Sobering adventure: Recovering drug addicts turn Svalbard into ultimate rehab facility during extended outdoor expedition


An extended expedition in Svalbard is challenging enough without the complications such as drug withdrawal symptoms. But Raymond Tollefsen said it’s one place he knows he’s safe from the most deadly threat to his well-being.

“The times I’ve been clean for a couple of months I also used the wilderness because I couldn’t stay clean in town,” he said.

Tollefsen, 42, a Svelvik resident, said he has been a drug addict almost continuously since he was 10. Now clean for three years, he’s helping guide and organize a three-month wilderness expedition exploring various parts of Norway, including a two-week voyage in Svalbard, as part of the Veien Ut program.

Like other groups on extended trips, they train for the extreme conditions, meticulously plan details such as what food and gear to bring, and take turns on polar bear guard duty. Unlike other groups, there’s no beer in the evenings and the chatter is frequently light on laughs.

“We sit in groups and share,” Tollefsen said. “We talk about guilt and share, and be honest with each other.”

“There’s a lot of tears.”

And while just staying alive in the remote areas of Svalbard would seemingly demand all of a person’s attention, Tollefsen said that actually works in favor of many dealing with recovery from addiction.

“That’s the perfect defocus when you have to master the nature and the elements,” he said.

In fact, a relapse by some members occurred during a stopover in Tromsø, an addition after last year’s inaugural wilderness trip meant to give participants a bit of a break.

“Three of them didn’t come back,” Tollefsen said. “They started drinking, they started shooting up and then they started having sex.”

They were found the next day, broke and broken down, and are still participating in the trip.

“We don’t give up on anyone,” Tollefsen said.

The group is scheduled to return to Longyearbyen in mid-September, where they will be greeted by friends and family in a celebration marking the end of the three-month outing.