To The Ends of the Earth

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To the Ends of the Earth

ALONE SNOWBOARDER, HEAVILY BURDENED WITH CAMERA GEAR, methodically kicks steps into a knife-edge ridge 5,000 feet up the spine of an unnamed peak. It's 11 o'clock on an April night, but in the spring the sun never sleeps this close to the North Pole. Beneath him, an arctic landscape rolls to the sea. The valley could almost be a rising ocean; strong winds ripping down from the Pole have sculpted waves from the snow and ice of the valley.

A gust blows through as the photographer, Philippe Rebreyend, settles into position on the summit. He scans the northern horizon for storms as a nagging fear washes over him with the wind. But the valley is ringed with glistening pyramids beneath clear skies, and on the spine of a distant ridge, a skier and three snowboarders are outlined against the circling sun. Tucking his unease into some hidden recess, Rebreyend steadies the 300-millimeter lens, focuses, and waits for the light-his mind ticking with images both real and potential. An hour later, he radios the riders, directing them to drop onto the face.

It's the first run of the first freeride expedition to the Svalbard archipelago, an area known by Norwegians as, alternately, the Arctic Jewel and the Cold Coast-the terminology seems to depend on whether the spit is freezing in your mouth. Constant arctic temperatures have kept the winter's snowfall so dry it might as well have all fallen the day before, and the mountains are blanketed with stable powder. One by one the boarders float into the cold smoke, kicking up monstrous plumes, arcs, and rooster tails. And then the sole skier, Brice Lequertier, launches from a cornice: In an instant he's inverted, sailing above the northernmost land mass in the kingdom of Norway, 800 miles below the North Pole, at midnight, under full sun. It's a wonder gravity works at all.

Lequertier sticks his landing, sinking into the dry snow, powering sweeper turns against an unworldly backdrop, and then the team members stumble back to base camp and crawl into their igloo and tent, chased by a biting wind.

As they sleep, a storm, the magnitude of which nobody in this group of French extremists has ever experienced, screams down on them from the Pole.

THE TRIP WAS REBREYEND'S BRAINCHILD. The year before, he'd been mindlessly watching an in-flight monitor on a Europe-to-Copenhagen jet-a lazy red flight-path on the screen tracing its way south of a mountain range. Mountains? Pressing his head to the window, he squinted into the pure white glare. In lust, the seeds of an epic were planted.

Rebreyend, 30, put together a team of alpinists consisting of freeskier and guide, Lequertier, 25, his snowboarding companion, Fred Serin, 27, and a duo of extreme boarders, Florent Chretien, 30, and Jerome Catz, 33. Hearty, rugged, and oh, so extreme, the crew had climbed and skied all over the world. Their mission: first descents and photography in the land of the midnight sun.

But there's a short window of opportunity to ski Svalbard's peaks. It's dark 24 hours a day from October through February (so that's out), and by mid May the snowmelt has exposed such a maze of mud holes and crevassed glaciers that travel over land is impossible. The fact that there are no roads of any kind doesn't help matters. Mid March to mid April, when the midnight sun returns and the islands come alive somewhat, is the only option, and even then it feels like you've gone to the end of the earth.

Fifteen hundred people reside in Svalbard, but other than a scattering of Polish researchers and Russian miners, everyone lives in the capital Longyearbyen. The northernmost town in Eurasia, it's an arctic outpost with a Wild West feel where everyone seems to be packing firearms. It's not that the place is particularly violent. In fact, given that the sun is absent from the sky for months, with Russians and Norwegians mingling in the pubs all the while, it's surprisingly tame. The guns are for thpolar bears. With 6,000 bruins in Svalbard, it's advised that you pack heat. The government website recommends large-bore rifles, and nobody seems to take that advice lightly.

So it's into Longyearbyen that the French fly with their 700-plus pounds of gear. The plan had been to run dogsleds into the mountains, but the plan fell apart when the Frenchmen ran into a small glitch-other than having seen some Iditarod footage on public broadcasting, none of them knew the first thing about mushing. Serin explains: "You need to have a dog-friendly setup and dog food. It's a whole sport in itself. We are skiers and boarders, not dogsledders."

It's (obviously) a crushing setback, but the riders are resolute: They load their gear, 300 liters of snowmobile fuel, bear defenses (dynamite, trip wires, rifles, flares), GPS units, food for 14 days, and stove-gas on three snowmobiles with trailers and prepare to head out.

Of course, snowmobiles and French extremists aren't a great match either. A few weeks prior to the team's arrival, another group of French tourists on rental sleds had launched themselves to their deaths into a 200-foot-deep crevasse outside town. Having grown understandably weary of cleaning up after such tragedies, the Svalbard government demands extra cash from the freeriders for a permit. Not that death and levees can slow them down. Fingers on triggers, led by Catz, they ride: "We were pretty excited by the power of the snowmobiles and impatient to get started," says Lequertier. "There was nobody around, the light was great, and we drove fast...possibly too fast because after an hour we broke one of the trailers. It looked like a bomb had gone off in a supermarket. It was a rude awakening: we are not Top Guns."

Egos deflated, Serin and Catz return to town for trailer repair, and a day is lost before the freeride platoon resumes the 20-hour, 62-mile ride to the Reindalen Valley. Navigating moraines, winding the engines over hills, they eventually gain a ridge and the glacial plateau falls away before them to the breaking ice of the Arctic Ocean. All around are steep faces. The remains of an igloo make for an ideal camp. They have found what they call their "Freeride Nirvana."

In haste, they set about shoveling platforms, pitching tents, and repairing the igloo-reinserting the "clef de voute," the last brick placed in the center of the dome. Norwegian law also requires that expeditions take bear precautions, which include erecting "snublebluss" (trip wires hooked to low-dosage dynamite-it just scares the seal meat out them), burying food 330 feet away, and arranging camp so that tent openings face outward. It's exhausting work and sleep calls, but the sun and their desire to ride after days of travel keeps them awake.

Free of the trailers, the Frenchmen run the Ski-doos as high as they can onto the first mountain and then hike a ridgeline to the summit. This close to the Pole, the concept of different exposures gets tossed along with watches and routines. North face, south face, it's all the same. Every face is doable. Starting each hike near sea level and topping out at 5,000 feet, the French are free of the thin air of the Alps, but the cold, exacerbated by the constant wind, plagues them, searing at their lungs.

Skis on back, Lequertier reaches his first polar summit, just as the boarders Serin and Catz launch downhill at Rebreyand's radio command.

They get a run in. They get some sleep. And then they get brutalized.

It's a biblical gale in open country, and relentless 95-mile-per-hour winds come screaming across the ice. Temperatures, already at 14 degrees Fahrenheit, drop to minus 13 degrees; that's inside the igloo with 12-inch-thick blocks. Outside, in the wind, temperatures hover near minus 94.

Wrapped in mummy bags in the igloo, Serin and Lequertier are jolted awake by the sound of Catz screaming. The entrance has been completely blocked by driving snow, and Catz fears permanent burial. With great struggle, they burst through, only to be met with a 100-mile-per-hour wind carrying a blinding mix of snow and the ice-fog of the Arctic along with it. Scratching their way back inside, Serin manages to stick out the thermometer-it's minus 76 degrees. His hand, and the ice-encrusted instrument, quickly retreat.

Those in the tent fare worse. The nylon walls are hammering so violently, they believe they'll be blown away.

And so it is that they find themselves hunkered down in hurricane-strength winds on Svalbard during the season known as "light winter," warning each other when fingers and noses grow white, and hoping their snublebluss will prove effective in waking them if a 1,000-pound polar bear decides to pop over for a neo-extremist meatsicle. Still, in their heavy down bags, sheltered from the wind, they are somewhat content.

Well, they're content until their bowels fill: "The only time we moved was to go to the bathroom," Lequertier explains. "Everyone would come back from these trips completely traumatized. I'm telling you, trying to go to the bathroom with a bare derriere in a wind-chill of minus 76 (Celsius) is no joke. Forget the bears, this was the worst."

In the end it's a 72-hour storm and it's as if the entire northern ice cap has swept through base camp. Windpack covers the tent, the igloo is buried, and only vague bumps remain of their carefully planned camp. They locate their food cache and listlessly make breakfast-it's 9 p.m.

Aware that the weather can't last, everyone is impatient to ride. Forty- to 50-degree faces with powder field aprons surround them. As a group, they calculate pitch, identify obstacles, talk through the flow of potential turns, and dig avalanche pits. And then, for nine days straight, they make the snow fly.

"In base camp, we planned out points all around the valley, with the idea being to ride every possible face," says Lequertier. "But the wind was constantly redistributing the snow, and every few hours the runs were covered again. Long runs, deep snow, and no crowds other than some bears we knew were out there."

The bears never show up, though, so it's only physical limitations that hold the team back from riding 24 hours a day. That, and the fact that the midnight sun is playing havoc with their minds. The normal routine of a day governed by shop openings, newspaper deliveries, and late-night news, completely disappears," Rebreyend journals. With the loss of day and night, dreams tend to blend with the waking hours. It's a feeling of disorientation that's only heightened when the riders look down at their watches to discover they're carving turns at 3 A.M.

The winds also peck at their psyches. Sometimes light, sometimes heavy, they're an omnipresent reminder of the riders' complete exposure. Every day they wake to find the igloo, tent, and tracks buried by the rolling snows. Finally, the thought of weathering another storm is too much for them, and with Serin nursing an injured shoulder in camp, they decide to knock off a monster pyramid they've been working up to before escaping to Longyearbyen.

It's the most technical climb to date, with the final 650 feet posing the biggest challenge. Donning crampons and strapping on axes, they commit to a three-hour grunt up a 75-degree wall of ice. "It was starting to crank and we were roped together, scared one of us would blow away," says Lequertier. "Only at the top did we get our first glimpse of the run on the back face-a huge open field with the ocean in the distance. Maybe it was because it was the last run, maybe we were all starting to lose our minds, but that last run was surreal, amazing, mind blowing. All around were glaciers and the sun was shining. Florent goes first into the couloir, Jerome second, and I found myself at the top alone, the wind stinging my face."

Drained by the climb, a 14-hour sleep follows. Agariving snow, and Catz fears permanent burial. With great struggle, they burst through, only to be met with a 100-mile-per-hour wind carrying a blinding mix of snow and the ice-fog of the Arctic along with it. Scratching their way back inside, Serin manages to stick out the thermometer-it's minus 76 degrees. His hand, and the ice-encrusted instrument, quickly retreat.

Those in the tent fare worse. The nylon walls are hammering so violently, they believe they'll be blown away.

And so it is that they find themselves hunkered down in hurricane-strength winds on Svalbard during the season known as "light winter," warning each other when fingers and noses grow white, and hoping their snublebluss will prove effective in waking them if a 1,000-pound polar bear decides to pop over for a neo-extremist meatsicle. Still, in their heavy down bags, sheltered from the wind, they are somewhat content.

Well, they're content until their bowels fill: "The only time we moved was to go to the bathroom," Lequertier explains. "Everyone would come back from these trips completely traumatized. I'm telling you, trying to go to the bathroom with a bare derriere in a wind-chill of minus 76 (Celsius) is no joke. Forget the bears, this was the worst."

In the end it's a 72-hour storm and it's as if the entire northern ice cap has swept through base camp. Windpack covers the tent, the igloo is buried, and only vague bumps remain of their carefully planned camp. They locate their food cache and listlessly make breakfast-it's 9 p.m.

Aware that the weather can't last, everyone is impatient to ride. Forty- to 50-degree faces with powder field aprons surround them. As a group, they calculate pitch, identify obstacles, talk through the flow of potential turns, and dig avalanche pits. And then, for nine days straight, they make the snow fly.

"In base camp, we planned out points all around the valley, with the idea being to ride every possible face," says Lequertier. "But the wind was constantly redistributing the snow, and every few hours the runs were covered again. Long runs, deep snow, and no crowds other than some bears we knew were out there."

The bears never show up, though, so it's only physical limitations that hold the team back from riding 24 hours a day. That, and the fact that the midnight sun is playing havoc with their minds. The normal routine of a day governed by shop openings, newspaper deliveries, and late-night news, completely disappears," Rebreyend journals. With the loss of day and night, dreams tend to blend with the waking hours. It's a feeling of disorientation that's only heightened when the riders look down at their watches to discover they're carving turns at 3 A.M.

The winds also peck at their psyches. Sometimes light, sometimes heavy, they're an omnipresent reminder of the riders' complete exposure. Every day they wake to find the igloo, tent, and tracks buried by the rolling snows. Finally, the thought of weathering another storm is too much for them, and with Serin nursing an injured shoulder in camp, they decide to knock off a monster pyramid they've been working up to before escaping to Longyearbyen.

It's the most technical climb to date, with the final 650 feet posing the biggest challenge. Donning crampons and strapping on axes, they commit to a three-hour grunt up a 75-degree wall of ice. "It was starting to crank and we were roped together, scared one of us would blow away," says Lequertier. "Only at the top did we get our first glimpse of the run on the back face-a huge open field with the ocean in the distance. Maybe it was because it was the last run, maybe we were all starting to lose our minds, but that last run was surreal, amazing, mind blowing. All around were glaciers and the sun was shining. Florent goes first into the couloir, Jerome second, and I found myself at the top alone, the wind stinging my face."

Drained by the climb, a 14-hour sleep follows. Again they awake to an igloo entrance blocked by snow and winds pushing ice fog. They pack in the gathering storm and Ski-doo to Longyearbyen.

Their faces weathered, bodies reeking of 14-day-old unwashed polypro, the freeriders clean up as best they can and, like all red-blooded Europeans, they go clubbing. Of course-and this has nothing to do with being lucky and everything to do with being French-it happens to be a Norwegian holiday and the locals won't let the boys go home until the sun sets (in a few months) or the bar runs dry. It's a tempting scenario, but they have to break away, because as they work their Franco-magic to classic '80s rock on the dance floor, an attractive 37-year-old woman invites the quintet dogsledding. And they're off.

Again they awake to an igloo entrance blocked by snow and winds pushing ice fog. They pack in the gathering storm and Ski-doo to Longyearbyen.

Their faces weathered, bodies reeking of 14-day-old unwashed polypro, the freeriders clean up as best they can and, like all red-blooded Europeans, they go clubbing. Of course-and this has nothing to do with being lucky and everything to do with being French-it happens to be a Norwegian holiday and the locals won't let the boys go home until the sun sets (in a few months) or the bar runs dry. It's a tempting scenario, but they have to break away, because as they work their Franco-magic to classic '80s rock on the dance floor, an attractive 37-year-old woman invites the quintet dogsledding. And they're off.

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