Posts Tagged ‘Svalbard’


I love hiking. I love disappearing into the wilderness and existing there, amongst it all, miles from anywhere. Pack on my back and out there in the elements. Through sun and rain, raging wind and serene tranquility. Nature is big, ever present, graceful, wild, and happy.

I love the arctic. There is nature at its most raw. Rocky, barren landscapes etched out by creaking glaciers, creeping slowly down mountains slopes over the millennia. In previous summers I hiked in arctic Canada, Iceland and Finland.

In 2012 I joined the High Places 10 day hike of Svalbard. Our group met at Longyearbyen on Svalbard, to be whisked away from civilization to the self erected base camp on Petunia Bukt. From there we did single and multiple day hikes across glaciers and ice sheets, through bogs, across glacial streams, up mountains, and to deserted Russian mining towns.

I have written a blog on the amazing trip which is summarized here:


Our trip is really over. We dismantled the base camp: took down all the tents and packed everything into the metal containers that were used for transporting on the boat. Our boat pick-up was originally planned for 16:00, but we were told that the boat would arrive between 14:00 and 15:00. We were ready very early and went to hang out in the warmth in the czech hut. It was very cold outside, and we were lovely and warm in the hut. We played cards to while away the time.

We returned to the beach where we were going to get picked up. And then the waiting started. Our eyes were peeled on the horizon, waiting to be whisked away out of the cold. The boat didn’t arrive. It was a bit choppy, and there was speculation that the boat couldn’t make it. Sam told stories of the boat arriving, only to stay 50 m off shore and phone saying that they couldn’t land. It has happened before.

The boat still didn’t arrive. We opened up the spare supplies box and rummaged around. We found a bag of nice muesli: different to the muesli we had had the last 9 days. A welcome change. We chomped through that. Then some biscuits were extracted from the box. And lots of hot chocolate.

It was very cold. I was wearing everything I had, and did some taekwondo moves to keep warm. Sam started a fire. It didn’t give off any heat, though. We put the metal storage boxes together to form a wind shield and Lisa pulled out her sleeping bag and crawled into it behind the metal boxes. I lay behind the shield on the rocks beside her.

Then some of the czech crowd dropped past on the way to their scientific experiment.

Waiting on the cold beach

Waiting on the cold beach

Then finally the boat arrived. We put on the super warm moon suits, and were whisked back to civilization.

Longyearbyen meant warm showers. It meant fresh clothes. It meant nice food. It meant warmth.

We had our debriefing meal in a lovely restaurant before Sam took us on a pub crawl. We walked from one pub to the next, walking through the daylight in the depths of the night between bars. Our night ended in the local disco ‘Huset’, that, until 01:00 is a high quality restaurant. Then it miraculously transforms into a small town disco. There, we danced the night away.

Huset after the transformation.

Huset after the transformation.

Somewhat the worse for wear, we returned to our lodge at 03:00. The alarm went at 05:00 to pack, have breakfast and head off to the airport. Goodbye Svalbard. Goodbye Norway. One of the greatest holidays I have ever had was coming to an end.

My bike, my luggage and myself all arrived at Amsterdam Schiphol airport in one piece. Back from the trip of a life time.

Safe and sound back in the Netherlands

Safe and sound back in the Netherlands

Svalbard Day 9. 03.08.2012

Posted: August 23, 2012 in Hiking
Tags: , , ,

If felt like the trip was coming to an end. Our planned 12 hour night turned into a 14 hour night. It had drizzled all night, and the usual low hanging clouds greeted anyone who cared to glance out of the tent. Breakfast was slow. We wanted to climb to the top of the 1000m high mountain directly behind the camp for a wonderful 360 degree view over ice sheets, glaciers and fjords. We knew that the view at 1000m would be of damp, thick, white cloud.

We finally left and zig-zagged up an old mining path until, in no time, we hit the height of the clouds. Time for the photos. They would not get any better than this.

Petunia Bukt

Petunia Bukt

The glacier opposite the campsite

The glacier opposite the campsite

The leftovers of the mining past

The leftovers of the mining past

We skirted along the side of the mountain for a way trying to get different views of some kind, and ended up directly above the czech station. It was a fun scree slope dash down to the warmth of their hut. We invited them to our bonfire that evening: our last on Petunia Bukt.

The bonfire gave us a task: something to prepare for. We spent the evening sawing logs that had been washed up from Siberia, and preparing the bonfire. It got colder and colder, and there was no sign of the czechs. In the end, I went to bed, only to hear them arrive minutes later – 4 of them. I rose again for an hour or so, and we all huddled around the fire. It was freezing cold, and even the becherovka could not warm me up. Before long, I decided it was really 10 pm for me, and I went to bed.

Bear watch several hours later was a COLD affair. My last bear watch on Svalbard.

While in the clouds, I took photos of everyone. The High Places Svalbard 2012 group. We were now a real team, bonded from our experiences over the last week.

Sam was our guide. A lovely outdoor guy, who led us safely and enjoyably through the week. A real Mr fix-anything with some wire and his amazing multifunction pliers.

Sam

Sam

Steve, a real Aussie from Melbourne. An endless source of energy. ‘It’s all good!’

Steve

Steve

Gordon. The scot with the lovely accent. A lot of hiking stories, and someone to share my mathematical formulations of sun movement, and the sun dial.

Gordon

Gordon

Ben. Another Aussie, living in London. Very philosophical.

Ben

Ben

Lisa. A lawyer from London. Also a runner with lots of marathon training strategies.

Lisa

Lisa

And moi.

Moi

Moi


Our three day hike up a glacier and onto an ice sheet started and ended with a walk of about 4 hours across our now very familiar bay, to our ‘advanced base camp’ at the foot of a glacier at opposite side of the Petunia Bukt.

Familiar terrain on Petunia Bukt

Familiar terrain on Petunia Bukt

The weather was threatening to improve, with the sun poking through from time to time.

Petunia Bukt in the sun

Petunia Bukt in the sun

Our camp at the base of a glacier, on a flat part of the moraine, was quite unspectacular until my bear watch at 3 am. Lisa woke me to an amazing, clear, sunny blue sky. It was breathtaking.

Advanced base camp in the sun

Advanced base camp in the sun

Shadows of the two bear watchers

Shadows of the two bear watchers

Advanced base camp in the sun

Advanced base camp in the sun

Our plan was to walk up the glacier, on to the ice sheet, and to a nunataak – a mountain in the middle of the ice sheet. From there we would have a 360 degree view over the ice. And, today was a day where this may be possible. Our first day with no low hanging cloud. Some clouds had formed by breakfast, but, the weather was ideal. I was chafing at the bit to start.

We started with a walk across the sludgy, muddy moraine. We saw our first serious quick sand as well as our first polar bear print.

Polar bear print

Polar bear print

Then up on to the glacier. The ice was hard and crunchy. Under the white surface was a turquoise blue. Little streams ran down the glacier along their melted pathways. From time to time they dropped down a hole to continue their flow in the depths below under the glacier. We stopped on the glacier to fill up with water – delicious, cold, clear water.

On the glacier

On the glacier

The view down the glacier

The view down the glacier

Icy drink on the glacier

Icy drink on the glacier

Me on the glacier

Me on the glacier

The ice gave way to snow and slushy snow which covered the entire ice sheet. Traversing it was tiring work. Each step sank through the crispy snow crust to squelch into blue, icy cold water. Each step was an adventure. Occasionally I didn’t fall through the icy crust. Occasionally I sank to my shins in the icy water, and had to extract my foot for the next step with a sucking sound. We made our way up, squelch, squelch, towards the crest of a ridge. The ridge always looked 100m away. And, like on our other glacier walk, the ridge remained just out of reach.

Paltry sounding distances become major expeditions in this terrain. The nunataak we wanted to scale was 7 or 8 km from the top of the glacier. We didn’t even make it to the top of the ridge before we stopped for lunch.

The ridge at infinity

The ridge at infinity

Lunch

Lunch

Then our Nunataak came into view.

Nunataak in sight

Nunataak in sight

The nunataak remained desperately close. And the going got tougher. With every step we sank to our ankles, and then to our shins in the icy slush. Each step became a squelchy adventure. Would the next step see us sink to our knees?

Nunataak in sight and the going got tougher

Nunataak in sight and the going got tougher

The group dynamics became interesting. Climbing a nunataak was one of my goals of the whole Svalbard trip. The same was true for Steve. Normally he was quiet, agreeing with any group decision in his happy go lucky, ‘its all good’ style. This time he wanted to continue. The going was tough, but the nunataak was just there and we wanted to wade through the last half a kilometre of slush to get there. Gordon was tired, but, I think still keen. Lisa was tired and saw another long day becoming a reality – too long for her liking. Ben was ‘philosophical’, by which he meant that he was easy either way: continue or return. As the slush got deeper, I felt my spirits sink. I felt the group decision flipping, so close to the nunataak. I sank to my knees, extracted my now drenched and numb foot out of the snow to make the next step. And then another. The philosophical Ben was wavering, and Gordon was also not so set on the nunataak. Sam called a stop. We distributed some chocolate, and Sam went to get some water (by digging through the snow to the liquid slush below).

Collecting water at the foot of the nunataak

Collecting water at the foot of the nunataak

We would return. 😦

The views down the glacier were spectacular. The clouds made a beautiful light spectacle on the distant mountains. It was amazing scenery and lovely weather, and I was disappointed.

View down the glacier

View down the glacier

We stopped for a break on the ice sheet and stood still for a moment. There was not a sound. The snow enveloped us in silence. Just above us passed a pure white bird. Whiter than white. It felt like a messenger from the Lord of the Rings. It gracefully passed just above our heads as we stood in awe. So pure. So silent. So beautiful. A very rare sight, said Sam. We were honoured to see it, and see it so close.

Down and down we went. It remained slushy, but, our way back was fast.

The way down

The way down

We arrived back at our advanced base camp at a reasonable time. Our defined 10 pm start of the night Svalbard time did not feel that late.

The next day was a return to the main base camp across the now totally familiar Petunia Bukt. A three hour sleep, then dinner, ending with an evening in the czech research station, listening to lectures on polar research, and chatting with the researcher while drinking becherovka – a czech schnapps. It was a late night, returning to the base camp in the eternal sun.


After a long day comes a day of rest. We slept long and deep. When Sam woke us up, he told us it was much later than ‘8’ (Svalbard time). Today was a day of hanging around the camp. Chatting about life, the universe and everything. We were quickly becoming a group. We have been through some adventures. The group dynamics was defined. And the bonding was taking place. That is the beauty of being on this windswept island in the high arctic. Life is lived in the now. Enjoying now, and contemplating life from a distance – a distance from the hectic reality we all have – but much closer to what life perhaps really is.

We had a lunch of reindeer stew. It was our only meal other than breakfast. We voted that it was 10 pm not too long after lunch.

And then the sun came out. For the first time of our stay on Svalbard. Someone secretly glanced at their watch. In the real world it was midnight. The midnight sun. And it was beautiful.

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Crampons, harness, ice axe. Ice, snow, water, slush, mud, sinking sands, mossy bog, bouldery slushy bog, moraine, glacial river delta. Amazing glacial vista. Ice wasteland panorama. Desperate ice toilet rush by Steve. Lunch on the ice. Home stretch on the road.

Gale. Collapsed tents destroyed by the wind. Two people holding the tent down. Thermarest whipped away like a leaf. Consolidation. Damaged main tent deconstruction. Damaged Lisa tent deconstruction. Massive boulder search to pin down two remaining tents. Tent support strings pulled tight. Zips completely fastened. Dinner in our tent. Solitary and windy bear watch. What a day!

Its amazing what enough sleep can do. Our 12 hour night (10 hours sleep and 2 hours bear watch) was wonderful. I am now getting used to the bear watch – waking up in the middle of the night for two hours of self contemplation with a spectacular view. The first night I lay awake for hours expecting to be called to the bear watch any minute. As I had hidden my watch, which, anyway, was not on Svalbard trek time, I could not check the time. Now I sleep like a baby until Lisa calls me out of my slumber.

Its amazing what a leisurely breakfast can do. Refreshed and nourished, we are all ready to walk on our first glacier.

The walk down the fjord, across the flatlands, is becoming more familiar. Along the road until it fizzles out, and then along the grassy plains. Sometimes, in walking, the mind wanders. I am constantly fascinated with the sun, and how it never sets. I contemplate its trajectory across the sky. The nerdy, mathematical part of me ponders how to calculate a formula for its path. Over the whole Svalbard holiday, I will spend hours of bear watch time trying to calculate a formula for its path. The sun is always above the horizon and reaches its highest point in the south. In the north it is slightly lower, parting less light and warmth on the arctic landscape. The beautiful arctic compass flower which we pass every day on the plains brings my thoughts back to the sun and its arctic behaviour every time. It is a tuft of green with purple flowers. This beautiful flower indicates south like a compass. The density of flowers is higher on the southern side of the tuft. Amazing. Beautiful.

Arctic compass

The beautiful arctic compass. A tuft of green, and purple flowers. They are more dense on the southern side of the tuft. Fascinating. The arctic.

Also, on our plains treks, we pass an arctic experiment. The scientists from the czech station have set up little greenhouses, waist high and a few metres long. They are looking at the effect of an increase in temperature on the vegetation. The experiment has been going on now for several years, and will continue for several more. Global warming is going to change this landscape forever. 😦

Then we leave the plains and make a short, steep grunt up a moraine to the base of a glacier.

The top of the moraine.

The top of the moraine.

At the bottom of the glacier.

At the bottom of the glacier.

And then lunch.

Lunch on the glacier

Lunch on the glacier

On the glacier we are tethered together. We are now masters at tying a variety of knots fastening our harnesses, and connecting ourselves to the rope. This rope is our lifeline if we fall into a crevice. Once fastened, we must keep the line taught. This means we all walk 8 metres from the person in front, and 8 metres from the person behind. It also means that everyone needs to walk at the same speed. This not easy. A sludgy patch is harder to walk on than a hard, icy patch (as we are wearing crampons). Jumping over a minor steam on the glacier needs preparing the footing before a leap. Sometimes the rope was a concertina.

Tethered together on the glacier

Tethered together on the glacier

Rising above the glacier, we walked on the sludgy snow up and up towards a pass. Distances are deceptive here. What looks like 100 metres takes an hour to walk. The crest is always just 100 metres away. And stays that way even after walking a kilometre.

Things were getting desperate for Steve. The crest (and thus the rest) remained 100 metres away. When we finally reached the crest, Steve took the toilet paper and darted off for a very windy and icy toilet break.

A windy and icy toilet break

A windy and icy toilet break

The view over the ridge was awesome! A panorama of ice and snow lay below us. Little lakes of ice broke up the white. The ice was surrounded by brown mountains rising up into the clouds. It was truly breathtaking.

The panorama of ice and snow

The panorama of ice and snow

As we got lower the snow became sludgier, and it was like walking in a slush puppy, every step sinking to the ankles, through the layer of snow into icy water. We continued on until we found a patch of firmer ground.

Slightly sludge free

Slightly sludge free

It had been an amazing hike. Everyone spirits were buoyed by the beauty of the rugged icy nature. And then, yet again, we were reminded of the bane of the glacier. The moraine. And this glacier’s moraine was huge, rocky, sludgy with patches of quick sand. The wind was picking up, and it started to rain. And the moraine went on and on and on. It was a scrambly, tiring affair.

The moraine from hell

The moraine from hell

We climbed the last ridge of the moraine, and were nearly blown off our feet. Our trudge across the plains was in strong winds and fine misty rain. We didn’t have our stream crossing footwear, and so were polevaulting across the little streams to try to keep our feet dry. And then we discovered a stretch of mossy bog in which we sank up to our shins in water. Bye bye dry feet.

We finally made it to the road. I was walking with Lisa, and the others scooted away much faster than we could walk. I think Steve was up for another toilet break. But, then I had to stop for the clouds. They were beautiful. And the mountains opposite on the other side of the fjord were bathed in an amazing light.

Bathed in a beautiful light

Bathed in a beautiful light

Lisa and I arrived back at the camp a few minutes after the others. The wind was brutal. There was frantic activity at the campsite. The main tent was being destroyed by the wind. It had caved in. I was immediately called to action. Ben and I both held the tent down, grasping on to the main pole. I was on the outside of the tent and Ben on the inside in order to prevent the pole from snapping and the tent from being blown away. Not a second to catch our breath.

Tent destruction

Tent destruction

Sam was emptying the tent in order to then bring it down, so it couldn’t be further damaged by the wind. He left the tent with his thermarest, and, in a sudden extra gust of wind, it was pulled from his hands. Within a blink of an eye it was metres in the air, and being tossed in the wind like a leaf, being blown down the fjord at amazing speed. Sam sprinted down the fjord like an olympic sprinter in heavy hiking boots, and within seconds he was hundreds of metres away. Several times he almost snatched the thermarest from the air, but, each time, the thermarest jumped away. Then, it rose and rose and rose. Perhaps 50 metres high, and much further down the fjord. The thermarest was lost.

The main tent was dismantled. Lisa’s tent, whose main pole had snapped, was dismantled. The remaining two tents were consolidated. We all had to scour the area for huge boulders. We could feel the wind. We knew what boulders we needed. Big ones. And we needed them fast.

Main tent protected from further damage

Main tent protected from further damage

Remaining tents consolidated

Remaining tents consolidated

Half an hour later the tents were consolidated, and we could rest. No fancy dinner tonight. We all had Drytech dinners in our tent, listening to the gail outside.

Bear watch was a lonely bleak affair. Slowly the wind died down. By the morning it had changed direction. But, it was nothing to what it was. Today we have experienced the ferocity of the arctic weather. This is also why I wanted to come here. Experience the arctic. I am certainly doing that!


Today was our rest day. I woke tired after our 10 hour night (with 8 hours sleep, 2 hours bear watch). It turned out I was not the only one. We rose with a different vibe. We were not going to hike for hours and hours through all different terrain. We didn’t need to leave early.  We had a slow breakfast, and got ready for a relaxing stroll to the deserted mining town of Pyramiden, about 4km south of our camp.

Our walk would take us past the czech research station with a large female contingent, which buoyed spirits of some party members. It was Lisa’s birthday, and there was talk of being invited for drinks in the evening. Already, after being away for just 2 days, some sort of civilization and socializing was attractive. It must be said that, after a lack of washing that came with being in the wild, perhaps our body odour was not as attractive as the thought of a bit of socializing.

A short stroll across some pebbly beaches and some minor ridges brought us to Pyramiden. It was deserted in 2001, and felt like a ghost town that one might pass through after a nuclear holocaust, or a disaster like in the Day of the Triffids. Buildings were left to crumble. Heavy mining machines and constructions that were part of the harbour were rusting and out of use.

We ran into a lost solitary soul in the middle of the town. He was a young, blond russian, who was very busy – so he told us. There was a lot of work to do. You can imagine. A town that used to house 1000s and now with only 8 people. We asked him what was the lot of work to do. What was its purpose? It was just a lot of work. So much work with so few people.

There was a ‘camping ground’ with a working toilet (!). It needed to be put to use. This was where the 8 inhabitants lived, I think. There were other apartment buildings that were rather spooky, being owned now by birds. Each window sill was home to one or two nests. There was a wild and unkept lawn leading up to a swimming pool and sport centre. The signs were old and wasting away. All the script was in cyrillic, giving the whole village an even more bizarre touch. This deserted town really was the end of the earth, after civilization had collapsed.

Our evening with the czechs didn’t eventuate. That would wait until another night. We voted on having a 12 hour night that night to collect our energy for our glacier adventure the following day. We all needed the sleep.

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