Seasoned snowboarders become rookie sailors in the Arctic Circle.
It was around 3 a.m. when the alarm starting going off, rousing me from a dreamless sleep. I registered our captain Ben jumping out of bed to double check the controls near my head. In my groggy state I wondered if we were headed straight for an iceberg.
I could feel the boat rocking in the water, the sound of the wind against the bow. Still just a few days into our trip, it was unnerving to fall asleep to the sensation of the boat constantly drifting. Willing myself out of my cocoon, I popped my head up to see snow swirling around outside.
The tight cabin bustled with sudden energy, and Ben sprinted up to the deck. A moment later I heard him yell down to Jessica: “Get dressed, we’re leaving now.”
In the 20-knot winds that had picked up, our anchor had become unsecured and the boat was uncomfortably close to the shallow, rocky shore. Just a few hours earlier over a heavy dinner, the group discussed the weather forecast, the change in wind direction and what it all meant for leaving the protective cove we were anchored in. Due to the low depth of where we were, we could only depart during high tide, which gave us just enough margin to make it without hitting the bottom. The plan, or at least what we had decided before retiring to our bunks around 1 a.m., was to ski in the morning and take off during the higher tide at 3 p.m. the next day. In an instant, however, all bets were off and we were in for a night of sailing north in rough seas and violent winds.
Hadley, Jessica and Nayla threw on their ski outerwear and ventured up on deck to pull anchor. Meredith and I popped a Dramamine before following behind. In 20 minutes, we were motoring out of the inlet with no idea where we were headed.
As the crew on deck prepped to raise the sail, Meredith and I worked to secure miscellaneous ski items, gear, pots and pans, boots, and anything loose in the boat. Feeling nauseous as we hit the open ocean, I laid down to steady my stomach. From the cabin, I heard Nayla pop her head in and yell to get ready, as we were about to put up sail. I braced myself and with a whoosh, everything was sideways.
So much for securing gear—I was now star-fished against the wall while much of the boat’s interior had migrated with me. Hanging from a railing, Meredith watched as we tilted into the water, waves lapping up to the cabin window.
“Oh my god, oh my god. Is this normal?” she asked, repeating the phrase a few more times.
I clawed my way up and peered out of the windows, laughing nervously. I mean, this was kind of ridiculous—none of us had any idea what normal was at this point.
At 78 degrees north latitude, Svalbard sits as a remote, mountainous archipelago within the Arctic Circle. During most of the year, it is encapsulated by ice and impossible to navigate by water. During a short window in the spring, however, the ocean ice retreats as the days lengthen, giving skiers and snowboarders the opportunity to explore its fjords and mountains by boat, and harvest it’s vast skiable terrain.
As a team of five, three of us from Jackson Hole, one from Tahoe, California, and one from Sun Valley, Idaho, we were all acutely aware of what it takes to survive in the mountains. However, none of us had any significant sailing experience or had ventured to this part of the world before.
Adventures can seem magical in your mind when you start planning them. For me, the draw of going to a place where mountains meet the sea, further north than I’ve ever been, seemed dream like indeed. The sailing just felt like a curious addition that we’d “figure out.” But after years of growing accustomed to almost anything the mountains might throw at me, the sea became a completely different kind of challenge. Out here on the ocean, I had no bearing.
We sailed until 9 a.m. through the night to find shelter in the research town of Ny-Ålesund. Forty-eight hours of 50-knot sideways rain later, we used the same force that had kept us captive to escape. A quick shift in the wind direction provided a small window to sail further north to Krossfjorden, where we’d have the protection of the fjords.
As we landed and anchored in what would be our new temporary home, fresh snow icing the peaks around us, the team readied to go for a quick tour and explore the surrounding terrain. We were antsy from two days on the boat, our legs itching to move.
The mountains around us were socked in as we hit shore in the dingy, and with only Gaia GPS to guide us, we began our ascent towards a cloud-enshrouded mountain pass. The air was silent, with just the sound of our boards and skis swishing through the new snow, ascending through a glacial valley.
As we made our way towards what we assumed was a col overlooking another valley, the clouds slowly parted ways. Sunshine and blue sky popped into view intermittently, breaking up the surrounding white. Jessica, leading the team, climbed higher and the clouds continued to break as she reached what looked like the top.
“Oh my god… get up here,” she exclaimed.
Reaching the top of the col, my heart began to race. Instead of an adjoining valley, the col transformed sharply into distinctly powder filled, rock lined couloirs that dropped straight into the ocean, distant mountains and glaciers spilling into the sea beyond.
As the rest of the team joined us at the top, we found ourselves in collective disbelief of where we were, and what we were seeing.
Despite all the challenges and discomforts, this is why we do this. This is why we explore.
Rachel Eden Reich is a freelance marketing strategist, writer and splitboard mountaineer based in Jackson Hole.