James Merrett (Black Tomato Co-Founder) and Rob Murray-John (Epic Tomato Head of Operations) recently returned from another Epic adventure – this time taking in the spectacular, dramatic and untouched Arctic wilderness on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. One of the world’s northernmost inhabited areas, this frozen landscape offers the perfect opportunity for aspiring polar explorers to test their limits. Authentic, challenging, rewarding; an expedition to the ‘Land of the Midnight Sun’ is truly a trip of a lifetime (and this is coming from two very well-travelled individuals).
From dog-sledding to ice-climbing, chasing icebergs to awe-inspiring views, few other trips can match the sense of adventure and isolation. We spoke to Rob about this epic wilderness, wildlife, his kit and what makes this his go to arctic destination. Scroll through to hear what he had to say…
WHAT SORT OF PERSON WOULD THIS TRIP SUIT?
Believe it or not, it’s actually pretty much open to anyone who’s looking to take on a truly Epic adventure. Obviously if you’re a beach lover and enjoy your creature comforts then the Arctic climates aren’t for you. But if you’re a fan of the great outdoors, dramatic and challenging landscapes and are looking for the ultimate Epic, once-in a lifetime trip to tick off your bucket list, then it’s the perfect place – as long as you have some level of fitness and a willingness to adapt to the ever-changing cold climate.
Set far above the Arctic Circle, it’s ideal for someone wanting to be a Polar Explorer and camp in complete arctic wilderness – but not wanting to pay the prices of going to the North Pole, though between us it’s a far more unique and varied experience. Only a handful of people each year set foot on the area of Svalbard that we spent four days of our trip skiing across, so you’re taking on a truly pioneering adventure with expert guides within one of the most remote locations on the planet.
And we can of course tailor the trip, the experiences and the end goal to suit your own skills. Whether you’re looking for a taste of the remote wilderness filled with truly authentic arctic activities or a week camping on the ice with a survival expert putting you through your paces. Or of course, somewhere in-between.
WHAT IS THE IDEAL LENGTH OF TIME NEEDED TO VISIT SVALBARD?
Seven days is the ideal amount of time to really make the most of your trip, but we can cater for both shorter and longer trips too. Spend a night or two in the capital Longyearbyen (where you’ll fly into via Oslo) sharing stories in the charming alpine bars with locals and explorers alike, acclimatising and preparing for your days out on the ice. And with the 24 hours of sunlight, you’ll really feel like you’re making the most of your time off.
You can use the relative comforts of this small town as your base and head out for dog sledding or snowmobiling day trips through the vast glacial wilderness. Or like us, you can head out to the remote landscapes that stretch across the Island, where we spent four days cross-country skiing, pulling our own sleds like true arctic explorers have done for centuries, and camping alongside frozen lakes, glaciers and the surprisingly mountainous terrain. No helicopters or snowmobiles here, it really is back to the trusted basics.
YOU’RE AN EXPERIENCED SURVIVALIST; WOULD THIS KIND OF TRIP BE SUITABLE FOR SOMEONE WITH LITTLE TO NO EXPERIENCE? IF NOT, WHAT WOULD YOU RECOMMEND?
Of course, we can tailor the trip to suit your experience and what you want to get out of your time away. Yes, I have a decent amount of survival skills and extreme environment experience that came in useful, although James (though a lot fitter than me!) hadn’t skied before, yet he still managed the tricky glacial terrain pulling the sled incredibly well. On the journey, we passed mountain peaks we could rope up on and climb to the summit of to find incredible sweeping views across the white wilderness below.
Svalbard is as close to an authentic North Pole experience as you can get (in fact you have to travel though Longyearbyen to reach the North Pole), but it’s far more affordable, easier to reach, and there is a much greater diversity of scenery and activities on offer when you’re there.
WHAT INTERESTING STORIES DID YOU BRING BACK?
I bought back a lot of stories (as well as a few hundred photos and Go-Pro videos), but there are definitely a few experiences that stood out for me. The travel from Longyearbyen to the start of our four-day trek started on a large icebreaker boat, where you cut through the sea ice and arrive in what feels like another world. We then took a small rib-boat with all of our packs to the shore, and had a bit of a too-close-for-comfort encounter with an inquisitive (and rather large) walrus, nearly losing a few packs to the sea! But it’s definitely something I’ll remember, and we knew with our guides we were well looked after.
It was also great to be able to use our Arctic sleds as exactly that when we had downhill sections of the trek to negotiate and shot down hill at great velocity!
Meeting a handful of like-minded travellers and explorers who humbled me with their expedition experience was also a big highlight. I found myself chatting to a local explorer on day 87 of his unsupported trip back from walking and kayaking from the North Pole, and before we knew it, it was 3am (the joy of the constant daylight) – but our guides helped us to adjust our plan so I had time for a little sleep before we left. We knew we were in authentic Polar Explorer country simply bumping into people whose stories you would pay to hear anywhere else.
WHAT WILDLIFE DID YOU ENCOUNTER, AND WHAT WOULD EXPECT TO SEE IF WE VISITED?
Other than the walrus encounter I mentioned, we were pretty lucky (or unlucky perhaps!) in not seeing any polar bears. They are known to head into the capital on occasion, but the locals and expert polar bear wardens are always prepared for that sort of thing. Out on the ice though we had to be a little more alert ourselves, but our guides ensured we built a ‘polar bear fence’ of safety trip wires around the tents each night. But it definitely makes you feel totally at one with nature, and gives you a true sense of life in the Arctic Circle.
We also spotted some elusive artic fox tracks, a few wild reindeer, plenty of seals, and if you’re lucky, you’ll see various species of whales from your boat.
WHAT WAS THE ONE THING YOU COULDN’T HAVE TRAVELLED WITHOUT?
Well, it goes without saying that having the right kit is paramount. With temperatures well below freezing it’s all about being prepared. We took plenty of layers, making it easy to take them off or add more on as you’re moving about under the glaring sun. We had a lot of high-spec kit with us, but the surprising hits were a very old pair of woollen gloves and thick woollen socks that never left our feet (day and night) – they’ve been used for decades and it’s easy to see why. A high quality pair of polarised sunglasses is also crucial – the sun bouncing off the ice terrain is dazzling to the point of blinding.
WHAT’S YOUR TOP TIP FOR ANYONE PLANNING TO VISIT SVALBARD?
Be sure to take your sense of humour. As with any remote and untouched landscapes, things take a lot of planning to get right, and sometimes these plans can change when you least expect them to, like a sudden change in weather. Luckily our team on the ground are pretty used to this and know exactly what to do to keep things moving smoothly. But it’s always good to be able to see the funny side in these things, and – only if needed of course – enjoy a few more beers with your new explorer friends.