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Time travelling by skidoo

by Andrew Murray, producer

I’m in Svalbard, a group of frozen islands more than a thousand kilometres North of Norway - the last land before the North Pole. I’m here for BBC2’s new series, Earth’s Greatest Spectacles, to film the landscape and its wildlife as it undergoes one of the most spectacular seasonal changes on Earth: from winter ice world to land of vibrant summer life. Over the coming months I will meet polar bears at the door of my cabin, wonder at the miracle of arctic flowers, suffer the exhaustion of 24 hr daylight, be mesmerised by walruses and gasp at the gut-wrenching power of calving glaciers.

It’s early March and I learnt to ride my snowmobile only yesterday, in the planet’s Northern-most town, Longyearbyen. Though snowmobiles are the enemy of silence, they have their advantages. There are no roads here, so in summer the only way around is by boat. In winter, to the snowmobile, the land and the sea are one and the same. Before long, with Norwegian cameraman, Asgeir, and guide, Tom, I was gliding effortlessly over the frozen landscape and out onto the sea ice. As we pushed further into the middle of a vast fjord, the largest moon I have ever seen rose over the distant glacier and at once I understood what the locals mean when they talk about the ‘blue time’. In March the sun has only just returned after four months of total darkness and although it is up for just a few hours a day, there are extensive hours of twilight. It’s at this time that something about the quality of the light bleeding over the horizon paints the frozen landscape an exquisite deep blue.

A thousand metres up on the shoulder of a great glacier, we followed a route where, over the ages, the glacier has smashed a path through the otherwise impenetrable mountains. It’s a reasonably well-travelled route and ‘known to be safe’. Each winter, tourists and guides on their snowmobiles compact the snow and help to bridge any fissures in the glacier beneath. You also have the confidence that someone has successfully passed through here before you - as long as you keep to the trail. Problem. Though the newly returned sun is now up, the coming storm is already absorbing most of its light and we are losing visibility fast. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to see the way forward and fresh snow has covered any sign of recent tracks. To add to our nervousness, Tom’s recent GPS track of our route may not be accurate; there have been rumours that the glacier has shifted and a previously passable section now has to be skirted around - easy if you can see what you are doing but to go ‘off piste’ in a storm without confidence in your GPS – that’s another thing altogether.

We stop, to seriously consider turning back… when out of the fading landscape, another party appears, riding up the pass towards us. I’m just about to get off my snowmobile to go and talk to them when Tom reminds us in no uncertain terms to stay put. The snowmobile spreads your weight; people have stepped off their snowmobiles onto what they thought was solid ground only to fall through a thin bridge of snow to an untimely death in a crevasse somewhere in the frigid bowels of a glacier. I stay put. The group’s cheery guide informs us that the trail is good and confirms that Tom’s GPS coordinates are accurate, so with renewed confidence we decide to push on. At first we follow the group’s tracks but as the snowfall increases as we near the summit of the pass, we have to rely on GPS alone.

That’s how I find myself on a snowmobile staring through a blizzard contemplating how long it would take the glacier, should I fall into it, to transport me all the way to the sea. What a spectacle it would make for summer tourists on the deck of their cruise ship to see me miraculously appear at the calving front perfectly preserved. I speed up to keep Tom’s lights in sight. To lose them would be to lose him, and he’s told me that’s not a good idea - especially as Asgeir is somewhere behind me hanging on to my taillights. With the movement of our snowmobiles, the lights begin to dance about, the snow rushes faster towards me - feels like I’m going through a white tunnel. I start to relax and enjoy the sensation. No idea how fast I’m going or what lies a meter to one side or the other. I put all my trust in Tom and his lights, while he puts all his trust in his GPS - onwards into the blizzard, just looking at a screen, like he’s playing a computer game. I hope no one decides to shut down the GPS satellites at this particular moment.

Suddenly, a view! We must have dropped out of the blizzard and as quickly as it vanished, the landscape unfolds once more. The sun casts the last of the day’s beautiful light over the glacier’s surface, picking out its corrugations in pink and orange as we follow its edge down and back out over the sea ice. We stop briefly at a hole in the ice surrounded by an alarmingly bright splash of crimson. Asgeir points out a polar bear on the horizon. It has killed a seal here, ambushing it as it came up for air. Nothing remains but the blood.

And now as the blue twilight returns, we arrive at our destination, 1980’s Russia…