Words by Brittney Ziebell, Photos by Wes Walker
freedom of action, choice and thought
The Mission: In May 2018, four ladies left the routine rhythms of their everyday lives to live on a 50ft sailboat for a 10-day ski, sail and mountaineering expedition to explore the far reaching fjords between the northern islands of Svalbard, Norway.
The Location: The remote wild of Svalbard, Norway is the world's northernmost inhabited land mass - one that is covered in snow and glacial ice and rises 4000+ feet above sea level. A rich ecosystem of polar bears, arctic foxes, walruses, seals, whales and birds thrive on the islands.
The words following are from Brittney Ziebell as she remembers the expedition.
It’s been eight months since Anna, Shelby, Jessica and I stepped off 'The Knut,' each of us returning home to the comforts of a regularly scheduled rhythm: back to normal sized toilet seats and trashcans bigger than one liter per day.
In the midst of questions about the trip, about the skiing, about the polar bears, I’m hanging onto micro-moments in between the turns—a mumble-jumble of sensory overload without much meaning or organization.
These moments fade into one another without the structure of time, making sentences, paragraphs, even conclusive thoughts difficult. But out of a fear of forgetting the magic of these in-betweens, I attempt to share them into something tangible.
To begin somewhere, I’ll start with mornings, though the term “morning” is quite irrelevant in the absence of sunrise.
We woke to tiny chunks of ice tapping against the aluminum hull, to the weight of fog slowly lifting as we sipped salty cups of coffee. Crisp rays of light shined through the clouds casting shadows of definition on surrounding glaciers.
Scoping our lines through binoculars and window condensation, yellow streaks of snowmelt in the rolling moraines tricked the eye. Leaning forward over a pile of skis to counter a metaphorical cliff edge behind, we'd inhale diesel fumes and attempt to not spear one another with ice axes and crampons as we headed towards land.
Waves gently lapped against the shoreline of black rocks and scattered piles of crispy, dried kelp. It hummed with dripping sea ice and the far-off clamor of cliff dwelling auks. With cold feet in rubber boots we navigated rocks and glacier walls until we buckled up our ski boots and stepped ankle deep into sea-sprayed slush.
Left, right, left, right, breathe, scan, spot? Pause. No…. left, right, left, right. The arctic landscape evokes a conflicting sense of awe and fear. It trains the eye to see movement in its stillness: sastrugi coupled with far off crevasses, which dump deep blue ice onto ripples of water reflecting the low-hanging clouds above. Murmurations whirling and darting in the sky as we probe at our feet. Then, the deafening silence of the summit and tapering breath.
Beyond micro-memories of seaside kickturns or the taste of Mack’s Isbjørn pilsner, there’s the crew. Small spaces encourage intentional movements and intentional conversation.
Add in insomnia, push-ups, galley dance moves and the sound of deep, rolling laughter—the kind that makes your body collapse and your face hurt—and it soon becomes irrelevant that skiing was the platform that once brought everyone together.
Thank God, because when the fog rolls in and skiing isn’t in the cards for two days, or six-foot swells in Isfjorden give your stomach a run for its money, there’s good company to fall back on.
I came across a quote recently by Joseph Campbell that reads:
“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”
So, here I am clinging onto minute moments, flashes, tastes, sounds, patterns, because they’re all I’ve got beyond some rusted skis, a few folded up maps, a craving for Ben’s homemade bread and an admittedly mediocre response of “it was an amazing trip.”
Additional expedition coordination and support provided by our friends at Skida.