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

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