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.

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