Trond Christensen, 43, of Tønsberg, and Sigbjørn Gregusson, 56, of Lillehammer, are two of the 16 tourists with a group that got stuck in the storm on Akademikarbreen during Easter weekend. The party, which also consisted of three guides, was caught by surprise by the cold and wind, and had to be brought out of the area by rescuers with the Svalbard governor's office.
The party, part of an organized tour organized by the Voss-based company Jarle Trå, originally planned to ski to Newtontoppen. But there was a quick change after they started out from Philipbreen on Good Friday.
"After a snowmobile leg to Bikkja we went to Filchnerfonna on the first day and on Saturday we went to Akademikarbreen," Gregusson said. "The report was winds from the west, so we camped east of Backlundtoppen so that we could shield ourselves from them. It was very cold and we knew even then that we couldn't reach the route to get us to Newtontoppen."
Inferno in white
The party struck camp early on Saturday. Christensen and Gregusson described the atmosphere then as almost idyllic. There was a clear Easter mood. But this would change drastically during the night.
"We started to hear the wind at about one o'clock in the night," Gregusson said. "It struck the tents, and we were up occasionally to check the guylines and such. The polar bear guard also kept an eye on the situation."
When they woke up in the morning the wind was blowing in a completely different direction than what was reported, namely from the southeast.
The guides told the group the situation required waiting and monitoring of developments. The governor's office was notified the party was in a potentially dangerous situation and there was an agreement to keep in contact during the day.
"It was entirely out of the question to start to packing up and move," Christensen said. "We started to build a windscreen on the south side."
Then the wind changed in a matter of minutes and suddenly was blowing at speeds of 26 to 27 meters per second from the northeast.
"Then it got worse," Gregusson said. "The wind took one tent of the guides and it flew like a napkin in the wind. A long sprint made sure we got hold of it, but the wind tore up the other guide tent shortly afterwards."
Asked for rescue
Brynjulf Eide, one of the guides and a former lieutenant governor of Svalbard, decided to request the group be rescued and notified the governor's office.
"We were responsible for a large group and we had come to the point where we were using all of our powers to hold onto the tents," he said. "I saw for myself that we might need to wait to be evacuated and then it was best to let them know as soon as possible."
"I stand by the decision and would do it again in a similar situation," he added.
Christensen and Gregusson said they didn't think anyone in the group needed immediate rescuing. But some were clearly uncomfortable with the extreme situation, with the wind being only one factor. The cold was also scathing and they imagined they would have to wait a while for help.
"We could not prepare to be evacuated with the first (attempt) and continued to build windscreens to keep the campsite," one of them said. That a weather window opened just before the helicopters arrived is a small miracle."
In record time the governor's two Super Puma helicopters were able to to pick up all 19 members of the party. All of the equipment was left standing at the campsite.
The tourists said they are not bitter for not having reached the goal of the trip. Both have been in Svalbard before and know how unpredictable the forces of nature can be.
"The guides on the trip were very professional," one of them said. "The whole time it was safety that was driving the guides, not the idea of reaching a goal. And the adjustments that were made along the way were based on safety. The information was factual and well-reasoned throughout. The company Jarle Trå was also very professional, and informed our family members via SMS and via their website well and early."
"In addition, the rescue efforts of the governor were well-oiled and carried out, in our view, in an impeccable manner."
Will they return and go on future expeditions in Svalbard?
"We are not intimidated and Newtontoppen is still unconquered," Christensen said.