Tuesday, 7 May 2019

Skiing Over Diamonds in the Land of White Mountains - Svalbard April 2019 - Part 3

Camping on Van Mijenfjorden

Friday 26thApril

Another day heading down the Van Mijenfjorden.  Only around 4:30pm did we turn a corner onto the delta of Stormyra.  The sun shone most of the day and the sky was a piercing light blue.  The only clouds were white wisps that clung to the mountains on our right at the summits, like white gossamer blindfolds.  An exception to this was a series of loose wisps that glided down the fjord beside us like a train; actually they looked like a Chinese Dragon, changing shape as it moved.

We are back skiing on diamonds which was so nice after all the dirty snow yesterday.  Just after lunchtime, we came upon a stilted lighthouse on a spit of land.  You could climb up two ladders to the top of it; the elevated view made a lovely change.   Regaining the sea ice we had to cross broken ice lumps which was both challenging and funny. Two more hours of slog over sticky snow, we pitched our camp around 6:30pm.  

Sea Ice Breaking Up at by Blåhukhytta

I’ve realised how good it is to have all this mental space: shuffling one ski in front of the other for 50 minutes at a time without changing scenery allows for the mind to wander. I love not having distractions and demands on me.  It’s just me, slogging and thinking.  I’ve realise how much I love my family and how much I love the whole immersion of Nature. Challenges are not my goal. It is the holistic, synesthesic experience of wild Nature and the Earth that compels me to explore it.

View South West along Van Mijenfjorden towards Sea

Saturday 27thApril

I’m sitting in the tent trying to write this, absolutely exhausted.  I’ve been running on empty for the last few hours (I cannot bear eating all the nuts and bars so much, it messes with my digestive system in the worst way).  I am paying the price for thinking I could eat less.

I cannot even remember what we did today.  Skiing over 8 hours with descents and rough ice and snowmobile tracks to ski on I think…

It’s next morning now. Richard kindly gave me hot water for my meal first to allow me to go straight to sleep afterwards.

I now remember we crossed the last of the wide frozen delta of Stormyra and were off the sea ice.  We passed a small herd of reindeer and skied for miles over undulating ground and ice into the Semmeldalen valley.  The snow was incredibly sticky at times; all you can do is grind your ski along the lumpy snow and hope it scrapes off.  It was hard work and got harder as I realised I hadn’t eaten enough.  By 6:30 pm I was utterly spent.

Light Plays over Van Mijenfjorden

Bear Watch was 4-5am. It was very still and quite misty. A pair of reindeer ambled passed the camp and the female came over towards me curious.  A beautiful pair of ptarmigans also waddled through the camp, gurgling.  They are charming and I adore them.

Sunday 28thApril

It is still quite misty and is turning into a white day.  It is featureless; all white cloud, white mountains, white snow in exactly the same shade.  It is hard to get any sense of scale or perspective, except when snowmobiles on day trips clatter passed and soon become dots in the mid distance.  Only then do you realise how far the eye can see. We pass more reindeer and ptarmigans.

White Day in Fardalen

We follow shallow valleys all morning and then mid-afternoon realise we have gone up the wrong valley to get back to Longyearbyen.  We headed up Bødalen rather than Fardalen, which was a little disheartening, as we had to make up the time lost.

We climbed up a bluff of Finnesaksla and headed towards a pass.  I ate more nuts today which meant more energy.  The downside to this was major stomach cramps for the last 2 hours of skiing.

Monday 29thApril

The last day; a toughie as it turned out.  We climbed several hundred metres to a pass, zig-zagging for many hours whilst trying not to be run down by snowmobiles.  I was carrying the tent which was hard work on the corners.  I found it hard to grip to move forward and up and managed several impromptu ‘moon-walks’.

After the pass it was downhill but before it started properly we had the opportunity to explore the inside of the Longyearbreen glacier.  We crawled through a snow hole into a snow cave which had a hole in the floor and a ladder descending down into the ice.  It was fabulous and I loved it.

Under the Longyearbreen Glacier

Back on skis we then started the descent towards Longyearbyen.  Having Ronin rearrange the weight distribution of my pulk made the ski descent much better but after a while, I found the snow pack inconsistent and started a series of falls that led me to lose my temper with myself completely. Skiing in that frame of mind was never going to work so I reverted to Plan B and walked down.  Further down the slope we all had to walk anyway.  Finally it was just skiing over frozen ice ridges made by countless snowmobiles and then arrive back at the expedition store. 

We had done it.  Around 160km shuffled, muscles well and truly exercised, hearts and souls filled.

After an hour and a half of kit sorting we were free to shower and lose the 10 days of ming. Ah, simple pleasures.

What an amazing, wonderful expedition.  Thank you to Helen Turton, Kjell Erik, Ronin and my fellow team mates.

Monday, 6 May 2019

Skiing Over Diamonds in the Land of White Mountains - Svalbard April 2019 - Part 2

'Morning' Sky over Nordsysselbreen Glacier, Svalbard

Tuesday 23rdApril

Bear Watch this morning was 1-2am.  No sun but low mist hovering over the ice field.  The distant mountains are all white; no rock showing at all.  Their backdrop is a grey misty sky and they look stunning.  As the light changes, the contrast grows imperceptibly. It was bitterly cold.  I shivered for an hour whilst standing still. The glacier in the distance shimmered when viewed through the binoculars.  Strange; something to do with air density I suspect.

Bear Watch 'Night' Sky on Nordsysselbreen Glacier, Svalbard

I couldn’t get back to sleep properly; I was uncomfortable and had the string of the sleeping bag zip draped across my face no matter what I did with it.  We were told to get up at 7am which we duly did, only to be told that it was meant to be 8am.  The message didn’t make it to our tent of three.

Another day of skiing and dragging uphill.  It’s hard work and my hips and back are complaining, especially as I’m carrying the tent too today.  Eventually we get to around 450 metres elevation and are rewarded with spectacular views; the mountains are literally blanketed in snow.  The pattern of erosion means that some of them have ‘ribs’ arching down, one after the other in ordered rows.  A unique sight.

Ribbed Mountains of Svalbard

The snow was all in ‘sastrugi’ formations; wind swept shapes that resembled sea mammals and birds diving in and out of the snow sea.  Although, perhaps I’m just tired and seeing things!  On top of the glacier snow, bigger ice crystals have formed like the crystal gardens on the ponds before.  These huge crystals light up in the sunshine of a cloudless day and look like countless constellations in space.  Absolutely mesmerising.  I’ve noticed that when looking toward the sun, these crystals take on whole rainbow colours in a radial arc.  Skiing over Diamonds.

Sastrugi and White Mountains, Svalbard

We finally reach the highest point on the ice and start a gentle descent down the glacier towards Bakaninbreen.  Sweet relief; much easier going and the views were stunning.

Bear Watch was 11pm - 12 midnight for me.  I was pleased as I could relax for the rest of the night.  It was beautiful light in the mountains; peach coloured cumulus clouds acted light huge softbox lights to illuminate the valley in a ‘warm’ glow. Very cold though, and there were squalls of wind that ripped through you and slapped you in the face if unprepared. Occasionally there were spindrift ‘devils’ like mini whirlwinds that swirled and moved over the glacier like ghosts of polar explorers lost in the arctic.

Whilst I remember, twice now I’ve seen ice crystal clouds; rainbow-coloured iridescent wisps lit up by the sun.  They may be “polar stratospheric cloud’ or ‘nacreous’ cloud, wither way, it is the ice crystals in the polar stratosphere that create this phenomenon.  They are beautiful.

Back to the descent of the glacier; we eventually get down to where the Bakaninbreen glacier meets Paulabreen glacier and then onto the frozen fjord of Rindersbukta.  The very end of the descent was over bare, blobby ice. Snow-ploughing on 1.7m flip-flops on sloping ice whilst trying to control a heavy pulk was horrible I have to say.  There was no grip, and little hope of elegance.  I exceeded my fall record by some margin and ended up winding myself and hitting my head on the ice.  This strangely dispelled my sense of humour for quite a while.

Finally we got down to the frozen fjord where we could ski on an approximate level surface, albeit still on bare ice. A doddle now!  Looking back to the end of the glacier of which we descended, its broken face was spectacular.  Artic blue cliffs were streaked with black moraine, making it looked marbled.  I desperately wanted to explore it, but we had to move along.

End of Bakaninbreen and Paulabreen Glaciers

We skied a few more hours before camping on the side of the fjord.  We passed fresh polar bear tracks and even a deposit of polar bear poo: we all felt it necessary to photograph it for some reason.  The camp area has great visibility for Bear Watch, although the snow and ice only goes down 50 cm or so, which meant the toilet construction (and use) was challenging.

Bear Watch was 2-3am. Not as cold as previously, but still minus something silly.  I spotted a bear in the distance through the binos, but it was heading back to the sea. There were many reindeer snuffling in the bare moraine heaps looking for anything edible.  My hands have become really swollen (may be the ski pole use), my feet ache and I have several blisters but other than that am doing OK!

Thursday 25thApril

Another whole day skiing along the frozen fjord.  We were approached by two police officers on snowmobiles later in the day who said that an Ice Breaker ship had come up to the autumn harbour at Kapp Amsterdam. This meant we had to ski around the whole of the frozen wake to get across to the other side of the fjord. The ice got harder to ski over as it became glassy and ridges from old re-frozen snowmobile tracks.  The detour led us to gain land at the old mining depot.  We hauled the pulks up and had to walk and carry them across to the other side of the pier and regain the ice.  Everywhere was covered in coal and dirt dust.

Skiing by Kapp Amsterdam Quayside

The rest of the day was a long slog along the fjord over dirty snow and ice.  Parts were so smooth it was like oiled glass.  Other parts had become hollow and cracked and bent as we crossed them.  There were some melted patches too which got me moving briskly as my skis sank down a few inches into slush; I didn’t hang about so see how far down they would have gone.

Edge of Van Mijenfjorden on Moraine

The scenery was the same all day; big frozen fjord about 4 or 5 miles wide, flanked by mountains and endless in length.  There was no sun today.  We saw several seals lying on the ice and passed an abandoned seal hole.

My blisters are growing and multiplying gradually; exacerbated by skiing on ice.  It’s hard and unforgiving, unlike snow which cushions the pressure.

Bear Watch was 11pm - midnight.  Snow was falling and no there was no wind.  I was so hot I had to take a layer off; most unusual.  It is still freezing, but milder than previously.  Everything was white apart from some moraine rocks poking through, our tents and a few summer cabins dotted along the shore. Magical.  The best part of the watch, apart from seeing no bears, was having 40 reindeer around us in various little herds.  Some of them had some splendid antlers too, although only really visible through the binoculars.  Slept with no socks on; bliss.

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Skiing Over Diamonds in the Land of White Mountains - Svalbard April 2019 - Part 1

This journal is from my trip to Svalbard in the high arctic, to do a 10 day expedition, skiing from east and west, finishing at Longyearbyen.  Svalbard is over half way between Northern Norway and the North Pole, from which it is only 650 miles.

It was an inauspicious start to the trip when we had to move out of our guesthouse quickly due to the danger of avalanche.  Luckily, we were made welcome at a hotel down in the main part of Longyearbyen which had a great bar and restaurant.  I’m not sure starting an expedition with a hangover was such a great idea but then the ice was properly broken with team-mates!

Saturday 20thApril

The expedition really started when we loaded all our kit and selves onto a fleet of snowmobiles and set off on a 4 hour journey to our start point at Agardhbukta.

My driver was Vladimir, who loved speed and took both us and our trailer through air on two occasions. My grin was instant the second he shouted “Hang on!”.  It was the first time we had actually got out into the arctic wilderness, having been in the old mining town of Longyearbyen for a while.  The first sight of the broad white valley with patterned monochrome mountains each side was breathtaking.

The colours here are every shade of white, black and inky blue where the distant sea is reflected in the clouds.  Scudding along the mostly frozen river valley we’d occasionally see domes rising out of the ice.  These are blue blisters of freshwater ice that have cracked open on the top like an egg. There were the most delicate yet vibrant pale blue; like they were lit from beneath.  Enchanting.

The mountains here are sedimentary and so even in strata that water erosion has created a repetitive pattern on their flanks; like a photoshopped section repeated over and over. 

The time on snowmobiles was deeply fun but jerky and often uncomfortable.  It did however get us to the bay quickly so we could start our expedition in earnest. Agardhbukta is a wide bay where the dark grey sea lapped against the ice of the frozen river valley.  Little icebergs bobbed in the water whipped up the increasingly strong wind.


Two hours of skiing later we set up camp just up from the sea with Bear Watch arranged so that everyone does 1 hour every night each.  It is getting colder.  I’m on stove duty so I melt enough snow for 9 litres of water (6 x thermos, 3 x Nalgene)

Sunday 21stApril

My Bear Watch was 5 - 6am. What a difference in temperature and weather.  Goggles and face mask were essential.  The wind was gale force and the temperature -13°C, giving us a wind-chill of around -25°C. The sea had frozen over and more than 3 seconds exposure with bare hands rendered them useless and requiring 10 minutes active warming; shunting down blood from the shoulders.

Freezing Arctic Sea

We all got up at 8am, melt snow again and re-warm water for porridge and the day’s drinking water (2 litres each).  Tent is packed and everything stowed ready for setting off at 10am.

The gale force winds ensured spindrift was flying everywhere.  The going was difficult as the wind had blown off much of the snow lying on the ice, leaving it in drifts.  Crash course in skiing on ice ensued.  Some of it was not even Type 2 fun.  

Each day we ski for 8 hours; stopping each hour for 10 minutes to eat mixed nuts, biscuits and drink as much water as you can.  There is no real option for stopping at any other time unless you want to be left at the back desperately trying to catch up.  It is fairly relentless.

Negotiating Descents

After a few hours we turned a corner at Blokkøyra, another small bay with a massive moraine field flanking it.  The moraine, dumped from melting glaciers, left piles of rocks and dust everywhere. The fine black dust mixed with the snow and formed layered patterns in drifts like coloured sands in bottles. Pyramids of moraine littered the coast and the sea was all ice and floes.

Crossing Blokkøyra, Svalbard

After lunchtime the sky started to clear and we had snippets of sunshine which turned into a clear day. The scenery was exquisite and painfully beautiful.  I was desperate to stop and photograph everything but could not.  We take all afternoon to cross Blokkøyra and reach a bigger moraine field.  The snow consistency changed regularly and our skis would suddenly stick, preventing any sort of glide. At around 5:30pm it is nearing time to camp.  Kjell Erik, our main guide, skis ahead to check the edge of the moraine field where it meets the sea ice.  He scans with his binoculars and then gesticulated for us all to join him.  We do and there below us on the sea ice is a Polar Bear mother and cub.  We are all so excited.  It is amazing, beautiful and such a privilege.  I try to photograph them with my large camera and find the lens inoperable.  The idea of carrying this extra 4kg of camera equipment around for nothing is annoying to say the least.

After a few minutes they must have smelt us (we were upwind) and turned towards us and made their way up onto the moraine.  They got closer and then disappeared in dead ground out of view.  Suddenly they reappeared incredible close (60-70m away), at which point Kjell Erikstarts shouting and blows a whistle.  At this point they start coming towards us more quickly!  Paul has the flare gun and is instructed to fire it near them. Thankfully this works and they run back down the hill.  Up to that point we all had a second or so of acute alarm as it ran towards us.  Kjell Erik decides a change of route is in order so we back track for an hour or so and find another camp area.  Ronin, our other guide, is on Bear Watch immediately with binos and rifle.

Bear Watch in Polar Day at Inglefieldbukta

Monday 22ndApril

My hour of Bear Watch was 4-5am.  The sun had popped out from round the side of a mountain and the air was still: utterly transfixing.  Polar bears were spotted earlier in the night but had headed off.  Bear Watch equipment now comprised of a muppet carrying binoculars, whistle and a flare pistol with spare cartridges.

Setting off in the morning we meandered through a mass of moraine piles interspersed with frozen ‘ponds’. Some looked like liquid water, the ice was so smooth.  Many of them had secondary ice crystals growing on them about 2cm tall like crystal flowers planted in an ice garden.  Each facet of the crystals was huge and reflected whole colours, like piece of chandelier fallen on the ice.

Edge of the Moraine and Glaciers, Inglefieldbukta

We finally got to the main glacier field.  It was miles wide with a massive humped middle, where the ice volume is greatest. This is at Inglefieldbukta, where the Inglefieldbreen and Nordsysselbreen glaciers meet each other and the artic sea.  So began a long slog uphill onto the glaciers, zig-zagging up the steepest sections until we got to the brow where we could view the continuing miles of it stretching before us.  Dragging yourselves and a 40kg pulk uphill was starting to make itself known to my back and hips.  Blisters are easily overcome, but niggling joints less so. Trying to keep up water intake whilst avoiding too many wee stops is a learning process which I perfected only later in the trip. 

On the upside, we saw our first Svalbard Rock Ptarmigan (a sub-species which is larger than others and lives only on the archipelago), and plenty of arctic fox prints in the snow. We camp on the glacier and I change into a new set of base layers: ‘nice’ is not a big enough word for it.

One thing from today; when skiing over ice, bits of snow get crushed under the ski and it sounds exactly like glass cracking under strain.  Quite unnerving.

Nordsysselbreen Glacier View, Svalbard