Northen plans for summer 96! Three of us, Manu Eggermann, Pascal Luthi and Alex Masselot, from the University of Geneva (Switzerland) headed to one of the northest island on earth, Spitsbergen. The idea of the trip was to ski 14 days, to climb its highest peak , the Newtontoppen (1717m) and reach the russian mine Pyramiden.
A short history review
Svalbard has probably been discovered in 1194, by Vikings from
Iceland. Forgotten, rediscovered by Dutchmen in the XVIth century,
the interest in the archipelago increased with the intensive whaling
since the XVIIth century followed by hunting. Since the beginning
of this century, the main stakes there are coal mining and scientific
research. Mines are actually runned by Russians (Pyramiden,
Barentsburg) and Norwegian (Longyearbyen, Svéagruva). Ny-Ålesund is
mainly a scientific village, with researchers from many countries
involved in the polar field (glaciology, biology...). Svalbard has
also obviously been a key place for many attempt to discover the North
Since the Paris treaty in 1920, the Svalbard is under the Norwegian sovereignthy trough a Sysselman based in Longyearbyen, but any signatory states have equal rights. In some features (including the interdiciton of any military base), this treaty is a precursor of the Antarctic Treaty.
Longyearbyen is the main settlement (ca 1000 inhabitants). It is mainly a coal mine, but since a few years, tourism has became more and more important. Planes fly there almost daily during high season, almost anything (clothes, polar equipment, food...) can be purchased there, and without taxes, which make some norwegian high quality products very attractive (Ajungilak sleeping bags, Hell Sport tents...).
More informations can be found here.
The itinerary, totalizing something like 130km:
you don't have the gif animated feature, click here .
If you wish to have a more detailled map (700K), click here .
Landing in Longyearbyen - last preparations We fly SAS from Oslo. The end of the flight above
the sunny and snowy south part of the island is really wonderful. We
land at 2:00am, the sun is high in the sky. In the morning, the first
thing is to go and meet Jørn:
-Hi! you must be the guys from Switzerland. I've waited for you til 3am.
-Yeah. aah... (We discover here that the notion of awaked period is directly related to the sun)
-I've got two news: a bad one and a good one.
-The good one: summer is cold, snow conditions are wonderful for this period of the year, you're lucky men.
-The bad one: summer is cold. The fjord is full of packed ice and the boat cannot move, you're not lucky. It never happens at this period of the year.
-let's fix the problem.
you don't have the gif animated feature, click here .
As the ultimate goal of money is to be spent, we decide to hire a helicopter to be dropped on a glacier 40km south from our previous planned departure. The rest of this last day is spent in preparing the daily food rations, fixing the last practical details... and drinking a last and unforgettable beer.
Short night. We wake up, thinking about having a big last breakfast,
taking a last shower, filling up calmly the sledges, talking with some
people... Jørn is coming:
-Hi! good night?
-Okay, you take off in 30 minutes.
We have only the time to load the sledges, and praying some troll to protect us from forgetting anything important. We fly. We are dropped. The helicopter is gone. We are alone, disconnected from the civilisation.
A great advantage of this trip is the absence of heavy backpack. As all the way is on glaciers and the weight of the equipment reaches 65kg, each of us pull a fiberglass sledge (Fjellpulken model rented at SWS for Manu and Pascal, and a french made Ellesmere for me). A small pack can be carried with only little food, drink, photo camera... So we move, in the polar bear country. The bear we will never see (only tracks three times, going from west to east), but who is always present in our mind. Pascal will always carry a rifle, in case of... The bear we fear, but the bear we'd like to see - from some distance. It's something like one the most powerful land animal, running over 60km/h, swiming over 10km/h (twice as fast as an olympic racer), totally adapted to its world, incredibly intelligent and sometime very curious... We will live with the eye of the bear around us for 14 days.
Our skis are alpine touring or cross country models with mountaineering shoes, and skins most of the time (Dynastar vertical + Silveretta 400 for Manu, touring ski + heavy Frichti for Manu, Fisher E99 + the untrustable Emery's chrono model for me; Manu and I have Koflach arctic model with always the normal slipper, Pascal has Raichle mountaineering shoes (with a One Sport's Everest slipper sometimes)). When the glacier invites to do so , we tie a rope between us, to protect from crevasse falling. In fact two ropes are necessary: one to tie the sledges and one for the men. If one falls, the two others don't have to pull him+ the sledge; he can untie himself from the sledge and both can be pulled off separately. In the whole journey, we will never ski across higly crevassed area, but one never knows.
As a trip is
always before another one, we carry one kite with us to perform
tests. The idea is to profit on the wind to move, as already did
F. Nansen on century ago for his crossing of Greenland. The sail is a
reduced (5.5 square meter) copy of an Advance paraglide (designed by
Robert Graham). It is linked by two pair of ropes, one for traction
and one for steering. The steering is very precise and comfortable, if
we put the system in a windsurf hook tied up to the sledge belt. After
some tries, I would recommend to put the hook directly on the climbing
harness so the strains on the sledge pulling system are more equally
shared but a system should be found to transmit directly the force of
the kite to the sledge. The sail works very well with 90degres wind
and it is possible to windward like with a sail boat. Going with the
wind is more disapointing. The 5.5m2 work up to 50km/h winds I think,
even if it would be better to carry a smaller sail for such
winds. Flat area crossing can be done very quickly, but has sailing is
dependent upon so many factors, I would not recommend to rely to much
on it when planning trips delays (at least the short ones) - "the
route to the North Pole is 900 hundred km, I can move 30km/h, so I
need 30 hours, roughly 4 days" - good luck!!!. This has been
heard. Polar travel includes some other factors and, as would say the
spanish team who tried to reach he North Pole by motorbike and stopped
200 meters after the airport, it's not so easy. A last point using a
sail when in group: I think that it's really easy to loose the
partners within a second in the fog; relying on the tracks can be
hazardous and as loosing the contact can be extremely dangerous, I
would recommend perhaps to carry each a GPS (or even a radio) end to
have precise rendez-vous - this is only my point, and I definitely
think it is not shared.
When comes the time, we stop on a flat area. A tent is set to eat, 30 meters away from the ones to sleep. They are protect against wind by a snow wall, and the sleeping ones are surrounded by a wire connected to "bear mines", kind of crackers supposed to explode when a bear would come to close. One did exploded once by accident, letting us in our tent, a bit tensed with the raising question: "well, there is probably a bear, I'm in the tent, what should I do now?". To protect us from the wind, we often dig a hole with a small wall as a comfortable toilet.
Here comes the eating time. We have two MSR XGK-II stoves (in case of trouble, we prefered carry two, even if we used one at a time) runned with unleaded regular gas bought in Longyearbyen (we used 6.5 liters for 13 full days and 3 three men). The dinner meal is mainly pasta/rice/polenta with sauces/lyophylised food, with sometimes Wallis dry meat and tea; Breakfast is semolina/porridge with dry fruits and cappuccino. During the day or for dessert we have chocolate, almond pastry, unforgetable home made fruit cakes, biscuits... instead of white sugar, we have brown natural "mascobado", much more tasty. In prevision of a bad day, friends at home prepared us a "surprise meal". This time, creamed apricot with rhum and sausages were great to eat once (the idea of the "surprise meal" is always great during an expedition). For more details about the food rations, go here.
Anyway, orientation is greatly helped (one would say it is not orientation anymore) with GPS (two Garmin models: 40 and 45) and accurate 1:100'000 maps from the Norsk Polarinstitutt. Routes can be previously entered in the machine and in a couple of minutes we get our position (ca. 50 meters) and the direction to head to the next point. Despite its latitude, the declination is very small in Svalbard, and the use of the compass gives no trouble.
The fog can be
treacherous. Skiing to a pass in the deep fog near Pyramiden, we
analysed a situation: "We are on the left of the pass, approximatively
at its heigth (that was true). Don't keep on climbing and being too
high, so we should go flat to it, straight south (the compass was
okay)". We walk for several minutes, and then I have a doubt, look at
the compass and ask my friend:
-where is the north,guys?
-there, behind us obviously, you idiot!
-no. We are currently heading north...
Within a few minutes, even being three following each other, we had made a 180 rotation, skiing a bit lower than our pass. Fog can really be treacherous...
To get in the more alpine like area surrounding Pyramiden, we need to cross a river (west of Mittag-Lefferbreen) with no obvious passage. The current is strong and crossing it with all the equipment seems risky. There we use the Ellesmere sledge as a rope-ferry for the equipment and with a few there and back, everything make it safely. Crossing for us is a bit cold, in an almost waist deep cold water (on one side of the river is the glacier). Neoprene slippers are of a great use, avoiding the anckles to get frozen, except for Pascal who has to jump all dressed in the water to catch my sledge pulling system he dropped in! Hopefully we all have two pairs of moutaineering shoes slippers and he won't have to finish the trip with wet shoes. After this crossing, we end exhausted a 15 hours days.
Next day we have to carry all our equipment as there is no snow til next glacier, a couple of kilometers further. The day is short, compared to yesterday, but I fall in love with a summit ("for the very first second I saw it, I knew I should try to get up there"). As my two friends don't really want to come (Manu has some knee trouble), I head alone to the Faraofjellet. The way I choose is a beautiful 40-45 degres north couloir to reach the final ridge. The end is a bit steep and I'm happy to have two ice axes. On the ridge, not very far away from what I think to be the summit, I face a fantastic cornice. The fog is all around now, and I cannot imagine a route further. I decide to get back fustrated, but happy to have climbed this wild route. I've let my ski at the bottom of the couloir, so in a few instants slaloming between the glacier streams, I'm back to the camp where my friends have prepared a nice meal.
We have now three days (crossing this part in two days can be done very easily) trough the mountains to reach Pyramiden. Previous expeditions often preferred to reach it by a long and tiring portage along the sea shore. Thinking that sledge and skis are made for the snow, we decide to go by the glaciers way. The snow is wetter than previously and the slopes are steeper but we make it without trouble, except for Manu who finds it funny to fall into a glacier stream. On the last day, we take a shortcut which bring us to a dead end. We try to use the ropes to descent a steep icy slope but continuous small avalanches around us make us go backward and take another planned route.
In the evenning, we reach the surrounding of Pyramiden. We fall asleep five meters away from a tiny creek which grows during our night comes just in front of the door in the morning! Hopefully our sledges were not taken away by the flow. We had luck!
Some miners take their breakfast and invite us to come with them in the canteen. The first civilized meal for two weeks is greatly appreciated. Later on we phone to the mine interpretor-postman-tourist guide-policeman who tells us that the boat is supposed to come at noon.
In Pyramiden, don't look for a bar, a grocery or anything like that; they are very well hidden. Anyway we decide to carry the stuff to the port and wait for the boat. Noon... 1:00... The man we had on the phone comes to tell us the boat is going to be late... 2:00... 3:00... He comes back to learn us there won't be any boat today because of the packed ice further on in the fjord ("These norwegian boats, they can go trough little ice! ha! ha! ha!", in fact he doesn't really like Norwegians). The situation is a bit tensed. We are saturday, our plane leave Longyearbyen on Monday morning, and we cannot expect a boat tomorrow (it has only come twice this year). Phoning to Longyearbyen is an adventure. As there is no public phone ("The norwegian Sysselmann, she doesn't want to put a public phone here..."), he has to awake (we are saturday) the responsible of the office where is the outgoing phone, and trying again and again, we solve our problem three hours and 50NOK later. An helicopter from Longyearbyen will come to pick us up tomorrow afternoon, we'll catch our plane.
One last problem: we've burned all our food this morning, so we have 24 hours to wait without nothing. We find (in fact, our "guide" shows us) the bar, hidden inside a building. We drink our last kroners and the barmaid gives us a tough bread and... a Pyramiden grown up cucumber. We spend the night beside the settlement and I'm waked up by a russian man doing his sunday morning walk. Follows a long russian discussion (my words are "da", "niet", and something like "thanks you") which i suppose was very interessant. The helicopter comes and pick us up, and we're back to Longyearbyen. The russian mining comagny own a helicopter and we've been told afterwards that it can be hired for much cheaper than the norwegian compagny- this option can be thought for a longer flight (thinking that price is correlated with security).
In 20 minutes, we jump from an eastern to a western country. There we find showers, girls smiles, FOOD!!!!, beers. We eat at Nybyen (upper Longyearbyen), in the blue building, where the food is good and consequent. As the plane leaves at 5:00am, we prefer to avoid sleeping and spend our night in Longyearbyen by "virtual" night.