JUN 01, 2016
Living on a boat, skiing unskied peaks at 3am, eating reindeer stew and being chased by polar bears. Travis Ganong tells us what he’s been up to in his ‘real ski season’:
After a successful winter season and months on the road chasing around the Audi FIS World Cup ski tour, I’d had some amazing days on my skis in 2015/16.
But something was missing: every weekend during the winter we would travel to a new destination and compete in a high profile, stress-filled competition with money on the line, TV cameras watching our every move and thousands of fans cheering for us on the hill. So after that final race I realized my ‘real ski season’ was just beginning. I needed to go out and climb some mountains, and spend some time away from the cameras and stress of the World Cup.
That’s where Ice Axe Expeditions enters the story. They’re one of the cooler companies based out here in North Lake Tahoe, California. When I got home, I got a phone call from them about this trip to Svalbard Island, living on a boat and climbing and skiing mountains. This was exactly what was missing and what I needed!
Five days later I was on a plane to Oslo. Then on to Svalbard, the farthest north inhabited landmass in the world.
Endless winter in May
Landing in Longbyarnen on May 10th we were thrust straight back into endless winter. We boarded Arctica 2, an iceworthy 64-foot sailboat – and our home for the next two weeks. Then we set our sights for the remote and mountainous northwest corner of the island.
If you have ever been in the Arctic in May then you know how funky daily life becomes. Endless 24-hour sun and perfect conditions for adventure whenever you want to begin. Time ceased to exist. We began to transition into the simple life of sailing, scoping fjords for lines to ski, skiing them, eating and sleeping.
We would start a ski tour at 3am, summit by 6am and be back for dinner at 8am. I started forgetting to sleep as the scenery kept getting better and better. I didn’t want to miss any piece of this skiers paradise: wild couloirs and glacier-capped peaks spilling into bottomless fjords with whales, seals, polar bears, arctic foxes and millions of birds everywhere we went. There were no other boats or signs of humans, but we were never alone in this thriving ecological environment.
And the amount skiing to be had was ridiculous. Normally when exploring mountains you see something to ski and then on further inspection maybe the line cliffs out or there’s a huge cornice at the top. But everywhere we went in Svalbard, everything was skiable. You could spend a lifetime exploring all the skiing options here.
Reindeers and Russian coal mines
Daily life was surreal and hard to explain. Skinning up a new unskied valley we would startle a few reindeer who would bolt up and across the couloir we were eyeing (hence the newly dubbed ‘Double Reindeer Couloir’).
One day we stumbled across an old Russian coal-mining outpost with larger than life statues of Stalin and the Hammer and Cicle ever present. For a while we got trapped in this abandoned ghost town when a Polar Bear mom and her cubs decided to take a nap between us and the boat.
Another afternoon (or morning or whenever) the wind stopped and the icy fjord turned to glass, so I went out for a paddle board from the boat. It was terrifying being alone and away from the safety of the boat, knowing if I fell I would have minutes to survive in the below freezing water. Extreme no-fall-zone paddle boarding! It didn’t take long for a huge bearded seal to get curious and start chasing me around. Did that really happen? Was that real?
Scratching the itch
Of course, before and after all these magical experiences was a lot of skiing. Arctic pow is pretty darn good. Arctic corn is even better. And even when we were skiing down an icy 500+ couloir with nothing but blue water in the fall zone and gnarly rocks towering above on both sides, the ice skied better than any sketchy slick ice I’ve skied before! Skiing in Svalbard is the real deal.
It’s hard to sum up what happened in Svalbard. This was the most rejuvenating and wild ski trip I have ever experienced. It for sure satisfied my itch to get some late season turns in before the long hot summer. It was good for the soul to remove myself from the world and remember why I love to ski! And it fired me up to continue chasing my dream next season.
Then who knows, back to Svalbard next summer? There’s a lot more perfect snow to be skied.