Arctic hikes from the expedition leader perspective
Imagine you’ve spent the last hour and change huffing up a rocky Arctic slope, pausing only to pull a drink from your water bottle or wipe sweat off your brow, when suddenly you realize your hiking group has stopped and you’ve reached the summit.
Straightening up for a look around, you find yourself greeted on all sides by an almost pulverizing panorama like something dropped out of an ancient Norse saga.
Stony shorelines lie crusted with late spring snow, ice-scattered seascapes edge up to gargantuan glaciers of crumpled white and blue, and across the distant skyline you spot a jagged spine of mountains so stark and ice-scored they must guard some mythic realm filled with creatures either long extinct or thought never to have existed at all.
Now imagine your summers are spent experiencing things like that just about every week, and you’ll more or less know what Arctic hiking guide Philipp Schaudy does for a living.
But don’t be too envious, because it’s an experience you can have too. Simply embark on the right Arctic trip and Schaudy will show you some of the best far-north hikes – and maybe even introduce you to a polar bear into the bargain.
To get the details on these high-altitude happenings, we asked him a few questions.
A lot of potential polar travelers like to hike but have never hiked in the Arctic. How is Arctic hiking different than hiking in temperate areas?
In temperate areas, like in the Alps, if the weather gets severe you just need to get down the mountain and reach lower ground. In the Arctic, on the other hand, there are high alpine conditions and extreme weather even at sea level.
Also, there are no paths in the polar regions, and it is generally flatter terrain. This makes orientation more difficult, so expedition guides have to really know their areas.
What else do Arctic hiking guides have to be aware of while leading groups?
Well, speaking strictly of Spitsbergen, where I guide my hiking groups, we have to be aware of polar bear danger. We always carry bear rifles and never lead groups into an area where we’ve spotted a polar bear, but the possibility of an encounter is always there.
Also, the weather can be severe and change quickly in the Arctic. Temperatures can be very low. Especially in springtime, the risk of hypothermia is high.
And of course, we have to know how to read the landscape. Knowledge of topography is essential, as is use of GPS and safety equipment like flares, sat-phones, emergency beacons, and rifles. If things go wrong, situations can become life threatening. So we need to be well-trained.
What background led to being an Arctic hike guide?
My outdoor background is from mountaineering in the Alps. But my love for the Arctic started about 20 years ago, when I did lots of summer hiking and trekking on Svalbard during the summer and ski-expedition trips in the winter.
I got totally hooked on the place. With Svalbard I found a great, remote, and extreme area to play in.
At some point in 2003, my wife Valeska and I moved to Longyearbyen and lived there for three years. During these years, I started working as a full-time snowmobile guide for a Svalbard-based company in winter and a hiking guide in summer.
It was about 2005 that I got interested in expedition cruising and applied for a position with Oceanwide Expeditions. Since then I’ve been an expedition guide for Oceanwide. In the beginning I was a guide-lecturer and now, after many years, I’m expedition leader on trips mainly around Spitsbergen and eastern Greenland.
Any particularly high or low points to this job, so to speak?
My favorite part is putting together a series of landings and activities that make sense for the trip, then seeing this work out so that our clients are excited about the areas we travel in.
It makes me totally happy and satisfied when the guests’ feedback is positive, when they say they’ve had the best trip of their lives, and when they return two years later for another trip.
But it gets difficult when the expedition team doesn’t fit together that well, because that means lots of team-building work behind the scenes (which sometimes is fruitless). However, I generally like challenges, to be responsible for decisions and to lead teams.
Now for the question the future Arctic hikers have been waiting for: What are your favorite sites for Arctic hiking?
I like hikes that are not often done and known to everybody.
I love to gain altitude and hike for good views in places like Relikbukta in Duvefjorden, on the island of Nordaustlandet. This is a seldom-visited landing site with an amazing landscape and especially beautiful views from higher ground.
Then there’s Hytteberget, on Phippsøya. It’s a steep but not too long climb and definitely not for everybody, but the views over the whole island are incredible!
Zeipelfjellet, also on Nordaustlandet, is my favorite landing in Palanderbukta. The hike is steep in parts, but views across Palanderbukta are stunning, and you can see many fulmars nesting in the cliffs we visit from above.
The mountain on the west side of Gåshamna in Recherchefjorden, along the Sound of Bellsund, is a very steep and exposed climb I absolutely love. I think I was one of the first guides in the industry to find a good way up and down with cruise passengers.
And I can’t forget snowshoeing from Möllerhamna to Lilliehöökbreen, in Krossfjorden, which was an idea I had three years ago on a snowshoeing trip on Rembrandt van Rijn.
It turned out to be an amazing hike. You spend a long time on pretty flat ground, and in the end, after some short climbs, the view opens to close-by Lilliehöökbreen and across Lilliehöökfjorden, where we get picked up by the ship again.
Seems like as good a place to look for polar bears as Old Norse frost giants.
If I’m not looking for one, I’ve got my eyes open for the other.