Wednesday, 28 September 2011

It Gets Colder

Coming in to land in Tromso, the air is so clear everything looks pin-sharp, the ridges of the mountains below so clear, even from 15,000 feet, that it looks more like a projection than the surface of the earth getting closer. We have to get off the plane at Tromso, walk through immigration, and walk back onto the same plane for the second leg of the flight to Longyearbeyen.

There is a greyness to the town of Longyearbeyen. It has no pretense to anything other than a depot into the Arctic. Pipelines run above ground into the centre of town. When I ask the receptionist at the lodge where I can find food, she says "just follow the pipeline." The mountains around us and the fog falling calmly over the water insinuate the landscape you would expect of the Arctic, but in this town it's only 4x4s, corrugated metal hangars and heavy machinery. This is where things (and people) come in and go out, nothing more. It's a town only to serve the transportation of supplies. Look out over the water and you can see vast whiteness ahead, ice and mountains. But not here. The hills that surround the town are all cut across by a road, a pipeline, an electricity pylon. This place is about functionality.

The sun never rises here, it only skims above the horizon, no more than 45 degrees. It doesn't rise in the East and set in the West. It doesn't go up and down, signalling morning, noon and night. It doesn't do what you expect. It hangs there, just above the mountains that peak over the town. The sky is covered in a translucent gauze through which the sun has trouble breaking.
Few people go outside. I walk around town to explore, but I rarely see anyone else on foot. A woman is walking her dog - a husky, of course. I run a two-mile loop around town three times. Dressed in thermal underwear and running shoes, I try to get the right balance between sweating and freezing, and after around two miles I reach an equilibrium: heat in, cold out. I feel like a well-balanced, efficient machine. I think I look like a biathlete. But I probably look more like someone running outside in zero degrees in my underwear.

More of the team arrives from Canada, Singapore, London. We walk down to the sailing centre to arrange for my dry suit, and at the edge of the water, two sounds are mixing: the waves repeatedly stroking the shore and the hum of the factory churning out electricity for the town.

 At night, I run outside in a t-shirt and trainers when Aaron says he can see the Northern Lights. Two ribbons across the sky, they elegantly loop into each other and flare around the edges. They move faster than I was expecting. Each flare falls slowly to earth; they look like curtains of powdered sugar.

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