The view from inside the ice cave. On the ceiling, the ice looks polished reflecting the low light. Ski tracks and abandoned skis are in the entrance.
Arctic Expedition, Journey to Svalbard

Crossing Svalbard

I’m a fan of keeping a journal, this blog is a more legible version of what I wrote while on Svalbard.

Pre-expedition Longyearbyen

Longyearbyen! This was our base at the start and finish of the expedition, staying at the lovely Gjesthuset 102. Its located in Nybyen “new town” at the far end of the valley close to the glacier. We used the basement of a nearby building to pack our pulkas, which would carry everything we needed to survive for ten days in the arctic wilderness.

I was lucky to have been to Hardangervidda in February, but some of the team hadn’t skied since 2019 and we all needed to refresh some skills. So after a night in the hostel and and excellent breakfast our guide lead us up onto the glacier for an overnight camp in the moraine. It was a good opportunity to test our kit with enough time for tweaks before we set off on the expedition. It was so good to be back in a tent in the cold!

Day 1 Longyearbyen to Agardhdalen

Definitely a few butterflies when I woke up: 2 years of just waiting was over, today was departure day! First up, another excellent hostel breakfast to set us up for the day, a last pulk faff and a short taxi to the snowmobile centre. Here we were kitted up for the three hour ride to the east coast, it would be cold so lots of layers were needed which meant we were a bit toasty waiting inside. Apart from missing quite a bit of the views due to foggy glasses, the ride was ace. We stopped a couple of times to stretch our legs and finally we arrived at Agardhdalen, our starting point.

This was a short day skiing, moving away from the coast and into the moraine under the glacier we were to climb the following day. After a briefing about the protection in place for polar bears (the main one being: we don’t go anywhere near where the bears might be) we had our first expedition night. The adventure had really begun.

Day 2 Agardhdalen to Passbreen

The day of up!  Our morning tent-faff needs some work as we were finally ready to set off by 9:20am.  But ready we were and from our camp in the moraine, this was a day of skiing up almost to the top of the glacier.  For the whole expedition, we were in a routine of either 50/10 or 45/15 sections: ski for 45 or 50 minutes, rest for 15 or 10.  During our breaks, we introduced ourselves to the rest of the group and began to absorb the awesome scenery.

Camp was just below the summit of the glacier, the wind was building and we were less exposed on this side.  So once the tents were pitched, we build snow walls.  Two clearing the soft powdery snow, our guide expertly cutting blocks and the rest of the team building the walls.  It was about -25C, plus wind chill outside, -12C in the tent but we were cozy warm in our sleeping bags, hugging our Nalgene bottles full of hot water.

Day 3 Passbreen to Edvardbreen

And the day of down! The snow walls had done their job but it was still a bit tricky talking the tents down in the wind. After skiing up the last 40 metres to the top of the glacier, it was downhill for the rest of the day. Descending took a combination of easy skiing through powdery snow, inelegant snow-ploughing with the pulk at my side like a badly behaved shetland pony and, most excitingly, taking our skis off and tobogganing down on our pulks.

We stopped on Edvardbreen, leaving our pulks to go explore the glacier meltwater channel. More inelegance from me negotiating the channel and we came to the utterly beautiful ice walls. Photos don’t do the colours justice, every shade of blue from inky dark to powder blue.

Day 4 Edvardbreen to Lundströmdalen

It’s very hard to have just one treasured moment from this expedition, but day 4’s discovery was a strong contender.  Shortly after we broke camp, our guide was looking out for an ice arch that had been further along the meltwater channel we visited the day before.  It had gone but he made an even better discovery: a huge, pristine ice cave.  I love nature at its most dramatic, but I can’t remember the last time I’ve had that sharp-intake-of-breath moment at the sight of something.  It was breathtakingly beautiful.    We spent a good while in the cave, Our guide explaining how they are formed and why the colours are so varied.

We lingered as long as we could, but we needed to keep moving.  We crossed a lake and then the snow covered multitude of streams and rivers that flowed into the Kjellstromdalen.  Much further down the valley is the disused mine Sveagruva, now being cleaned and dismantled.  It was then we came across the first signs of people, a cabin in the distance and then, more abruptly, huge tracks along a track marked out by canes.  Initially a little disappointed that our complete isolation, that was expected to last for at least another day, was over it was fascinating when a lone tracked vehicle came by after we set up camp.  The disruption to our peace was minimal and couldn’t reduce the joy of where we were.

The view from inside the ice cave. On the ceiling, the ice looks polished reflecting the low light. Ski tracks and abandoned skis are in the entrance.
Snow cave!

Day 5 Lundströmdalen to Reindalen

Day 5? How could we be almost halfway through? This was a more steady day, working our way up the Lundströmdalen and into the expansive Reindalen.  There was more wildlife to be seen here, our guide pointing out where Arctic Fox had scent marked, and we sow the fox tracks crossing our path throughout the day.  Ptarmigan strutting on the bare soil, so hard to see let alone photograph, and as we were approaching Reindalen (reindeer valley) more and more reindeer.  We stopped for lunch in the sun and as we skied away we could just see the antennae of a weather station: I half expected to see a tauntaun returning to the rebel base (Star Wars reference, SorryNotSorry)

This was a great day for some thinking time.  The day is driven by routine: once we break camp the day is split into hourly legs of skiing and a break for kit faff, a drink and a snack.  These are usually 50/10 minutes or 45/15 depending on the terrain, weather, mood or distance we need to cover.  While skiing we are usually in a line so for 50 minutes I was alone with my thoughts, and what an awesome place to do some proper thinking!

Day 6 Reindalen

We were woken to the sound of two male Ptarmigan facing each other off right outside our tents.  This was a great way to start what was to be our longest distance skied of the whole expedition and was gently downhill all the way.  Reindalen is huge.  After the narrow valley and glacier passes the view ahead of us was wide and clear, and we would spend the whole day here.  We stopped early on our second leg to visit a Pingo.  Pingos are found in valleys where the permafrost extends up the mountain sides, and there are believed to be around 10,000 of them in total.  They are, for want of a better description, soil ‘volcanoes’ caused by the water table being higher up the mountainside, working its way through cracks in the permafrost and then up through the valley floor.  This one was no longer forming and, when we left our pulks and skis to climb the 30m to the top, it really did look like the caldera of a volcano.

The valley widened and the further down we went, the more and more reindeer we saw.  We also saw more people in the distance, another team skiing in the opposite direction, a couple of dogsled teams and a few snowmobiles.  Fun fact for the engineers – we also saw the largest bulldozer in Norway, making its slow progress all the way to the mine at Sveagruva.

Day 7 Reindalen to Tufsdalen

After a really good nights sleep we skied the last stretch of Reindalen for us, as we turned north the valley continues almost as far again to the fjord.  We stopped just out of sight of the Red Cross hut, built as a refuge for miners, on a rise scraped clear of snow and basked in the sun.  We were so lucky with the weather. 

After three days of easy skiing, we had a dash of excitement getting down the steep bank to the frozen river we needed to cross.  The easiest way to deal with the pulks was to unclip them from our harnesses, make sure everything is firmly strapped down and letting them find their own way down.  It became an impromptu game of pulk curling, the aim being to get ours as close to our guide’s pulk as we could.  Smug alert: mine made a bee-line for his and neatly tapped it as it came to a stop.  My skills at pulk-curling was not matched by my decent of the river bank on skis: you can’t have it all.

It was then all about the up again, in powdery snow.  The valley was narrow between steep-sided mountains, stopping just before the col where we dug platforms for the tents in the sunshine.

Day 8 Tufsdalen to Colesdalen

The days started with a very hot and sweaty climb up to the col.  The mountain slopes closed further and further in, with high marks from snowmobile in the snow and the sun disappearing behind the mountains.  The decent followed the path of a frozen stream, as we wound our way down I decide to take off my skis and walk: the chances of the combination of a boulder strewn drop to the stream bed and my inexpert pulk handling resulting in a mess was too high.

As the sun crept behind a mountain again, we packed up from lunch and set off.  The goal was to find a disused fox trap, it was long abandoned possibly for over a century, and having read A Woman in the Polar Night it fascinated me to see it.  But it was covered in snow and hidden from us, so we stopped for a break surrounded by reindeer.  The plan was to have set camp here, it was certainly a great spot, but the snow was too thin so we pressed on. 

Further on the snow was still thin, so we had to cross the frozen river.  This was wider than anything we had crossed before, and with no snow covering it was icy and slippery.  Water and ski skins are a bad combination, so we walked.  Little cracking noises raised the heart rates a tad but scooting along on my pulk, propelling myself with my ski poles was ace.  Camp was found, and with the confidence of a team who have their camp craft well organised, we lounged in the evening sun.

Day 9 Colesdalen to Fardalen

Our last full day on the snow and there were more clouds in the sky.  It was still, as declared by our guide every day so far “a beautiful day!” and though our mood was tinged with sadness that this would soon be over, it really was another beautiful day and after a record speed morning tent faff, we set off.  We crossed the river again, and for the first time we saw an arctic fox.  Our guide spotted fresh tracks and in the very far distance a tiny black dot was moving against the snow.  But it WAS a fox. 

We were near Colesbukta and the abandoned mine, too far for us to visit but we did stop at what would have been an outpost of the mine.  The huts were flattened to the ground, with stove pipes sticking up about the remains.  What was still standing was the toilet hut, with pellet gun holes in the panels from target practice: hopefully not when someone was using the facilities!  

We followed a tributary up the valley, eventually climbing up the bank when gully narrowed and the cornice on the far back was a little too much of a threat.  It was Saturday so there were many more people about on snowmobiles, we were getting very close to Longyearbyen.  We finished early and camped further up the river bed, drinking tea and eating Bixit biscuits sat on the bedding bags.  We even found time for a game of Top Wainwright before settling down to our last night in our little red home.

Day 10 Fardalen to Longyearbyen

I woke before the alarm and lay a while, snug in the sleeping bag with ice crystals from the tent inner lightly falling on my face.  I wanted to stretch out this moment as long as possible, our last day.  But the alarm went and I started the first task of the morning routine: lighting the stove.

The route started with a very short steep pull out of the river bed which set the tone for the day: short and tough.  We steadily climbed up and up, the aim to keep moving and keep the momentum.  If you stop, the pulka seems to gain 20 kg in weight and it’s hard to get started again.  At the foot of the ‘big climb’ we stopped for a break.  An abandoned snowmobile hinted at what was to come and a little further on we took our skis off to walk the rest of the climb.  To add to the gnarlyness, the wind picked up blowing spindrift in our faces, Svalbard wasn’t going to let us go lightly.  But actually, I quite enjoyed the climb.  I felt strong and capable and just a little bit badass.  We regrouped at the top and then it was all about the down, sometimes skiing sometimes walking we wound our way down the glacier.  Longyearbyen came into view and then suddenly we were back in civilisation.  Helen, the epedition leader greeted us at the lock-up and we all shared hugs, and may be a tear of joy or two.

I’d done it.  Three and a half years after deciding on a cold adventure and two years of just waiting I had finally crossed Svalbard.

Interested in trying your own adventure in cold places? I thoroughly recommend contacting the expedition provider I used:

Journey to Svalbard

Third time lucky?

The 2022 Svalbard crossing expedition is on.  The sabbatical is booked.  I’ve blown the dust of the kit checklist and done several happy-dances round the house.  After two cancellations, I’m remaining cautiously optimistic and I do need to have a defined Plan B if it cancels again: mostly around what I do with the sabbatical.  But that planning is for later.  My attention is now on being ready for April 2022.

In July 2019 I ran/walked the Thunder Run, a 24 hour relay race around a 10km trail in Catton Park in Derbyshire, UK.  I completed 4 laps for my team and felt pretty good about it, and by April 2020 I was ready for the Svalbard Crossing.  Fast forward to now and I can walk 55km in 12 hours so I am much fitter this time round with 9 months to go.  That being said, I am the queen of self-doubt and I am definitely not in as good a place mentally as I was in July 2019. This is hardly surprising but I know that over and above physical training, I need to focus on training my mindset. This is supposed to be fun, after all!

So what does this mean for the Cheshire Challenge?  Next weekend I will clock round my target of 30% complete this year, 50% feels way off but maybe 42%?  I’m going to press pause on the challenge for a few months over winter, the Cheshire plains will turn into a clarty horrible mud-fest and I desperately want some winter mountain time.  So 42% by November?  That feels like a good number.


Cheshire Challenge, Journey to Svalbard


I was very excited to be given the chance to talk at YesStories and am even more excited that the talk has been published!

YesStories online!

YesStories is a series of talk on adventure and saying yes more given by all sorts of amazing people and I feel very proud to be in such great company! My talk was all about finding, losing and adjusting adventure: the journey I took to nearly get to Svalbard and the Cheshire Challenge, my way of dealing with having to wait another year.

You can view the talk HERE on YouTube!

How I..., Journey to Svalbard, Training and Qualifications

Journal: Polar Training, February 2020

It’s a small world, or more likely the Tough Girl Tribe is big! Waiting at Oslo airport for transfer to Kvitåvatn, I caught the eye of another woman and we clocked we were waiting for the same bus. Turns out we are also fellow tribees and spent a lovely hour chatting over coffee. All troops gathered the bus set off and, after a brief stop to collect Helen plus all our kit for the week, we wound our way up to our base at Kvitåvatn Fjellstoge for the week. Kit unpacked, stories were swapped over dinner and we settled into our dorms.

Very excited to have arrived!

A hearty breakfast started the day well and we gathered for a briefing over tea. The basics covered, we headed over to collect skis and boots for our first lesson. We are all at different levels and I think I was the one with the least experience in snow, which in some ways had its advantage as I had no preconceptions. The morning was spent on the tracks around the lodge and weaving through the lovely wooden huts, ending with downhill and surprisingly few falls. Lunch and coffee set us up for an afternoon heading away from the lodge and across the frozen lake. My promising start faltered as I struggled to control my skis; a combination of poor skill and realising my feet didn’t fit the boots well. My feet moved far too much inside the thick, polar boot resulting in my skis not always following what my feet attempted to make them do, resulting in a few hissy fits. A post-lesson chat and a plan B for boots was formed and I took some time with Helen to review my kit for Svalbard.

Day two started with another big breakfast and making up a plate for lunch. I swapped boots from the big Baffin ones to an old but more adjustable, smaller pair of Alfa boots and we set off to explore Skipsfjell, a neat 1,100 metre peak overlooking the ski centre. We tried different uphill techniques, traversing the deep snow to the summit then finding our own routes down through the deep snow. I felt much more in control and hugely enjoyed the glorious sun and sparkling snow; fuelled by a celebratory Tunnocks my confidence grew. The afternoon brought the next new skill, meeting the pulks which added a whole extra dimension which resulted in lots of new ways to fall over. Back at the lodge, it was kit sorting time. First up was getting to grips with the stove, an MSR expedition, taking it in turns to pressurise the fuel and light the burner and learning, importantly, how not to set the tent on fire. Next up was pulk packing. Like all good systems, there is both a science and an art to packing a pulk, ensuring quick access to things like snacks, water and warm gear, and dividing shared kit so weight is distributed fairly but also so if you get separated, you have tools to keep you warm. Packed and ready, we had another good dinner in the lodge and attention was turned to the worsening weather forecast.

As anticipated, high winds resulted in a change of plan. Hardandgervidda is a mountain plateau with little shelter, battling the wind to pitch tents for the first time would not have been the best introduction; the bus was cancelled and we had another cup of tea. Instead, we stayed closer to the lodge and more sheltered peaks. We climbed steadily up the cut tracks, weaving through the trees and a slightly nerve-wracking traverse of the pistes with laden pulks. We stopped early to get camp set up in daylight, finding a spot tucked behind a wood close to Longetjønn, a lake at about 1000m altitude. We dug out a base, pitched the tent and stated the stove to melt snow. Being under the trees, the snow was full of needles and lichen giving the water a very foresty taste. Although I’m sure fancy cafes would have paid a fortune for it, with the cunning application of a hairband and an emptied tea bag, a filter was fashioned and the water was no longer full of tree.

The wind was high during the night but it was a comforting sound, snug in my sleeping bag. After the best night’s sleep in a long time, the alarm went off and the process of melting water began. It took 2 ½ hours from alarm to ready to go: a lot of room for improvement in our camp craft. With the weather clearing we set off for the bus following the freshly cut tracks, my downhill had not improved over night resulting in a walk down the final stretch to the ski centre. A hot bus ride followed by a cable car found us at the foot of a winding track up to the plateau. The track was rutted from snow mobiles so rather than slog up on skis we packed them onto the pulks and walked. As the track opened up we put our skis back on and with the beautiful ridge of Gaustatoppen across the valley we skied on uncut tracks searching for a camp for the night. The perfect spot was found and, with tents pitched we set about building snow walls against the wind to protect our tents. Stoves burning to melt snow, the temperature dropped and the sky turned pink behind Gaustatoppen providing a breath-taking view while eating dinner. I was getting slicker at organising myself in the tent, the faff factor reducing. Socks drying and celebratory Tunnocks consumed another good night’s sleep was had.

Morning brought a cloudless sunrise behind Gaustatoppen and a reduction in the morning faff by 30 minutes. Breakfast consumed with the addition of left over dark chocolate from yesterday’s rations, we slathered on the factor 50 in anticipation of a glorious day. We weren’t disappointed. We followed a marked trail under blue skies stopping every hour for snacks and water. Our target was a hytt (cabin) some 7km away, the furthest I’d skied in one go. The track wound through the hills, a few good pulls uphill to get the heart racing, and a few downhill with the inevitable fall for me. Arriving at Helberghytt, named after one of the Heroes of Telemark, we stopped for lunch. Sitting on our pulks eating cereal bars and trail mix basking in the sun it was possibly one of the most glorious places I had ever been and a truly perfect moment. Rested, we snuck into the cabin to have a nose; the stove was warm and the debris of evening drinks and a hearty breakfast were on the table. As we left the sound of snowmobiles disturbed the silence two obviously military blokes turned up: clearly relieved to hear that we weren’t planning on staying they waved us off as we set off for the afternoon. We took turns to lead the next leg, cutting tracks through the snow. This time our route took us across a lake where we took some time to practice climbing up and down the shoreline through deep snow with the sun warm on our faces. Camp was chosen in the lee of a small hill, this time we swapped tent buddies and I was one of three in a tent which meant a quick rework of the logistics for getting set up and the stove lit. This was our last night of camp so we set to digging a bench and fire pit, once done we made our dinners and settled around the crackling fire as the sun set behind mountains. We shared popcorn, toasted marshmallows and swapped stories, the highlight being Helen’s talk, with actions, on polar bears.

Overnight, the weather changed. We broke camp as a joint effort in heavy cloud and a rising wind, layering up before we set off for the last time. The snow made visibility poor so Helen lead the trickier navigation back to the track down to the cable car station. For the first time the weather was harsh enough to try my goggles, bought for Scottish winters but never used, the cheery orange contrasting the flat whiteness. We were all tiring and the contrast from yesterday’s sun set a grittier mood to the day, though the promise of waffles and coffee at the café set a determined pace. We picked up the track, which was still heavily rutted from snowmobiles. Multiple failed attempts to descend and I gave up, resorting to walking. My mood at this point sunk very low, I was worried I was not capable of this, if I can’t get down this without spending most of the time on my bum how could I possibly cross Svalbard? The demon of doubt took over and I plodded down the hill where Helen was waiting. With the others inside the café, I had a heart-to-heart with her. The moment she offered the possibility of doing a different expedition, I knew just how much I wanted to make the Svalbard crossing. So, planning to go back out and practice back at the lodge later that day once rested, we headed in. The warmth of the café enveloped us, the coffee was hot and the waffles smothered in jam: my demon of doubt was left out in the cold.

Back at the lodge and partially unpacked, I dug out my food rations from the four days. There was more left than I thought; it was instantly obvious to me one of the reasons my mood dipped so much. I stuffed my face with a cereal bar, chocolate and nuts, drank a mug of tea and got ready to head out. I had been contemplating on the bus back to the lodge how to deal with my continuing boot problem, the liners of the smaller boots were tight so I’d ended up wearing lighter socks which was OK for the conditions we had been in but no where near good enough for Svalbard. Using socks to create ankle cuffs, I adapted the larger Baffin boots to stop my heels from moving and got a pulk. A few times up and down the slope behind the lodge without a single tumble, I loaded the pulk with logs from the woodshed. I skied to the top of the slope, took a deep breath and… skied down with the pulk neatly at my side. Two more repeats to be sure it wasn’t a fluke and I decided to stop while I was ahead, taking mental notes of the subtle differences but also absorbing the clear fact that the real issue was in my head: as soon as I took the pressure off it all came together.
I was ready for Svalbard.

If you want to learn all you need to participate in a polar expedition, this course was with Newland. Helen is a brilliant leader and hugely knowledgeable in all things polar, I can’t recommend them enough!

Adventure planning, How I..., Journey to Svalbard

How I… Decided on a cold adventure

It started, as I think many adventures do, in the queue for mulled cider at Yestival.

A felt penguin wearing a fair isle jumper and bobble hat

I finished cycling the Camino in October 2017 (blog here) and was feeling a combination of the post-adventure blues and a lack of direction.  My husband had given me a felt penguin as a present from a business trip – The Penguin of Future Adventures.  I named her Isabella Bird. Isabella Bird was an explorer and the first woman elected Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, so it seemed a good name for an adventurous penguin.

A chalk board sign "say YES to new Adventures"

I had taken Isabella Bird to Yestival, stuffed in the side pocket of my back pack.  It was while queueing for the bar I met a friend i had made the previous year.  We chatted about our adventures and he asked me what I planned to do next.  I said I wasn’t sure: there were so many things I could do, another cycle tour, walk a trail, climb a mountain and that I was a little overwhelmed by the options.  After listening to me a while, he said “well it has to be a cold adventure or the penguin can’t go”.  And suddenly I had a direction: a cold adventure.

Cold is pretty much covered by places far north, far south or up high.  Far south seemed expensive and too big a challenge to dare to do.  Which left the arctic or a mountain.  A smaller pool of possibility, but still pretty big.  A opportunity arose in the form of the Fjallraven Polar, a dog sled expedition in the arctic.   Even though I had no expectation of getting enough votes to participate, I was surprised just how many people voted for me.  I liked the idea of a journey,  maybe a traverse; and though I like the idea of a dog sled, the idea of a human-powered journey  appealed.  Years of stress at work had made me unfit, I was not comfortable in my body.  I didn’t dislike my body, rather I had neglected it as was beginning to pay the price.  A human-powered journey gave me a reason to train.

The final refinements of the plan came from talking to three amazing women: Sarah Williams, Adelaide Goodeve and Helen Turton.  Sarah invited me on a Facebook live chat in the Tough Girl Tribe to talk about my adventure ideas and get some support from the tribe.  This sparked the memory of Adelaide’s Svalbard adventure, after a good chat about it and allaying some of my fears she put me in contact with Helen and her company, Newland.  A call to Helen and the plan was fixed.  Svalbard! 

Back at Yestival in October 2018, I stood on stage and told everyone my plan.  No turning back.

Me with Isabella Bird the penguin of future adventure on front of the Say Yes More sign
Yestival 2018 – putting my brave-pants on to speak on the stage