It’s 11:46 PM and I’m flying towards the 77’N latitude in the town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard, Norway—the northernmost city on the globe. After a four hour flight north, our plane slows down on the short runway.
The reason for my visit to this remote location is that some wealthy American adventurers have hired our hot air balloon company, DreamBalloon, to fly over Svalbard. All motorized flight over Svalbard is prohibited, so ballooning is the only way to get an aerial view of the stunning polar landscape.
I’ve been assigned a very important job as designated polar bear bait. Hopefully it won’t come down to me getting tossed out of the balloon and devoured.
As I step out of the plane, I can see the last rays of the descending sun, despite it being nearly midnight. My fascination with the view of the red sun against the white snowy mountains and vast blue sea is quickly interrupted by a -22 degree breeze. Even in the multiple sweaters I’ve layered on, the wind cuts through me like I’m naked, and the 100 yards from the runway to the terminal feels like a fight for my life.
When I finally make it into the airport, I’m greeted by a broad smile from Philip Mundt. Philip is the Director and Flight Manager of DreamBalloon and is a massive 6’8”. In his giant airplane suit, he resembles a (very friendly) abominable snowman. After grabbing extra clothes from my bag and pulling my hat down over my ears, we head out to the car. Even though the sun has set, it’s still bright out, almost as if the sun was just behind a cloud, about to peek out. While driving from the airport to our apartment Longyearbyen, Philip remarked that it’s almost impossible to get lost in Svalbard, since the total road network is only about 15 miles long.
We park on a shoulder in front of some small wooden houses. ”Did you lock the car?” I ask offhandedly on my way out. ”No,” replies Philip. “An important rule in Svalbard is that you always leave your car doors open, because if you run into a polar bear on the street, an open car makes a good hiding spot.” I look back at him to see if he’s joking, but when his face remains serious, I go to the nearest neighboring car and fling the back door open. Sure enough, it’s unlocked. Philip nods. ”There are about 1,000 people and almost 2,000 polar bears in Svalbard. We humans gotta look out for each other.”
The next day, I’m shaken awake at 6:10AM by our balloon captain in his long underwear. Breakfast consists of oatmeal with milk and sugar, plus a very welcome cup of coffee. 30 minutes later I’m sitting on a snowmobile in my warmest clothes (and still shivering) on the way to the balloon hangar. Once we arrive I get my polar equipment consisting of a heavy airplane suit, 2 pairs of gloves, a face mask, and a helmet with a visor. I get strict orders that the visor should be down the second I get back on the snowmobile that we’ll be riding to we transport the balloon equipment. -20 degrees and 50mph on a snowmobile equals frostbite and lasting skin damage if your skin is exposed.
By 9AM, the balloon, basket, and gear are loaded onto sleds. Two local guides drive in front of us to the northeast, each carrying a rifle, which is a legal requirement if you leave the city—lest you encounter a polar bear and don’t want to end up as breakfast. We drive through the snow with poor visibility, bouncing up and down on an involuntary roller coaster ride, since it’s impossible to see the contours of the mountinous landscape. The two guides seem unfazed as I struggle not to fly off the snowmobile.
The plan is to drive to the other side of the mountain crest to lauch our balloon, where we’re hoping the visibility will be better and the clouds will be higher. After 2.5 straight hours of bumpy snowmobiling, we finally reach the other side. Visibility is still zero. One of our guides takes his rifle out of the holster and sets it up on the sled. Then he pulls some half-frozen marbles out of his large gloves and tells us to drink up—it’s freeze-dried juice.
Feeling adventurous, I get up and start to wander from the snowmobile and explore. Shockingly, this turned out to be a very bad idea with my total lack of equipment. When I turn around to head back, I realize I can’t see anyone, even though I’d only traveled a few feet. I can only hear weak voices. I knew that without my snowmobile and the local guide, I was basically polar bear chow. I try to keep my panic at bay as I follow the voices and retrace my steps through the deep snow. When I arrive back at the snowmobile, I humbly accept my freeze dried ”juice box” and sit down.
After discussing with the guides, Philip announces that the balloon flight isn’t possible today under the current conditions. So, time to go back the way we came—another 3 hour rollercoaster ride on the snowmobile. At 5PM, having finally made it back, we sit at a local restaurant by the fireplace with some well-deserved reindeer burgers and big steins of beer in front of us.
The next morning at 4:22AM I’m awoken by the sun already streaming down on my head. I grumble and pull the dark curtains closed above me. By 9:05 we’re wearing our polar equipment again, ready for departure—hopefully this time, our plans won’t be ruined by inclement weather. Thankfully, the sun is high in the sky and there are few clouds. The wind is too strong for a balloon landing, but Philip has a plan. We’re going to fly over the mountain crest and then land in a gorge on the other side that’s protected from the wind. The gorge is about 15 miles long and 2 miles wide and opens into the sea. Polar bears are known to hang out there, right at the water’s edge, so we’ll have to be careful. Once we land in the gorge, the guides will pick us up on their snowmobiles to take us back into town.
We drive towards the crest, and with the guides putting the pedal to the metal, we make it there in only 2 hours. We circle a bit before we find someplace sheltered enough to put the balloon up, and wade through snow up to our knees to unfold it. We step into the basket, light the burner, and watch as the balloon starts to inflate: it’s so freezing outside that it begins to rise once the internal air temperature is only 35 degrees, and at 45 degrees it’s fully inflated, trying to jump into the air. To put that into perspective, a hot air balloon typically needs an internal air temperature of over 200 degrees to fly. The rope that ties us to the snowmobile loosens and falls away, and we’re set free into the sky. Soon, the wind grabs us and we’re swept up the mountainside.
A massive wall of rock seems to rise up out of nowhere and suddenly a crash seems inevitable. I glance nervously at Philip. He meets my anxious gaze with a flash of a mischievous grin, so I try to play it cool as we approach what seems like certain death. The American explorers, who were busy filming their adventure, are now also aware of the mountain looming in front of them and start to point and sputter at Philip. He shoots them a smile, too, and nods to confirm that, yes, he also sees the rock wall, which is now only about 100 feet away. He waits until almost the last second to give the balloon more gas, and with a roar, the flame blazes above us and we start to sail upwards with the slope of the mountain instead of straight into it. We all audibly exhale a sigh of relief while Philip chuckles. Now that the danger is below us, we can focus on the stunning view as we float peacefully, high above the wind.
We look out onto the enchanting snowy landscape and the surrounding sapphire blue of the ocean. Our tourist companions get busy photographing each other for Facebook and Instagram in the now much more relaxed atmosphere. As I look around the curve of the mountain, I can see our guides far below weaving through the mountain range to catch up with us.
Philip opens the top valve and the balloon starts to descend. As we slide back down the mountainside we see how the snow has created fascinating formations, and marvel at the ice castle that surrounds us. We lower into the gorge with the mountains framing us on both sides.
Suddenly, the wind shifts, and we’re heading out to sea. I look below for our guides on their snowmobiles, but they’re out of sight. Philip now brings the balloon close to the mountainside to reduce the speed.
Philip looks out again to scout for the snowmobiles, but they’re still nowhere to be seen. The sea is closing in on us fast. Philip turns to me and speaks in Danish, so not to disturb our American friends who are still taking pictures: “We’re going too fast! There wasn’t supposed to be wind down in the gorge. We’re flying at 18 knots, so in 8 minutes we’ll be in the water. We have to land now, even though the snowmobiles aren’t here yet. Brace yourself.” I try to remember if my life insurance will cover polar bear-related incidents.
Philip calls out short, direct instructions and the Americans quickly snap back to reality and prepare for what’s ahead. Philip says it’s going to be a rough landing, and that we should all kneel down so that we don’t fall out of the basket as it hits the ground. I know that the speed for a safe balloon landing should be between 5-10 knots, and at our lightning-fast 18 knots, so we’re in for a bumpy ride.
Soon we start to scrape the earth, and as the basket cuts into the ground, loose snow swirls up around us and slaps us in the face as if we’re standing directly in front of a snow blower. We huddle together in the basket, trying to steady ourselves against the impact and avoid being flung into the air like sacks of flour. After what seems like an eternity of sliding out of control, the basket finally comes to a stop. We stay piled on top of each other in silence for a moment before we all exhale and let out a much-needed laugh. Philip asks if everyone is okay and we start helping each other out of the basket, looking like snowmen.
Still laughing, Philip and I start scouting for our snowmobiles…or for polar bears. ”Remember, Nicolai, you have an important job to do as our live polar bear bait,” Philip says with a laugh. I try to argue that, because of his size, he’d make a much better main course and I’d be more appropriate as a dessert. Our negotiation is interrupted by the noise of a snowmobile approaching fast. Our guides emerge in a cloud of snow, and one shakes his head and says, ”I told you to wait for us before landing! A lot of bears around here.” I was silently thankful that they showed up before I actually did become a polar bear snack.
We begin to pack the balloon onto the sleds. Our guides tell us to take a seat in the basket, and they serve us dinner consisting of freeze dried spaghetti Bolognese and a cup of currant juice. We enjoy this feast in silence with great concentration, trying one last time to take in the gravity of this incredible day, as it was our last meal together.