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Northern Siesta (M6, 750m), on the west face of Ceresfjt (1677m), Atomfjella Mountains, Spitzbergen, Norway. The mixed line is one of five first ascents climbed by Robert Jasper and Markus Stofer in April; the pair endured -40 degree Celsius temperatures and the threat of polar bears while climbing above the Arctic Circle. [Photo] Robert Jasper

I first took note of Svalbard, as Spitzbergen is called in Norwegian, in 1999 when reading an expedition report about mountaineering in the Atomfjella. Spitzbergen lies a mere 1500 kilometers from the North Pole, and true to its name–which means “jagged peaks”–it is a mountaineering paradise. So Markus Stofer and I were delighted when a group of Slovenians–Grega Kresal, Anderj Erceg, Boris and Klemen Zupanc–invited us to join them on the Atomfjella, the steepest mountain range on the island.

Luckily in April the sun never sets. Twenty-four hours of daylight let time planning seem relatively unimportant. We hauled our gear and sledges over a long icefield to reach the upper section of the Tryggvebreen Glacier, where we set up our tents for base camp. Temperatures dropped to life-threatening levels; we registered down to -28 degrees Celsius in the tents and -40 when climbing in the shade. Slovenian Slibowitz warmed us from the inside–Klemen and Boris managed to pack an astounding amount of the liquor on the flight–but the cold remained almost unbearable, stealing our strength.

We were immensely lucky with the weather. High pressure dominated the weather pattern over the next coming week and we found out later that it was the best for the last 100 years. The weather was extremely cold but stable, and we climbed every day. There were plenty of walls with fantastic mixed and drytooling lines in an untouched alpine environment. The faces are similar to the north faces in the Alps; almost all are virgin and circa 900 meters high.

Over the course of nine days, from April 17-25, Markus and I managed five potential first ascents. All were in alpine style, ground-up, without bolts. We used only friends, nuts and pegs for protection. In the first six days we climbed Knut (M5, 600m) on the north face of Chadwickruggen (ca. 1600m) in two and a half hours; Polar Pow(d)er (M6, 700m) on its east face; the west face of Ceresfjt (1677m) via Northern Siesta (M6, 750m); and Ich mochte kein Eisbar sein (M7, 900m), in under five hours, on the south face of Perriertoppen (1717m). We put up a short, modern route–Mission North Pole (M9, 30m)–which I climbed first on April 25, and Markus repeated two days later. Andrej and I also paired up on April 24 to do the northwest face of the Triangle, where we established Deutsch Slowenische Freundschaft (M7, 450m).

The entire trip, we were guests in the kingdom of polar bears. We protected our camp with an alarm fence including a gun; we realized it wasn’t a game when we discovered fresh frying-pan-sized footprints on the glacier close to our base camp. Luckily they led down and back out to the fjord. It seems as though climbers suffer the cold much faster than the fat seals down on the ice pack!

Robert Jasper leads out on the first ascent of Mission North Pole (M9, 30m). Their last send of the trip, Jasper climbed the modern line on his second try, on April 25. Stofer redpointed the line for the second ascent two days later. [Photo] Markus Stofer