abandoned mine exploration in the arctic

mine 2b svalbard | Nicholas Orloff

Mine 2B

Several days ago I climbed a mountain in the Arctic to explore Mine 2B, which has been abandoned since 1969. In Svalbard, it is law that anything made by humans before 1946 must be protected; nothing can be touched or removed. Combined with the cold, dry climate, this creates fantastic opportunities to catch a glimpse of mining life half a century ago.

Located above the tiny settlement of Nybyen, it’s a steep and slippery climb. This past week it was unusually warm, which resulted in the snow melting and refreezing. So I had to be careful.

mine 2b svalbard | Nicholas Orloff

The mine becomes more intimidating as you ascend.

The climb is worth the effort for the view of Longyearbyen alone. This is the only area outside the “polar bear safe zone” that you can get away with venturing to on your own. In 1995, two tourists ignored advice from the locals and hiked up to Platåberget, the mountain you can see to the left in the next picture. Up top, where one would least expect it, a polar bear attacked them. One of them died. I was however, putting a lot of faith into the idea that I wouldn’t find a polar bear inside this structure.

mine 2b svalbard | Nicholas Orloff

View of Longyearbyen, looking out from the entrance to the mine.

I was creeped out as soon as I made it inside. The four month long polar night just started, so you only have a dim, grey-bluish soft light coming from a sun below the horizon for three hours a day. When you turn your back from the view, this is what you’re faced with:

mine 2b svalbard | Nicholas Orloff

Reminiscent of whichever horror movie you’d prefer not to think about.

It’s cold, dark and noisy–outside the wind howls, whistles and invades every hole and crack in the walls. Doors bang, ropes and hooks swing about and wood creaks whether you step on it or not. I had the foresight to pack a photographer’s LED flood lamp for this trip, which attaches to my camera’s hotshoe. It wouldn’t have been possible to explore and concentrate on photography without it, so it was worth its weight in carry-on baggage allowance.

The building is over run with ice:

When I reached what looked like a dead-end the far end of the first level, I opened a door and found this staircase:

mine 2b svalbard | Nicholas Orloff

Many other horror movies came to mind.

As you ascend and explore different rooms, you find machinery frozen in mid operation:

Abandoned rooms, all with different purposes lie hidden in nooks and behind doors:

Tools, clothing and equipment lay undisturbed for half a century:

After an hour or two alone in this place, you start going strange and hear voices. It’s something to do with being alone in ruins sitting on a frozen mountain in one of the remote places on earth. I kept thinking, “am I actually alone in here”?

When you reach the third level of the structure, you must squeeze out of a door half frozen shut and you come across a plank bridge that connects to an adjacent building.

mine 2b svalbard | Nicholas Orloff

You have two choices–cross or turn back.

Of course, I crossed it. But then I had my final test:

mine 2b svalbard | Nicholas Orloff

Covered in ice and rotting, you must climb on all fours.

But when you reach the top, you’re rewarded with views like this:

mine 2b svalbard | Nicholas OrloffBut climbing back down is a lot more difficult…

mine 2b svalbard | Nicholas Orloff

My foot is in the shot for a sense of scale.

On the way down, I found this corridor to the other side of the mountain. The floors are rotten and you need to cross with great care:

mine 2b svalbard | Nicholas OrloffIf you look along the middle of the floor, you see metal tracks. This is how coal was transported from the mineshaft to the building for processing. Then it was loaded on cable cars and transported to the harbour. I walked towards the light and found an entrance to a mine shaft. It’s long been sealed: first by human bricks, then by nature’s ice:

  • mine 2b svalbard | Nicholas Orloff
  • mine 2b svalbard | Nicholas Orloff

I spent about three hours inside the mine, as this was quite possibly a once in a lifetime opportunity. It’s anybody’s guess to when (not if) it is destroyed, whether by the ice, an avalanche or even fire. I mention fire, for the original mine (mine #2) was set alight in 1944 by German sailors and continued to burn for twenty years.

It was getting dark(er) outside, so I decided to get out of this mine and off the mountain. As made my way to the exit, I spotted a nook that I somehow missed:

mine 2b svalbard | Nicholas Orloff

I made my way over the ice-flooded floor and realised that the rotting papers on the wall were something special. I found, quite literally, the human faces that proved this was somewhere living, breathing people spent the majority of their waking lives.

I’m sure that they helped the miners keep warm during their long days inside this Arctic mountain.