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Svalbard – Journey to the cold shores

By Jamie Annetts & Corinna Leenen

From the second the plane slammed down on the frozen landing strip at Longyearbyen airport, I knew this place was going to be like no other. Taking one step into the terminal building I was instantly met by a stuffed polar bear towering over my head and the noise of pulks and expedition gear being thrown about, either with the excitement of arriving or the pain of departure. I took a deep breath and waited patiently for the flash of red which would signify the arrival of our pulks, eagerly waiting to see if Svalbard really could live up to its reputation. We had arrived two months after the polar night had started to slowly turn into dawn, with the sun rising high enough above the mountains to hit Longyearbyen.

An east-west crossing of Svalbard from coast to coast is the classic route on the archipelago, due to ease of access and a more relaxed permit system. We decided to be brave and venture to the far north of Svalbard instead. A seven-hour skidoo drive would drop us off near Newtontoppen, the highest mountain in Svalbard. After scaling this peak we would make our way back to Longyearbyen on a nine-day ski tour.

After a day’s admin we were ready to get out among it, although apprehensive with the weather forecast: high winds for the next few days and temperatures down to minus 20. If I had learned anything in my years of outdoor work and play, it was that knowing your limitations and making decisions accordingly is crucial on any trip. The consequences of a bad decision out here may be fatal. Shortly after we arrived we found out that the bad weather conditions meant a rescue team would need a minimum of three days to get to us if anything happened. Last minute, we changed our plans – now opting for the classic east-west crossing instead.

We met our local agent Jens who was already loading our pulks onto the back of the sledge. After a basic but appropriate skidoo driving lesson, we headed off 100km to Agargh on the east coast of Spitzbergen. The area we were travelling to is known as the place to be for spotting some of the island’s 3,000 polar bears. If you wondered about the polar bear – human population ratio: it’s 2,500 people and 3,000 bears. On our nine-day crossing we didn’t encounter a single other person or bear.

We arrived at the east coast, said our goodbyes and waved Jens off. Taking those first few steps out there may have been the hardest part of the expedition. As we watched the skidoo vanish into the distance there was a strange contrast between total relief to be in the mountains with all the complicated modern-world stuff behind us, and the awareness that 100km of remote glaciated mountain terrain separated us from civilisation. Our crossing would run through a skidoo-free area and we would see no one for the next nine days.

Having just returned from two back-to-back self-supported crossings of the Hardangervidda I was no stranger to remoteness, the cold, and hauling a pulk. Svalbard offered all of this, but with some added extras. Every one of our steps taken out here would break through deep into the soft powder snow, creating large channels behind us. Any glide with skis or easy movement in snowshoes was impossible. The normal routine of setting up camp by erecting the tent, creating a cold air well to cook and sit in was only the start of the routine. Following this we have to adapt the camp to bear country…

Each day started with a morning of sweating like crazy, dragging the pulks through, up and over glacial moraine fields – normally in extremely low light which merged all the features around us so we couldn’t see whether we were dropping down a 1m blip or a massive 20m cornice. In belligerent winds we were progressing at sometimes less than a kilometre per hour and the mountains on either side edged past us at a painfully slow pace, so loaded with snow they looked like they were slumping under the weight. One thing that struck me about the mountains was their deceptive scale – moving past them felt like being in the Khumbu valley below Everest, and you would glance at the map and realise that they weren’t any higher than Helvellyn in the Lakes.

Crossing this arctic terrain meant that every day we were making calculated decisions, alone and together, with and without discussion. On one particular descent, on a day when the light was so low that it might as well have been at night, we hit a riddled maze of moraine at the end of a glacier. The options were endless, and for each slope it was impossible to tell whether it was just a short slide or 100m down to the valley floor. After wandering about for what must have been well over an hour, we decided I would break trail for the pulks one at a time while Tracey would support the weight with a rope and a bucket belay at the top (basically, a big hole you sit in with the weight of your body securing the rope). This was a good decision as the ground turned out to be the equivalent of a Grade 2 snow gully in Scotland and it would have been more than interesting skiing down with a pulk on the back.

After a long morning of tricky navigation and after days of not seeing a soul, we were rewarded with companions for the first time. Not another skiing team, but a small herd of caribou. They seemed not the least bothered by us skiing down in the valley below them.

The process of planning this expedition has been as involved as the expedition itself: half a year’s planning, buying expensive maps and making contacts in the region; we obtained our gun licences in Switzerland, where we also trained for a week; then, kitting up with the appropriate safety gear and specialised equipment. We stocked up with Hilleberg tents, Baffin boots, Therm-a-rest NeoAir™ sleeping mats and pulks. For a week our office floor was scattered with expedition equipment, half-packed pulks and hundreds of ration packs.

The crossing was hard. Coming back from 78 degrees latitude to the rainy Lake District was even harder. Living off Mountain House dry rations, waiting out bad weather in the tent and the constant tug and pull of the pulk has been my routine for a month, and leaving behind the arctic solitude, I face the challenge of settling back into normal life.

Interested in polar travel, training and equipment? Email Exped Adventure (info@expedadventure.com) with your questions and we’ll get back to you!