Winter’s Past

The Governor is a man of few words but many jobs. Sitting in his permanently oil-stained orange overalls, he looks past me, out of a window in the Pyramiden Hotel with the look of a concerned parent. 

Out there, on the decaying streets of Pyramiden, Petr Petrovich is caretaker, driver, gardener, janitor, just about any tradesman you can think of, and, unofficially, Governor. Inside the hotel, the only functioning building in town, he is effectively the manager. “Sometimes the tourists ask us to make it warmer in here,” he says through my guide and translator, Sergey Chernikov, “and sometimes they ask about phone connection.” The Governor shakes his head.

The lack of phone signal and internet connection underline a sense of another time, yet this old mining town on the Svalbard archipelago in the Norwegian High Arctic has become a strange tourist draw at the very edge of humanity. Originally founded in 1909 by Swedish miners, it was bought by the USSR in 1927, abandoned towards the end of the century, and now marks the starting point for a series of treks in summer and end point for snowmobile trips in winter. At all times of the year, it has an otherworldliness to it, a frozen Soviet time capsule that is by turns photogenic and ugly, eerie and endearing.

The settlement was suddenly, and some say mysteriously, emptied in 1998 when the coal mine closed and the townspeople all lost their livelihoods simultaneously. It lay empty for a decade before Russians and Ukrainians like the Governor started to return. They had, and still have, much work ahead to make it semi-habitable.

Its name comes from a 937m-high mountain looming over the town like a sentinel or guard-tower. It looks almost manmade: eight concentric layers of rock, appearing like huge sculpture or, yes, a pyramid. 

During my visit, this remarkable piece of geology starts sunny days a pale gold and finishes them blood orange. Many who come to Pyramiden don’t see these fluctuations, partly because the majority don’t stay overnight, and partly because at almost 79 degrees north, the sun does not yield for three months of summer. Conversely, for three months in deep winter it never breaches the horizon. But the main reason the average visitor doesn’t get to see the peak in sun is because the weather in Svalbard is often volatile and occasionally vengeful.

I’m spending three nights here right at the end of the 2018 summer season and though the temperature will hover around freezing most days, there’s a cold sun shining constantly. “I should say: it can look amazing in the fog,” says Sergey, “but I don’t think we’ll be getting that.”

Instead, sunbeams shoot through cracked glass in the old canteen, illuminating skeletons of long-dead houseplants. The light shows that there was no single cataclysm here – the remaining wall clocks have all stopped but did so at different times. 

Once in a while, there are those who curse the good weather. Unsurprisingly, they are not local. During my visit, a 16-strong film crew arrive to shoot a feature, Civil Twilight. A sci-fi thriller, it will lean on Pyramiden’s desolation and inclement weather to tell its story. The idea came when the director, Darren Mann, visited to shoot a documentary a few years earlier; the isolation and a seeming guarantee of gloom he experienced then were big factors in developing this project. Late summer sunshine is literally not in the script, and for the first few days of their shoot, the crew find themselves wishing conditions were a little unkinder.

“The location was really the spark for this whole project,” says producer Grant Myers inside the Pyramiden Hotel. “Looking around, at how things are perfectly preserved – it really looks like people just stood up one day and walked away.”

Until he arrived by boat, passing the mighty Nordenskiold Glacier at the top of Billefjorden, Myers had only seen stills of Pyramiden. The reality of being here is quite different. “My first impression was: what an unforgiving place. It just feels dangerous, surrounded by things that could destroy you in seconds,” he says. “I was so impressed with the absolute will of these people to create what they did here, in this environment that’s so hostile.” 

The durability of the Soviet designs has allowed the buildings to endure 20 wild Arctic winters without much maintenance. Some estimates predict that if the climate remains reasonably stable, they may stand for another 500 years. 

Sergey takes me on a tour Pyramiden as it stands today, slinging a rifle over his shoulder and lighting a cigarette as we head out into the bright, frozen morning. Much of the settlement appears to be in reasonable order: huge mineshafts still run up the side of Pyramiden like blackened arteries; the satisfyingly industrial chemical plant looks like it could withstand a direct missile hit. 

The damage has been more insidious – former dorms and kitchens wilfully wrecked, most likely by outsiders. When I find a bottle of Bailey’s inside the old mountain rescue team’s hut, the mid-2000s date on it seem to validate this theory.

Sergey explains that when the mine closed in 1998, it wasn’t long before party people started to come up by snowmobile then boat to explore and invade the Russian settlement. Windows were smashed and icy gales rushed at the invitation to finally get inside. It’s impossible to say how much of the subsequent chaos – filing cabinets emptied, bookshelves overturned, wires torn from walls – was malicious, what was done for ‘fun’, and what can be attributed to the climate. Whatever the truth, the result is an unholy mess. Sergey repeatedly insists the perpetrators weren’t residents – why would those living here have scuttled their own homes?

At its peak in the mid-1980s, Pyramiden was home to over 1,000 people, around 100 of whom were children. To cater for them, there was a school and a cinema. There were plays and concerts. There was happiness. “They had a pure kind of Communism up here,” says my guide. “Everyone had a job, everyone had a home. The wages were better up here, too.”

While the relationship between Russian and Norwegian communities on Svalbard has been stable for almost 100 years, like in almost any small community around the world there is a lot of gossip. Back in Longyearbyen, the de-facto capital of Svalbard, I was told that Arktikugol, the mining company that operated Pyramiden, had lied to its employees, telling them they had an immediate two-week holiday in Moscow. Once they were back on the mainland, the mine was closed and no one was allowed to return. Sergey insists this isn’t true. “Also, I’ve heard that we are the ones who made the top of mountain, like some kind of design,” he says mirthlessly.

We’re talking on the way out of Pyramiden, rattling along in the Governor’s bus. On the dashboard there is a flare gun, a box of shotgun cartridges, and crackling radio. A blue ‘ocean mist’ Magic Tree swings wildly under the rear-view mirror as we hop over a pothole. 

We’re being driven to the end of the road, after which Sergey and I will continue on foot to the top of the vowel-deprived Yggdrasilkampen, a large table mountain opposite the settlement. “They say that once you have been up there, you are truly a local,” says Sergey, who is from Moscow but spends most of his year in Svalbard’s surviving Russian community, Barentsburg (population 400). 

As we march uphill, over loose rock and past a semi-frozen lake, we approach a rickety wooden hut, something like a bothy. My guide goes in first, whistling. “The problem with this one is that the door opens in the way,” says Sergey. “If a polar bear wants to come in while you’re inside, there’s no way to stop them.”

If not exactly a daily concern, polar bears are a psychic ever-present for the people of Pyramiden. We may be over 100km distant from Longyearbyen, but we still obey the Svalbardian general rule: no wandering without at least one gun. To that end, every time we go outside, Sergey brings a fully loaded Лось-4, Moose-4, a Soviet-era rifle with a wooden stock. 

After a while, I stop feeling quite so excited to see him load the bullets while smoking. “I really love it,” says Sergey. 

“What?” I ask. “Being armed?”

“No,” he says, cigarette flapping with each syllable, “smoking.” 

Life up here exists within fine margins and small problems can quickly become large; a problem as large as a polar bear can become colossal. Perhaps sensing the lifelessness of Pyramiden, the bears tend not to visit town much these days, but out in the wilderness nothing is certain. In spring, when icebergs calving from the glacier make for optimal platforms for hunting seals, they’re spotted frequently; for the rest of the year it’s maybe only once a month.

Of bigger concern are the Arctic foxes, not a dog-like, semi-tame family that has taken up residence under the Pyramiden Hotel, but wilder ones – in 2017, 10 were found to have rabies. Some reindeer tested positive, too. It sounds like a macabre joke: these ordinarily cute animals, running around frothing at the mouth, eyes ablaze. Yet a rabid fox would be a small problem looking to turn large in a hurry.

For Sergey and I, animals aren’t an issue right now, but our footing soon is. After the hut, our trek rises sharply and even though our goal is only around 500m above sea level, the hike is mentally exhausting. Every step over the scree requires planning and a dexterity of foot that doesn’t come naturally to me. Compounding problems, a fine dusting of snow makes spotting loose stones almost impossible.

After almost two hours of scrabbling and scrambling, we emerge onto the plateau and, of course, the effort immediately feels worth it. There are grand views in every direction, and in this frigid sunshine, it’s possible to see over 100 miles. The baby blues of the glacier glow above the fjord, while in the distance peaks named after Norse gods stand implacable against the powdery sky. Aside from the biting wind, I wasn’t sure what to expect before coming up here, but I certainly didn’t envisage the landscape being so endlessly beautiful.

For its part, Pyramiden looks like the strange anomaly it is, wedged into a valley floor, with those huge mineshafts running up towards its eponymous peak. The Swedes were the first to mine, but the Soviets – and in particular Ukrainians – were the ones who perfected the subterranean art. The coal here has been carbon dated to almost 350 million years old, making it some of the most ancient anywhere on the planet, considerably older, even, than that dug from the mines in Barentsburg and Longyearbyen to the south. 

It can often feel as though mining is the only thing that Pyramiden has in common with Svalbard’s largest city. These days there aren’t enough people in the Russian settlement for there to be any kind of rivalry, and there’s an acceptance that in order to get on and off of Svalbard (and so in and out of Pyramiden) you must travel through Longyearbyen.

Growing year on year, the Norwegian town is at once part of the mainland and something other. For one thing, Svalbard has far more flexible immigration rules – you don’t need a visa to live there, only the means to support yourself, or a solid job offer. This has gathered a remarkably diverse community at the top of the world: there’s an American growing herbs in a biodome; a Brazilian making nature documentaries; a thriving Thai community, who until recently had their own restaurant. 

That unit has since been bought by Steve Torgensen who has transformed it into Stationen, a trendy gastropub to add to his growing culinary empire. Next to his new place he has Karlsberger, perhaps the most popular bar in town, while at the far end of town he also owns Gruvalageret, a fine-dining restaurant themed around Svalbard’s mining heritage. Such is the quality of this and other restaurants in Longyearbyen today that people are tentatively wondering if the Michelin Guide may even come calling. 

Throughout the summer months, Torgensen’s establishments and others around town are packed with cruise ship passengers, but despite the endless dark, winter is the busiest season when tourists come to chase northern lights or take snowmobile safaris across the tundra. 

If all of that feels remote, then Pyramiden is something further still, the outpost’s outpost. The roaring commerce in the cosmopolitan capital would have been quite at odds with the Communist ethos that built Pyramiden, even if the latter’s philosophy was always doomed to fail. Perhaps its silencing in 1998 could be seen as the final bad vibrations of the Soviet Union, its death throes simply delayed in reaching this final extremity.

On our final morning, Sergey and I decide to take one last walk, this time out to the shrinking Bertil glacier. On the way we make a quick stop at the Cultural Centre, which must have been a lively, noisy place in its heyday. It’s now being carefully restored, not to its full USSR pomp, nor because there’s going to be a repopulation of the town, but so that small concerts can be held as once before, and perhaps films shown if the old projectors can be revived.

Elsewhere in the building there’s a dilapidated gym hall and a battered weights room. Upstairs there’s a music room, a drum-kit with the skins kicked out, cymbals, a grand piano. All silent now, but what sounds there must have been! 

“Is this the famous northernmost grand piano in the world?” I ask Sergey, pressing a detuned key.

“Yes this is the one,” he replies, before correcting himself. “Actually, there’s another downstairs which has been moved. Maybe that’s the one now.”

We head back out, past what was the world’s northernmost swimming pool, being careful not to stand on the planet’s northernmost lawn. Before coming here I’d expected that Pyramiden would feel lonely and intimidating, but instead it’s been beautiful and even fun.

As we leave town, there’s another reminder of this: the bottle house. There is no shortage of slurs against the Soviets, including about their fondness for alcohol. This strange structure seems to embrace that preconception: built almost entirely of beer bottles in 1983 it’s a bizarre, psychedelic hut which is now used occasionally for picnics. 

We push on for another hour or so, along the treeless valley towards the edge of withering Bertil. Above, the peak of Pyramiden is still soaking up its rays, but perhaps because the other trek had been so spectacular, I can’t help feel as though we’re simply passing time until our ship arrives. 

In any case, I’m glad of the chance to feel the warmth of the Pyramiden Hotel a final time before leaving. Glad too that Dina Balkarova is on hand to serve me a plate of hearty Russian soup. The 26-year-old was drafted up here to help with the Civil Twilight shoot, but when she’s not pouring drinks and serving meals, she finds what time she can to explore the town. This is partly out of curiosity, but also to sample the acoustics. “My real profession isn’t as a bartender,” she says with a nervous laugh, “I love to sing opera.” Recently she was down at the harbour’s oil tanks, testing her powerful voice’s reaction with the old metal. 

When I finally leave Pyramiden, the boat passes those same rusty containers, and of all the strange things in this strange town, what sticks with me longest isn’t something I had even witnessed – it’s the echoing voice of Dina, the lone soprano, singing for ghosts at the top of the world.


A version of this piece was published in National Geographic Travellers in February 2019

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