I’m a fan of keeping a journal, this blog is a more legible version of what I wrote while on Svalbard.
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.
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: www.newland.no