The two pioneers set out from Longyearbyen, dubbed the northernmost settlement in the world, on July 5, 2010. They averaged about 15 miles a day, and by the end of July, they had reached the northern shore of Nordaustlandet, one of Svalbard’s High Arctic islands.
With the wind picking up and the sea growing choppy, they decided to head for shore and camp on a beach near a promontory named Ekstremhuken. As Nilssen paddled alongside Fjeld, he held up the map and joked, “Funny name for a place, no? I wonder if that means something ‘extreme’ will happen here?” Fjeld smiled.
After pulling their kayaks onto the rocky beach, they pitched their tent and rigged up a trip-wire perimeter nine feet away, as they did at every campsite. A series of small explosive charges would go off if an animal were to cross the wire, giving the men time to grab their rifles and scare away a bear or, if necessary, shoot it.
The two awoke the next day to ferocious winds and rough seas. After checking the weather forecast via satellite phone, Nilssen and Fjeld discussed the situation. “We’ll have to stay another night,” Nilssen said. “Tomorrow should be clear.”
Later that day, while chasing a tarp that had blown away, Nilssen fell over the trip wire, setting off an explosive charge. He quickly fitted a new one to the wire.
“Damn,” he said as he crawled back inside the tent, “I’m getting clumsy in my old age.” As they did every night before they tucked in, Nilssen and Fjeld double-checked that their rifles were loaded and close at hand.
As they were sound asleep, the polar bear that had picked up their scent began lumbering toward the camp.
With the wind howling, the bear burst through the trip wire, but the charge did not fire. Nilssen awoke to a crashing sound when the bear trampled the tent and ripped it to shreds with a mighty sweep of its paw. “Bear!” shouted Nilssen as he felt it lock its jaws onto the back of his skull, pulling him from his sleeping bag. All he could see was a towering mass of white fur. As the bear sank its teeth deeper into his skull, it uttered a low-pitched, guttural growling. Nilssen was able to grab his pump-action shotgun while the bear dragged him out of the tent. Screaming, he tried to hit the bear with one hand while gripping the gun with the other. But nothing deterred the animal.
Suddenly the polar bear changed its hold on Nilssen and sank its teeth into his right shoulder. Then it shook him back and forth, each time penetrating Nilssen’s flesh more deeply with its teeth. Pain shot through his body as if an ice pick were being twisted into his shoulder.
It’s trying to shake me unconscious, thought Nilssen. The bear began dragging him onto the rocky beach. The shotgun is my only chance, he thought. Just then the gun fell from his grip, and the bear stepped on it, snapping it in two. “I’m dead,” Nilssen said out loud when he heard the gun break in half. “It’s over.”