as possible. For their specialist and uncompromising requirements, Musto kit stood out in its ability to safeguard the wearer in a vast spectrum of weather. The team also undertook crevasse rescue training with a glacial expert who advised them on how best to navigate this treacherous arctic terrain. This expert instructed them on ways of orientating themselves around glaciers and the best way to react if one of the team were to fall into a crevasse, which proved useful at the beginning of their ice crossing.
Halfway to Svea, the team began to spot increasingly wet areas, so they kited warily between the grey spots of water. On such treacherous terrain, accidents will almost inevitably happen, however. When Cecilie went through the ice suddenly, with her skis and sledge, her equipment weighed her down almost instantly. Maintaining a hold on her sense of calm while Jørgen and Lars remembered their training and crawled slowly towards her to rescue her from the freezing water, Cecile managed to unfasten the bindings. Cecilie’s kitelines had frozen into the ice, so there was no chance of pulling her up with those. Instead she used her skis to bolster her way out of the crevasse and was saved from hyperthermia by the quick reactions of her team.
The stark realities of the arctic were also compounded by seeing the effects of climate change. Svalbard is probably one of the places on the planet worst affected, with the Arctic warming approximately twice as fast as the global average. As a result of rapidly melting polar ice, polar bears have been forced to wander in search of food. For the team on a practical level, this meant polar bear guards had to be stationed outside the tents at night, on rotation. “Whiteouts made it virtually impossible to spot polar bears in the snow,” Kari reminisces. “We may have been able to see their track marks and hear them, they could have been all around us, but we couldn’t actually pick them out.” On an emotional level however, the presence of such large numbers of polar bears and seeing the depleted artic landscape was a daily reminder of its increasing fragility and the effects on the ecosystem that calls it home.
Despite Cecilie’s fall, the bright weather conditions allowed the team to feel like they could enjoy their surroundings and their unique challenge with unimpeded clarity. However, the lack of wind made kiting impossible, which called for the team to change their route. At the foot of the Lomonosov glacier and further up to the Åsgaards glacier the team received daily weather forecasts by satellite phone. They estimated enough food and fuel to kite all the way back to Longyearbyen. Calling off their planned scooter pickup and pumping up their kites, the team started to move downwind for the first time in almost two weeks. ‘It was the best kiting we’ve ever experienced,’ Kari enthuses. ‘We covered half the distance kiting in two days downwind compared to walking and kiting upwind in the valleys down south.
Kari’s excitement is palpable as she describes her experiences from this trip: “This has been the best arctic experience and given us more inspiration for further adventures. Next year, we are going back to explore more and will also be giving an expedition camp for kiters wanting to learn more about kiting in the Arctic. This will be the first camp of its kind, hosted by The Green Wind expedition group and Hurtigruten Svalbard”.