Norway #2: Svalbard - Probably the Best Week of My Life

Welfare Rifles, LOL from the liberal American. 
This will be a massively long blog post as a forewarning. There was just so much that happened this week!

Mike and I arrived Sunday and I settled into the local hostel on Svalbard - Mary Ann's Polariggen. I essentially was a tag-a-long on this trip, but I decided to go to UNIS lectures on Reconnection and Radar Mechanics from Monday - Wednesday and then again today (Monday again... I'm a day late with the weekly blog post). Bizarrely enough, I immediately switched to a sleeping schedule where I slept from 7 PM to 1 AM and then would do research from 1 AM to 8 AM before going to lectures. There was no reason for this other than the fact it is dark for most of the day here (40 minute daylight extension every day though!), but it was what my body apparently wanted.

For those of you who don't know, Svalbard is a pretty extreme winter environment. At 78 N in the Arctic circle, temperatures are regularly between -10 and -20 C here. It's also a polar bear sanctuary, so you must carry a group rifle if you leave Longyearbyen premise. Svalbard is an archipelago that freezes over in the winter.

On our way out to the East Coast - perpetual sunrise this time of year
So following the typical Lois schedule, I worked very hard the first part of the week and then took my holiday from Thursday - Sunday to have fun. On Thursday, I went on a snowmobile (snow scooter here, much cuter name!) tour where we travelled to the East Coast of Svalbard, which was over 100 km away from Longyearbyen. They bundle you up in an expedition suit, give a quick lesson, and then bam, you're on your way. I had never scootered before, so for the first hour, I was totally petrified and hanging on for dear life going 40 km/hr.

Follow the Leader! 
Wow moment on the way back from East Coast 
The scenery was totally unreal. Really, no pictures or go pro video could ever compare to this experience. There were times where we were riding on top of a glacier, everything around us was totally white, and we're just following the distant red tail lights ahead of us, hoping our guide doesn't decide to jump ship and leave us totally effed. When we got to the coast, you see the merger of four glaciers and huge ice wall surrounding the coast. We hung out for a bit on the glacier (not totally safe) and then went to a look out point. This is where we saw the polar bear sitting by a seal hole. I have no pictures though because we could only see him through the binoculars.

On the way back, one of my friends from the trip and I had to pee... For those of you who have backpacked with me, you know that I love peeing outdoors. Probably too much. This was the worst outdoor peeing experience ever. First of all, she and I were standing in a flat plain with no cover and there were 3 tour groups of approximately 10 people each watching us. UGH. Oh, and it was ~ -15 C with wind chill and we had to totally strip down because of the expedition suits. UGH x 2. The guide was helping me take off the suit and was making fun of me [said in deep Nordic voice] "Oh I see you're not wearing much under here, ha ha ha". :|

Sleds and Dogs!
Looking up in the ice cave
  The next day was dog sledding to an ice cave (who lives this kind of life?!?!). The huskies were fantastic - they absolutely LOVED the snow and running. Like the dogs went ballistic when they realized the guide was choosing dogs for a tour. The ice cave went about 1 km, and it was seriously disconcerting to 'descend' into a 1/2 meter hole in the ground via rope and then wind through an ice covered cave. Of course, it was a surreal experience and totally unique. My favorite parts were seeing the literal frozen streams over rocks... they looked like liquid water was still flowing, but alas, that won't happen till the summer here.

Hikers bumming it a bit on our way up
On Saturday, some of the UNIS students invited me to go hiking/skiing with them. Special thanks to Kristian for giving me a ride on his scooter out to the highest mountain nearby Longyearbyen (1100 m). We had a group of about 15 people, which immediately split into 10 skiiers and 5 hikers. I had never seen people walk up mountains with skins on skiis before, so that was definitely a little mind boggling for this girl who only knows alpine and cross country skiing. The hike was beautiful, and I really loved getting to know the students.

View from the top - look it's the sun!!! 
By far the best part of this whole week has been the people I met - everyone on Svalbard has this great sense adventure and true love for life and exploration that I don't see often. The people on Svalbard want to be there, and this culture of adventure and staying warm pervades. People wear long underwear to classes and walk around in socks, and everyone carries a backpack (like me!). I really felt like I belonged here, and I'm terribly sad to leave this community today.

Just me, taking my shirt off on a hike. The usu. 
It was a long hike, and it was the first time I've ever used microspikes (whew, wouldn't have made it without them!).  My water bottle was solidly frozen by the time I reached the top, so it was fortunate that I had bought a UNIS souvenir thermos the day before (luck!). The views were unbelievable on the way up. After summitting, we started down via butt-sliding at the step points and running at the less steep points. I won't lie, it would have been impossible to do this hike without a group. There were so many times I asked the person nearest "wait, where is the ridge - where are we?". There is only white. As it was, even when we thought we were safe and could clearly see the snow mobiles, Holger and I ran off a cliff and fortunately fell into snow (see Self-Experiment #4: Free Falling).
Party Animal here, haha!

The sun! YAY! 
The fun doesn't stop there though. Even after running off a cliff, we went back, showered, and then went to a student 'After Ski Party'. Just wow. I'm still trying to process this party, which was held in the student cafeteria. People started heavily drinking around 8, so you can imagine the disaster the cafeteria became by midnight. We danced (disco fox- hustle-boogie depending on your definition!), we sang, we played games, we laughed, and an amazingly good time was had by all - big smiles all around. I talked with Canadians, Germans, Belgians, Norwegians, English people, a Kenyan, etc. UNIS is a truly international student environment, and once again, everyone is here because they want to be here (and they are also all STEM - Physicists, Engineers, Geologists, etc.)

Bonfire time! 
That wasn't enough though... after going to bed at ~3 AM, I woke up at 8 AM the next day to go scooter and see a sled dog race. We did take it easy (hangovers abound!) - scootering out of Longyearbyen a bit to see the sun and play around with the shadows and mountains (sunrise arctic yoga, haha!) We chilled at the sled dog race, watching the dogs run in while hanging out and chatting around an outdoor bonfire.

Check out my nose and cheek for frostbite patches
From there, we went back to student housing and had a pasta party where everyone brought left over pasta (mine was from South Africa - exotic!). Eicke convinced me though that it would be a great idea to ski up to the ice caves after, so we did (in the dark! eek!). We tagged along with Eicke's friend who was doing research on this particular ice cave and the movement of the glacier (he also had a welfare rifle - whew!). The ice cave was beautiful (of course!) and then we skiied down. Brave Eicke skiied down in field skis (?!?!?! seriously brave for a non-Norwegian), and I tried to remember my alpine skiing basics (... I made it!). I was so exhausted at this point it was extremely painful to even turn because my legs were shaking so bad from muscle fatigue. I also had frostbite on my nose and cheek at this point...

My German, French, and Norwegian boyfriends. Note that I'm the midget here... 
My last day (Monday) was lectures and then a long lunch with some of my compatriots at the UNIS cantina (somewhat vegetarian friendly!). Two of my favorite moments from today's lunch were:

"Oh yeah, you need to watch out on the mainland (Norway) for the goose, they are bigger than the elk!"

"Oh yes, you French eat to be fancy. Norwegians, we eat because we are, you know, hungry".

There were also several Donald Trump taunts... sigh. #thanksAmerica

The other interesting comment I have about the week is that I was both average height and exceptionally thin by Svalbard standards (?!?!). I can't tell you how many people commented on my 'thinness' this week. It's so freaking weird to me... I'm used to being 2 standard deviations above the average female height and I have a BMI of about 21... I'm not short or (really) that thin. Some people were actually horrified at how thin I was ("do you not eat?") and fed me a bar of chocolate (appreciated greatly!). It was pretty cool to see what it's like to look up at people when you're talking to them, haha!

I would love to come back here. It truly was paradise here... I'm not a fan of the cold, but by my last day at Svalbard I actually relished the cold. The cold now means fun and life... it's exciting. I feel cold and now feel happy. Really, it's a one-two between Boulder and Longyearbyen for best places on Earth that I've been. I'm so happy!!!!
Beautiful Svalbard

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