Staying Warm 1309 km From North Pole

After experiencing more snow than I could possibly imagine during my quick stay in Tromso, I was off to my next adventure - visiting the north-most settlement in the world! Located just 1309 km / 813 miles from the geographical north pole, this is the equivalent of Ushuaia at the tip of South American continent - the last habitable place one can visit. Anything past that involves a cruise or a flight to get to the poles. Longyearbyen is up north. Waaay up north!

The town is located on Spitsbergen island, a part of Svalbard archipelago - a somewhat disputed territory between Norway and Russia with the origins of that argument tracing back to the first arctic mining companies set up here. Both countries still have their mines around the island, but they all operate at a loss - only to keep the country's presence there - politics at its best.

But we digress.

Obligatory picture with a sign at the airport. Watch out for those bears!

As I discovered while planning my Scandinavia trip, getting to Longyearbyen involves taking an hour and a half flight from Tromso either with SAS or Norwegian. So I worked hard to get that added to my award ticket for free and eventually succeeded (I have written about my multiple tries and fails and eventual success before).

And what a flight it was! But that deserves a separate post of its own.

Flying over Svalbard is different. Very different.

So I got to town and settled in at Mary-Ann's Polariggen - a hotel made up of former miners' barracks with a quite distinctive feel to it.

Another view of the town with Polariggen at the foreground

You might be wondering what the weather was like with all that snow around. I have wondered that myself.

As I pack light no matter where I go, I didn't want to bring any special winter clothing with me on this trip due to extra weight and the bulk of it. I have also read that by mid April, it usually hovers around freezing - something I could easily pack for with a light sweater and my goose feather jacket.

So a month out,  I started to check the forecast fairly regularly and, while not great, it seemed manageable with highs around 15 F / -10 C. I was a bit surprised by outpouring of oh-my-god-it's-so-cold-i-have-no-idea-if-the-$300-parka-i-just-bought-will-be-enough posts on TripAdvisor forum as that seemed a bit over the top and figured a month later I won't have to worry about that.


While the forecast stayed fairly the same and still called for 15 F during the day, I was for a nasty surprise the morning I boarded my flight to Longyearbyen:

Forecast for 15 F but actual temperature considering the wind was 35 degrees lower!

So I was heading towards the -20 F/C with a light wool sweater and a goose feather jacket. Good thing I bought the face mask and a pair of double layer gloves the day before leaving! I guess...

But it didn't feel that bad while I was catching the bus and getting to the hotel. So I figured I'll just wear one of my underlayers, a sweater, and the coat for a walk around town since I didn't want to get all hot and sweaty.

That lasted me about five minutes outside before I (very smartly) decided to go back and put a few more layers on...

Five upper layers, face mask, hat, wool scarf and two sets of gloves

Now that I was dressed a bit better for the cold (and felt like a Michelin man), it was time to hit the town!

No, I was not out to rob a bank. Just a day walk -)

The only polar bear I found

Being so far up-north, Svalbard enjoys a special status. Even though it is a part of Norway, there is immigration one goes through in Tromso with an exit/entry stamp, customs, etc. Many of the signs, especially at the airports, are in three languages - Norwegian, English and Russian. Oh and everything is tax free up there (with most food items being crazy expensive while tobacco and alcohol are much cheaper than on the 'mainland').

North-most duty free!

The main street in town

The main method of transportation here are the snow-mobiles so I had to be more careful when going "off road" than when I was walking along the road.

Watch out for road and snowmobile traffic!

The colors in the photos were a bit off because the sun was already behind the mountains and everything in town appeared really dark compared to the snowy mountain sides, but I tried the best to adjust the colors.

The town

These bikes won't be getting used for a while

Because it is so cold, you won't find any hybrids here. Instead, all parking spaces come with engine heater plugs.

Mining industry was, and still is, the reason for the settlement's existence. The functioning mines supply enough coal to power the town and export some back to the mainland while the closed ones serve as tourist destinations (but anyone can walk up the hill to some of them).

One of the old coal mines

While the town is very small, it still took me good couple of hours to walk around and take some pictures from different places. I was a bit afraid that the temperature will really trigger my cold allergy that I have seem to have developed lately, but as was the case in Tromso, it did not bother me even a bit. So much for hauling those antihistamines and Benadryl creme with me!

But really, that was a good thing.

There was so much more unique and interesting about this place, but I think I will pause here for now and cover the weird feeling I got at night and the amazing dog sledding experience in separate posts, so stay tuned!