“The wind was whipping spindrift off the peak of the mountain into the air and it was being backlit by the midnight sun. It was beautiful, and there – right on the ridge – were two polar bears fucking. They weren’t just having sex though, they were really going for it, almost as if they knew how beautiful it looked. It was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen. I was guiding a film crew from National Geographic who were getting it all on film. I thought it couldn’t get any better but then I looked down and saw another male sprinting up the mountain for a piece of the action and we ended up getting a huge fight as well as the fucking."
This was one of the first stories Steve Lewis told me. At the time I was as cold as I’ve ever been, trying to grasp my bearings and some sense of normality in one of the most remote and isolated places on the planet. But sometimes a sense of humour is all you need to let you know that you are in good hands and that everything is going to be just fine.
* * *
I woke up one morning in mid April to find the dream email waiting for me. It was from Xavier de le Rue, asking if I wanted to come to Svalbard – a remote Arctic island halfway between Norway’s northern coast and the North Pole – to document his expedition into an unridden mountain region called Atomfjella.
Eight days later and I have just finished a six-hour sled ride from Longyearbyen, the capital of Svalbard and one of the world’s northern-most permanent human settlements. On the summer side of the equinox, life is sustainable – but only just. The temperature is minus twenty, I am wearing everything I have brought with me, and am still cold. The wind penetrates Gore Tex, down insulators and merino thermals with ease. My feet are numb and all of my joints are sore.
Yet all of this is forgotten as the stunning landscape of the Atomfjella reveals itself. After four hours riding over a barren ice cap, the mountains appear on the horizon like lost treasure and just keep growing. The closer we get to camp, the more the mountains rear up – big open faces are replaced by rock and crag that create impossibly thin chutes and couloirs. This is unmistakably De Le Rue terrain – an arctic Himalaya.
We roll down the saddle of the glacier into the flat bottom of this vast bowl, where a nice neat row of North Face tents – looking for all the world like a polar terrace – is pitched. A bleary-eyed crew emerges to greet us. There are two filmers – Guido Perrini and Ross Cairns; the photographer Tero Repo; two paramotor pilots – Francois Xavier and Christophe Blanc; aerial cameraman and data wrangler Tim Burgess; and a gentle giant of a man called Wes, who sidles over in long johns and a pair of ski boot bladders. Comfortable in one layer at minus fifteen, he is very clearly a local. He explains to me that “cold is relative".
Wes, it turns out, is about to become doctor at the university of Svalbard and knows as much about this terrain, its formation and the state of the glaciers as anyone on earth. He is a fascinating man and, like Steve, the long dark winters have fostered in him a great sense of humour. Requiring fresh coffee to function every day, Wes has just thrown his used coffee grounds into the toilet – a walled snow pit. Unfortunately for Ross – the next visitor to the toilet – the sight of the horrendously pebble dashed back wall is too much. Believing the mess to be of human origin begins, he begins to vomit uncontrollably. Wes smiles and lopes off, safe in the knowledge that he will enjoy the punch line again tomorrow rather than give it away today.
On top of this lot there is of course, in TV terms, ‘the talent’: Xavier de le Rue and Sam Anthamatten. Xavier should need very little introduction, but if you’re new to snowboarding here are the highlights: Xavier shares the throne of big mountain riding with Jeremy Jones; he won everything there is to win in boardercross including two world Championships, then switched codes and won three Freeride World Tour titles; next he used his reputation to fund expeditions to some of the steepest and most remote mountains on earth; evidence of these missions garnered him various magazine riders’ poll awards. Sam Anthamatten, a mountaineer hailing from Zermatt, is less well known. Nevertheless he is equally respected in his field. At the tender age of thirteen he and his fourteen-year-old brother absconded for a night. When they returned his parents demanded to know where the boys had been; they told them they’d been up the Matterhorn. Fast-forward fifteen years and Sam is to mountaineering what Xavier is to snowboarding: he has a route named after him on the Matterhorn and a first ascent of a 7350m peak in Nepal. In short, he is a boss. The thing is, Sam can ski almost as well, and Xavier is a very talented climber – so by pooling their resources they are now greater than the sum of their parts. Over the next four days that was about to become abundantly clear.
All in all it’s not a small crew, and considering how remote our camp is the amount of gear that accompanies us is phenomenal. There’s a full mess tent decked out with reindeer hides and a four burner stove; a media teepee where a kerosene burner, hand warmers and sleeping bags try in vain to keep data transfers and camera battery charges rolling; three sleds; an army of fuel tanks; and the aforementioned walled snow toilet.
As I’m surveying the scene, Steve comes over and introduces himself with the polar bear story. After the humour however, comes the reality. As unlikely as it is that we will see one ourselves, every group that leaves camp must carry either a flare gun or a rifle. Polar bears can do a two-minute mile and climb three hundred meters vertically in under ten minutes (if you’re not sure, that’s six times as fast as the average human). Steve shows me his rifle. There is only one in camp, a German-made Mauser which he tells me have been used to kill British soldiers in the Second World War. Despite its colourful history, the rifle is perfect for the task because it has a very simple mechanism and won’t freeze up. Next up is the trip wire and tent layout. The trip wire surrounds only the tents – the toilets are outside the wire as they are what will initially attract the bears. The tents are laid out in a line rather than a circle, so that if a polar bear does stumble into camp it won’t feel trapped once the trip wire charge goes off. Steve explains that if I hear the trip wire then under no circumstances do I get out of the tent. He will come out first and he doesn’t want anyone else moving around confusing things – he will be shooting whatever is moving. The idea of doing a bleary-eyed shit at minus 25 was already unappealing; the prospect of stumbling through the trip wire and getting shot has made it even less so.
On March 3rd Svalbard is in total darkness. At this time of year, this far north, the sun still sits under the horizon. On the other side of the spring equinox, by April 6th, it is bathed in sunshine twenty-four hours a day. During that period the length of daylight grows by 45 minutes everyday. It is a staggering fact and one that gives you an insight into the extremes that life is subjected to this close to the pole. But these extremes are also the reason we are up here, for this level of isolation offers a certain amount of freedom. Xavier has told me relatively little about what he has planned but the fact that we have four paramotors, two pilots and a two-kilometre winch bolted down to a sled trailer means my imagination is running wild.
The midnight sun is creeping between the peaks on the horizon, throwing shadows and deep hues of purple, pink and gold like Jackson Pollock in full flow. This is what everyone came for, and why we are sleeping through the day and working between ten at night and six in the morning. Xavier and Sam set off touring two hours ago, in the direction of a bowl that has echoes of Alaska about it. Alongside Guido, Ross and Tero, I am part of the film crew that has climbed a closer ridge to get a clean front-on view of their descents. The climb is no walk in the park, and everyone is carrying close to 20kg, but everyone knows their role and the banter is crisp despite the frequently precarious sections. At one point I realize I’m laughing to myself. I am roped up to Steve in front of me, I have two ice axes and crampons, and we are climbing glacial terrain in the forty five to fifty degree region – yet every ten minutes I have to stop and check that we aren’t being chased by polar bears. It’s such an absurd situation you have to laugh.
I have always considered myself a freerider first and foremost, and have been very fortunate to see some of the best riders in the world go to work on incredible terrain. But it is nearly impossible to explain just how quick Xavier and Sam are when you watch them ride in the flesh. On film they look fast, but you can never feel the gradient of that slope, the proximity of the rocks or the huge under bite of the bergschrund on the exit. Most people can reach forty to fifty miles an hour on a piste. Well, imagine what seventy feels like – in a tight chute with variable snow, compulsory drops and a gradient so steep that stopping is not an option. When Xavier and Sam commit to these lines there is no escape. Sam later described the snow in Svalbard as velvet and it was a great adjective. It isn’t deep, but there is enough to get an edge into and it is very smooth. Once the boys start to reach top speed it is all or nothing – it isn’t like they have two feet of powder to dig into. Look at the photos on these pages of pencil chutes with ten and fifteen foot compulsory cliffs, and imagine what it takes not just to climb those chutes but to commit to dropping into them, knowing that you are a minimum of six hours away from even basic medical care. It is a risk both Sam and Xavier are very comfortable with – so much so that when I survey the catalogue of lines conquered after three days there is only one line that could be classed as a warm-up. All of the others are critical with big no fall zones.
Riding at this standard in such a remote area would be more than enough challenge for even the most ambitious crew, but Xavier and Sam are keen to test out some of their new toys. Both of them are accomplished paragliding pilots and have spent the last couple of summers learning to fly paramotors. If you’ve never seen one, a paramotor combines a very light two-stroke engine, propeller and guard cage into a glorified backpack. These things are genius – they produce enough power for two people to take off from flat ground and climb more than a thousand meters. It sounds ideal, but watching Xavier and Sam and the two dedicated pilots, Christophe and Francois Xavier (henceforth known as FX) battle with the elements, their equipment and in FX’s case his fear, brought home just how difficult their task was. The ratio of maintenance to flight time is at least five to one, and the loud pop as hot air inside freezing exhaust pipes blow them open is a common sound – to be followed immediately by shift work using a Leatherman to file off the blown pipe and ensure it can’t slice lines or canopies.
To begin with, the paramotors are used to scope lines as they allow Sam and Xavier to get close to every little crevice in the peaks that surround us. As confidence grows, tandem flights for filming start up. Guido, the main camera guy, is a little on the heavy side, so Tim the data wrangler is called up. It is one of those jobs you can’t apply for and most people can’t imagine exists, and as I sit filming from a static position – watching Tim glide meters away from a huge mountain, tracking Xavier down a chute whilst dangling weightless under the canopy – I realize that collecting the footage for expeditions like this is really just as dangerous as the riding itself, especially if you consider how far outside your comfort zone you are operating.
I am roped up to Steve in front of me, I have two ice axes and crampons, and we are climbing glacial terrain in the forty five to fifty degree region – yet every ten minutes I have to stop and check that we aren’t being chased by polar bears. It’s such an absurd situation you have to laugh
By the third day, Christophe the fantastically flamboyant French pilot and I are getting on like a house on fire. We have been up since 4am filming a big line, and he and Tim have nailed the shot. They are full of adrenalin. Winds are still light and Christophe is just desperate to fly.
“Hey, Rozebif you come fly wiz me today?"
I don’t like to intrude on large-scale expeditions like this that I am not driving. I don’t want to be the reason why something goes wrong. As an observer it is not my job to create problems, especially with this much money on the line. Every single part of me desperately wants to fly with Christophe, however, so it is through gritted teeth that I smile and decline the offer. It is worth pointing out at this stage that we are down to one pilot. After five attempts at taking off, FX had failed to leave the snow and his courage had now abandoned him. He was clearly a good pilot, otherwise he wouldn’t have been invited on the trip, but his lack of experience in these temperatures and his unbridled fear of the isolation has got the better of him. It serves as a constant reminder to the rest of us not to take anything for granted.
Thankfully Christophe isn’t taking no for an answer. His passion to fly has outweighed my rubber-armed reluctance, and within twenty minutes I am stood on the glacier ready for take off. The half-hour flight that follows is one of the most surreal experiences of my life. Having spent most of my adult years living and working in the mountains, I have seen a lot of different ranges around the world from different angles, but I can easily say I have never seen mountains as majestic and pure as the Atomfjella. There are no roads, no tress, no cars, no buildings. No evidence, anywhere, of human existence. It takes my breath away and, at one stage, almost reduces me to tears. We climb slowly over sheer faces, and looking down the lines Sam and Xavier have ridden – from the riders’ view – impresses on me again just how steep they are. Eventually, we clear the peaks and are sat amongst hazy clouds at more than two thousand metres, staring out over Svalbard and the Arctic Ocean. The din of the propeller subsides and I start to jabber away into a GoPro until Christophe pulls down his balaclava and shouts over: “Shut your mouth, otherwise your teeth will freeze."
I had no idea this was even possible, but apparently it is and you don’t know it’s happened until you try to bite something and they all crack and fall out.
Satisfied that I’ve done enough talking, I am able to just sit there and drink it in. It is an incredibly privileged view that for me personally puts to bed a very long and emotional winter. I find the size and power of mountains has a very humbling effect – an egotistical reset in a way. Sizing this up on the descent, it dawns on me that for all their incredible feats, Sam and Xavier seem to exist in this state constantly – aware of just how small they are when they are plying their trade.
Having spent most of my adult years living and working in the mountains, I have seen a lot of different ranges around the world from different angles, but I can easily say I have never seen mountains as majestic and pure as the Atomfjell
Leaving the camp is difficult. On the one hand I want to stay and share in the last couple of days’ lines. I am also dreading the seven-hour ride home now that the wind had risen and the sun has deserted us. On the other hand, eating something that isn’t freeze dried and getting to meet my penis in a warm shower is an alluring prospect. In the end I cut my sleeping mat into pieces small enough to fit in my pants and hopefully deflect wind chill, and wave goodbye to the crew and an experience that I can’t ever see being bettered. Unless, that is, I get invited back for the second stage of filming in Alaska next year…