It was the coldest I’d ever felt, but I only needed to last a couple of more minutes. Then frostbite or starvation or the apocalypse or whatever was going to take me could do so. As the moon eclipsed the entirety of the sun, my fingers and toes screamed through layers of neoprene, down, synthetic, and wool. The temperature beneath the clear, sunny skies was almost beyond my pain threshold. The temperature when the sun disappeared behind the moon for two and a half minutes was nearly unbearable.
But this is why we’d come to the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard: to capture a photograph of a skier in front of an eclipsing sun. According to our research, no full solar eclipse will happen over a snow-covered mountain for years. Three Salomon-sponsored skiers—Cody Townsend, Chris Rubens, and I—were at 79º north latitude, standing on a ridge that had taken days to find. While not impossible to access, the ridge was hard to find because our production crew of photographer Reuben Krabbe and videographers Anthony Bonnelo and Bjarne Salen needed something very specific—they knew exactly where in the sky the eclipsed sun was going to be, exactly how far from the skier they needed their cameras, exactly what time of day the eclipse would happen, and exactly what camera settings their hours of math-induced aperture-exposure research had determined. Just a couple of hours before the eclipse began, after days of snowmobiling and ski touring around the northernmost inhabited land in the world, we found a skiable ridge that would be suitable for the shots.
But a cloudy day—or, in reality, a single cloud—could ruin the shot around which our entire monthlong, insanely expensive, midwinter Arctic expedition was based.
Weeks of preparation had been slow, and bluebird ski days wasted snowmobiling around glaciers to scout a location for eclipse day, or “e-day” as we came to call it, seemed to drag on forever. Only in the final few hours of preparation did time seem to move too quickly, each of us waddling around like a down-suited marshmallow using stubby legs to finish preparing for this once-in-a-lifetime event.
From the crew’s location a mile away and a thousand feet below us on the flat, sun-soaked glacier, Anthony Bonnelo’s voice came clearly through radios mounted on our backpacks’ shoulder straps: “The eclipse is starting.”
Cody, Chris, and I were still climbing in crampons to the ridge section we would be skiing during the eclipse, and until the moon has completely eclipsed the sun, the ambient light doesn’t change much during an eclipse. We didn’t realize the time had come.
“Okay, you’re there,” Reuben, the visionary of this entire project, muffled through two face masks and into his microphone as our silhouettes passed between the sun and his 1.7-times, teleconverted, 500-millimeter lens.
Leaning into a 35-degree ice rink, the three of us removed our crampons from ski boots with clumsy down mittens.
“Are you going to wear your overboots?” Cody asked Chris, referring to the custom-cut, isolative neoprene socks that are zipped over ski boots, acutely aware of the ferociously cold temperatures and the fact that we’d left our warmest down jackets and pants at the base of the mountain to make us more mobile on the slope during the high-stress, short window of the eclipse.
“No, we need to be able to walk up this section quickly so we can lap it,” Chris said, alluding to the difficulty of putting skis on while wearing the overboots and our need to ski the same section of the mountain multiple times, walking to the top each time. I had my overboots on from the time we started climbing the mountain, so I only had to struggle to put my skis on once.
Without overboots, they stepped into skis and radioed that we were going to begin skiing the short slope, one at a time.
“Go!” Reuben screamed into the radio, the eclipse progressing quicker than he wanted.
“He just did,” Cody replied, referring to Chris’s turns down the ridge.
“Well, I didn’t see him through the camera. Someone else needs to go.”
Like our eyeballs, the cameras on the glacier were outfitted with eclipse-viewing filters that blocked out all light except the sun itself. If our silhouettes didn’t pass perfectly in front of the sun, which was quickly disappearing behind the moon, the cameras wouldn’t see us.
Cody skied, followed by me, and Reuben radioed while I was still skiing halfway down the ridge, “Okay, whoever that was, ski where he went. I saw him.” We didn’t know if he was referring to Cody, or if he hadn’t seen Cody and I had passed in front of his camera for a brief moment. Frustration set in, as the ridge that Reuben—from his profile vantage—saw as thin and defined was actually a broad ridge roll that was more like a face of ice, without a defined ridgeline to follow. “We are skiing the ridge!” Chris yelled at no one in particular as he put skis on his backpack, his radio not transmitting.
At the bottom, we were faced with a very real predicament: It was cold. Really cold. I had my overboots on, but Cody and Chris had very cold toes, as our short ski run down and hike back up were not going to keep us warm for the next hour on the windswept ridge, exposed and devoid of any protection from trees or nearby mountains. We really needed to be wearing our overboots, but walking on flat ground with them was clumsy enough, let alone climbing a short section of ice. If they were to wear them, we’d need to take the time to readjust and then use crampons for the short ascents. Time we didn’t have.
While Cody and Chris kicked toe-deep steps into the ice slope, I sidestepped with my skis on, just below the ridge and out of the cameras’ frames. It was slow, icy, cold— slower than walking in ski boots, and, as any skier knows, uncomfortable for my uphill leg. When I reached them, Chris had already dropped in for another run and Cody was putting his skis on again. We repeated this process at least five times—with intermittent radio communication and inconsistent order of skiers—until the eclipse’s totality.
The videographers and photographer had enough stress of their own down on the glacier. All we had to do was make our best attempt at following their instructions, which frequently came in bursts of yelling “SKI SKI SKI—ANYONE SKI!” through the radio after a prolonged spell of silence had us free of skis and ski poles, swinging arms and legs to salvage any remaining circulation.
Although it was going to last less than three minutes, we were grateful for the respite when Anthony radioed that we could relax and enjoy the eclipse. As soon as I pulled my five-cent cardboard eclipse glasses from my jacket pocket, the brittle material broke. I balanced the shattered toy on my nose, knowing that it was the only way to safely watch the phenomenon. Careful not to knock them off my face, I lifted my head and, as if on cue, saw the very last movement of the moon as it passed in front of the sun. For two minutes, our small crew celebrated on our own, out of touch with the rest of the world, high on an icy ridgeline that had likely never even felt the delicate crunch of human footsteps.
Before going to Svalbard, the destination was what had enticed and excited me most. But standing on that ridge as the purple light illuminated the nearby ocean and projections of a fire’s shadow danced across the snow in every direction, our screams of cold-induced pain turned into screams of joy and surprise as we became overwhelmed by the magical beauty of what was happening. It was midday yet so dark that we removed our eclipse glasses to see something besides the thin ring of fiery light around the moon.
Beyond the temperatures, I can’t accurately describe what it was like to watch the eclipse, with skis on my feet, from that ridgeline in Svalbard with Cody, Chris, and Bjarne. But I’m confident in noting how much it exceeded expectations held by any of us. It elicited a primal instinct from each of us individually, from dead silence to guttural yells, self-reflection to tears.
And, with the fleeting moment past its halfway point and the moon beginning its 60-minute transition away from blocking the sun’s light, we high-fived and swung our arms and legs until the pain started to reenter our blood stream. Chris, Cody and I put our skis back on and continued another short stint of making ski turns. To our left was a glacier with the tiny, distant specks of our support crew, and to our right was the sun, quickly emerging from behind the moon, a sight anyone on skis won’t see for a long, long time.