Conscious Explorations at the Top of the World

Split-touring Svalbard with an eye for more than just fresh lines

A foot-powered ascent makes the turns that much more enjoyable.

This article is part of the Mountain Life Isolation Reading List

Introducing our Curated COVID-19 Isolation reading list. Editors from each of our publications have gone through and compiled a list of pieces from past issues of Mountain Life for you to enjoy, and we’re excited to share them with you. Sit back and relax, because we might be in this for the long haul. But most importantly, let’s not forget to do this together.

words :: Mikey Nixon photos :: Erin Hogue

What do sailing through the fjords of Svalbard, planting a forest in Panama and supporting a solar project in India have in common? Everything, in the larger sense that our entire planet is interconnected. But on a smaller scale, there’s a more direct connection than one might think. In May 2019, photographer/snowboarder Erin Hogue flew from Vancouver to Longyearbyen, the airport that services Norway’s Svalbard region—roughly 1,300 kilometres south of the geographic North Pole. From there, she embarked on a ten-day sailing trip, waking up in a new place each day to climb the surrounding mountains before riding back down to the shoreline.

A dream trip, to be sure, and although her footprint was minimal once she got there, the return trip from Vancouver to Svalbard is about 11,000 kilometres and constitutes roughly two tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per person on the flight.The National Snow and Ice Data Centre (along with many other sources) has concluded that “over the last 30 years, [The Arctic] has warmed more than any other region on earth.”

“We’d wake up in the morning, look at the terrain all around us and decide where would be great to go up. Then everyone would suit up, put on their life jackets, pile in the Zodiac and head to shore” — Erin Hogue

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While there’s still an alarmingly large demographic of people who insist that climate change is an elaborate hoax, it’s widely accepted within the scientific community that “current accelerated warming trends are caused by human activities, namely the accumulation of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere from burning fossil fuels.”

So how does one reconcile the fact that their own actions have a negative impact on the very places that they love to visit?

Exploring the west coast of Svalbard looking for the next peak to summit.

“Climate change is a massive issue, and it seems people are so overwhelmed with the bleak facts that they’re scared into inaction,” say Hogue. “The goal of this trip was to show that while there’s no one overarching solution to climate change, it doesn’t mean smaller steps in the right direction should be ignored.”

After landing in Longyearbyen, Hogue’s ecological footprint was negligible. She traveled aboard The Valiant, a 70-foot sailboat run by Ice Axe Expeditions. Ice Axe is a Tahoe-based, eco-minded expedition company that specializes in human-powered trips to the Arctic, Antarctica and everywhere in between. They’re also a member of both Protect Our Winters and 1% For The Planet, and their whole philosophy revolves around protecting the places where they stage their trips.

“By partnering with Ice Axe Expeditions, we wanted to help inspire the concept of purposeful adventuring,” says Hogue.

With favourable weather on their side, Hogue and her group spent each day in a new fjord, whales breaching in the distance while walruses sunbathed on the shoreline. Ski objectives would be chosen simply by scoping the peaks within view of The Valiant’s deck. “We’d wake up in the morning, look at the terrain all around us and decide where would be great to go up,” says Hogue. “Then everyone would suit up, put on their life jackets, pile in the Zodiac and head to shore.”

After that, the crew would skin up towards their chosen summit for the day, each little step revealing the stunning expanse of the Svalbard archipelago. Then the group of ten would ride massive runs back down to the sailboat. “The sun doesn’t even set at that time of year, so it was just beautiful sunshine the whole time,” says Hogue. “And the runs were so long. It was nice, light powder and there were all these little couloirs we could go through back down to the ocean.”

The crew on day one. A truly eclectic mix from around the world—a classical musician, an ex-surfer turned yacht captain, a vegan ultra marathon runner, a professional rock climber, a business marvel, an architect, a pilot, a guide, the list goes on…

Back on the boat, Hogue says she experienced a deeper sense of human connection with everyone else in their group, a rag-tag posse of adventurers from different parts of the world.

“There was no internet or cell service, so we just gathered around the table and actually learned each other’s backstories,” she explains. “It’s just you, a crew of people and the elements.”

The goal this trip was to show that while there’s no one overarching solution to climate change, it doesn’t mean smaller steps in the right direction should be ignored.

But with the sound of glaciers calving off in the distance and an unusual rain event to ridgetop when they first arrived, the real-time manifestations of climate change inspired Hogue to find ways, however small, to add extra meaning to the trip. “As a community that thrives in nature, there are things we can do to protect the places that are so special to us,” she notes.

In the last 15 years, carbon offsetting has grown into a global industry. And while it’s far from perfect, the process has the potential to create positive change. “With the Arctic experiencing more climate change than anywhere else in the world right now, it was important that we offset our carbon as much as possible,” Hogue says.

Warming temperatures are projected to hit 7 degrees Celcius or higher by the end of 2100—the natural calving of the glaciers speaks to the truth that warming in present.

“Carbon offsetting is as simple as it sounds in intent,” says Lindsay McIvor, a sustainability professional based in Squamish, BC. “Basically, it’s an effort to understand how much carbon dioxide is being emitted due to your lifestyle, and then identifying legitimate projects that are going to take that carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere or keep it from being emitted.”

Of course, there’s more to it than that, and McIvor warns of what she calls “minefields” in the process. “It’s a cash game,” she explains. “Sometimes what can happen in developing countries—where land rights are poorly defined and many people don’t actually own the land they live on—is a businessperson can come in and say ‘hey, I can make money by selling this forest to Joe Blow in North America who wants to offset 50 flights a year’. And then, in turn, they can restrict access to the people who were relying on that forest for life-supporting resources. It is best to find projects that are demonstrating how they’re working with local stakeholders to ensure that everyone benefits, and hopefully in ways that maximize positive knock-on effects for the environment and socioeconomic opportunities.”

Anthony Salteri after one of the trip’s many bluebird ascents.

After doing a bit of research and feeling satisfied she wasn’t caught up in one of the minefields that McIvor warns against, Hogue ultimately decided on two different offset endeavours: planting/protecting a biodiverse section of rainforest in Panama, and investing towards a 20-megawatt solar project in Rajasthan, India. The calculations for her own carbon emissions on the flight came in around two tonnes, but Erin rounded up and offset three tonnes at a cost of $65.

That’s quite literally a small price to pay. But the legitimate offset projects, especially the ones in the developing world, have social and socioeconomic benefits that go beyond their role as carbon sinks. They create jobs at a local level, they protect forests in otherwise unregulated areas and they set a precedent for future generations. “The developing world is our future,” says McIvor.“If they follow our path, we really are doomed. But if they get on a better path, we stand a chance.”

A great end to an epic trip—a 2 a.m. cheers on the last night.

But there was more to Hogue’s Svalbard expedition than just the carbon offsets that came after the fact. Nobody can deny the power of nature and its ability to reset the mind. And trips like this one remind us why the wilderness is so important to humankind. If we take care of these natural spaces, they in turn will take care of us. But we’re a stubborn breed, us humans. And while offsetting the carbon from our lives is a far cry from fixing our planet, a collective effort from all travellers would go a long way.

A dualism between enjoying the turns with an epic view and seeing the disheartening reality of climate change with the sea of melting ice in the background.

“[Carbon offsetting] is one tool in a tool box —but we need to be using all the tools,” says McIvor. “Reduction is always the first step. But in the absence of any of us being willing to go against the grain of our entire society and stop doing all the things we really want to do, offsetting is not a bad option, especially now that there are legitimate options out there.” As is the case with any investment, do your research. And use the offsets to compliment all the other efforts you’re making to lessen your overall impact. Perhaps most importantly, make time to head into the wilderness and disconnect from this imperfect society of ours every now and again. Adventures in the natural world remind us what’s at stake. Big thanks to Ice Axe Expeditions and Team Intrepid for their professionalism in organizing such an epic trip. And huge thanks to Lindsay McIvor from Khyber Sustainability for the depth of her expertise. —ML