Few arrivals convey the bewildering power of pulling towards Pyramiden. To the east, across the icy summer waters of Billefjorden, the Nordenskjöldbreen glacier sinks relentlessly into the sea, a reminder that more than 60% of Svalbard is made up of glaciers. Stark under summer clouds, elemental in its confluence of ice, water and rock, it was a poster of arctic beauty.
Pyramiden itself was littered with coal mine detritus – steel beams and rusting ironwork wobbling at odd angles, collapsed mine buildings in rubble, tall mounds of black tailings – looming like a post-apocalyptic vision . Abandoned mining railways marked the steep hill to the north, while the eerie uniformity of buildings built in the Stalinist style seemed to do its best to undo the beauty that surrounded them. It could have been a film set for a Cold War arctic thriller.
But there, on the pier, was Sergei Rubelev, enthusiastically waving his white peach sweater and beaming smile. Pyramiden may be a neglected outpost of the former Soviet empire, but Rubelev was, more than anything else, a human happy to have company at his solitary vigil, and his welcome was warm.
Apart from winter snowmobile expeditions and the occasional supply plane, Pyramiden is cut off from the outside world for eight or nine months of the year; shortly before my arrival, Rubelev had spent the winter here. From June or July, tourists land in Svalbard’s capital, Longyearbyen (population 2,400), on daily cruise ships and flights, with dozens of excursions and activities on offer, from dog sledding, from kayaking and hiking to boat trips in search of walruses. Among these excursions are small tourist boats carrying 10-15 travelers at a time (and sometimes supplies) to Pyramiden, numbers and time permitting. Sometimes the boats drop off or pick up local scientists or trappers at isolated huts along the way. Even in summer, boats sometimes cannot get through the ice and weeks go by without a boat arriving. No wonder Rubelev was happy to see us.