Longyearbyen – day 1

Arriving at the airport of the world’s most northen ‘city’, the cold is hardly noticeable as your senses are overwhelmed by a beauty which can best be described as ‘ice cream mountains’.

 

Everywhere you look is white: smooth and limpid like heavy cream flowing over mountains, rivers and lakes without border or boundary. The only colors noticeable are those of the runway and airport buildings.

Entering baggage claim, visitors are welcomed by, none other than, a polar bear! Standing at full height on the middle of the baggage carousel, anyone observing understands immediately why residents hope never to meet these predators in person. Claws the size of my head reach out for food…us…and I find myself looking up, which is a unique feeling for a six foot plus man.

I am greeted by Mikhail, one of our Russian hosts, and Kai, a slight Vietnamese, American, about to embark on a nine day assault on the North Pole. A program engineer in San Francisco, he has saved all year just to be able to make this trip.

Kai is wasting no time and, after a quick stop to drop my bags at the Guesthouse, he has me driving a snowmobile at 30mph (feels fast, believe me) up a snowy mountain to go Ice Caving with him. My clothes are little help with the -35% temperatures but my hosts have promised me new equipment the following morning. So, hands and feet hurting from the cold, I enter the man sized mouth of a glacier cave…

And, it feels hot!

It’s 0% celsius but to us it feels warm. We slide, climb and edge our way through crystal walls and dripping chandeliers of ice. At once a rope and then across the water but all the while our eyes are trained on the kaleidescope of reflections our headlamps create.

Just when we feel tired and ready for a break, our charming guide calls, “Anyone want hot coffee?” Are my ears deceiving me? No, there ahead me, she has placed a snack on a ‘table’ of ice growing from the floor in a chamber made to order. There is a God!

Before I know it, I am the passenger and Kai is making it clear he wants to go fast…really fast…down to the base camp. Maybe he is cold, or maybe he just likes speed, but it seems so out of character for this demur little Asian man. I would come to understand later, that his form hides a heart and courage five times his physical stature. Never once, did I see him shy away from a challenge…not only was he up for it, he did so with a smile, style and aplomb.

Kai, if you are reading this on your satellite phone somewhere on the arctic ice, I hope you make it there and home again safely. People like you are rare in this world and we need as many as we can get.