For those who know me, to go to Svalbard was a long-standing dream. Years ago, I wanted to work on a scientist base for an entire year.
And today, to provide myself with the means to do this is revenge and great satisfaction. Even more, this expedition is a way to gain experience before bigger adventures.
Back in February, I was hesitating about where I wanted to travel. Between Greenland and Svalbard, it was difficult to choose. When to go there in summer or in winter? What about the experience? I had never slept in a tent in winter before. What about my body's cold resistance?
As I did not have the experience in this environment and all of the material and no one to go with, I booked with a travel agency.
I decided to go to Svalbard for the reasons that I said previously. And, like I want to do a bigger expedition in the future, it is a good way to learn and introduce myself in the polar expedition.
Day 1 - Flight to Longyearbyen
Here is the day. We got an appointment at 11:30 am at the airport to pick up the plane tickets and to meet the team members.
At 2.00 pm, I took the first flight to Oslo. At the airport, I checked one last time the aurora forecast... We got a chance to see them during the flight. I bord in the airplane and deal to have a seat near the window.
I absolutely do not realize that I am on a plane to go to a place that I dreamed of for years. We are flying to the North. In the beginning, the night was really dark. A great opportunity to see the aurora. It is strange, the more we are flying to the north, the more the horizon is lighting up.
Suddenly and for only, a few minutes, I saw a little aurora. Now, it begins to be too clear to see some others. I see the first pieces of ice pack... emotion... And then, I discover the first part of the coast of Svalbard. I feel like a kid. It is 00:50 am, I leave the plane, and a gust of wind and snow strikes my face. Welcome to the Arctic.
Day 2 - Beginning of the expedition
After a short night, I wake up and enjoy the last shower for the next six days. During breakfast, I discover the view on Longyearbyen and the fjord. It is sunny and it looks like it is windy outside. I take the time to eat as much as needed and go back to the room to reorganize my bag.
9:00 a.m, we move to the premises to take of the equipment. Outside, it is cold (around -17°C) but not as much as I expected. 2 hours later, we are finally ready. Pulka, skis, snowshoes, sleeping bag, tent, rations for seven days… My pulka is probably around 40/45kg and I got my camera and lenses in my backpack.
11:00 a.m., let’s go! The bus takes us to the starting point. Impressive to see big studded tires on a bus. We arrived in a wide valley where you can guess the big frozen river a the bottom. Outside, it is really windy. We shelter ourselves behind a little hut for the lunch. I accidentally drop some water on my pulka… Awesome… I tried to quickly remove it without making wet my gloves. But no worry.. one minute later, it was totally frost.
After the last adjustments, we start to head up in the valley. It feels really cold on my face. The feeling on my cheekbones is a mix between numbing and burning by the cold. 15 minutes later, I make a stop to take off a layer of clothes and wear my balaclava. Hallelujah! My face is recovering. During the walk, we meet a lot of reindeers. There are a lot of photos to take with all sceneries. But, with the wind, you have to be efficient at each stop cause you quickly get cold. Two weeks ago, it rained in the valley and the flooding water pulled up the ice of the river from above. It shaped impressive hills of ice sometimes higher than 1 meter like scars on the ground. After 3 hours of hike, we finally arrive at the first spot for the night and set up the camp.
As Svalbard is the polar bear country, 3500 for 2500 inhabitants, we assign the shift for the night. 2 hours per tent. Mine will be from 00 to 02 a.m. and then move on to the next one each night. When I enter for the first time in my sleeping, I appreciate the quick feeling of heat. As they are more insulated than needed, I will not be cold! During the shift, I take the time to discover what surrounds us. It is also my true first experience with the “spring polar night”. It is like advanced dusk. I need a light to see what I am really catching in my bag. But, it is clear enough to feel like being at the end of the day.
Day 3 - First morning
Second wake-up and first morning on the camp. The sun is shining, the wind blew for a part of the night. Some pulkas are totally covered by snow. But, I slept well and I am ready for a new day. In the mess tent, we are melting snow to get hot water for the breakfast and to fill the thermos. We pick up around 2 liters per person for the day. The snow provides around one-tenth of its volume in liquid water. We consume 4 to 5 L/person a day, so you can easily imagine the amount of snow that we have to melt every day.
We pack off the camp and start to hike to a second valley, this one is less wide than the previous one. As the day before, we meet reindeers and a ptarmigan. We arrive at the bottom of the way up to the pass. There is no wind anymore and as the sun is strong, it is around -6 / -8°c. I kept my middle-range gloves too long and there are now wet inside. It sucks. I take off the layers of every layer and only keep the first wool base layer. It is crazy to think that in t-shirt in the Arctic. We begin to go up and it is a bit different when you have to pull the pulka uphill. But the feeling is good, and I am leading the group by making the trail. We head to the glacier and find a flat place to set the camp. The snow is perfect to cut blocks. I found it really fun to do thinking back to the stories I was told as a child about the Inuits building their igloos.
This evening, the temperature is colder than yesterday. At 22:00 pm, it is -20°C outside. I enjoy the colors of the sunset on a landscape that is a bit more alpine and go to sleep.
Day 4 - Let's go to the pass
2nd morning of the expedition. Last night was colder with -23,8°C outside. Inside the sleeping bag, I did not feel it. But, that is when you have to leave it to wear your clothes… Haha, you are efficient. To anticipate it, I put my fleece into the bag to warm it up. As I said previously, yesterday, I sweated in my gloves and… also in my shoes. To unfreeze the gloves, the easiest way is to put them into your jacket and wait for it wearing another pair. For the shoes… well… you begin to put your feet inside and then you strike them to the ground to help them to enter. As they are well insulated, 15 to 30 minutes later, your feet will be hot. To avoid this, you can wear a plastic bag between two slices of socks. But you take more risks to get blisters. Outside the weather is beautiful but it looks like it is windy at the pass.
We start to go up to the pass, we quickly start to feel the wind. It is super cold. The experienced temperature is around -35°C at the highest intensity. My fingers hurt like my cheekbones but if you feel it is not frozen. My bigger gloves will probably be too warm as the effort is important so I stay like this. Sometimes, I put my hand in front of both my mouth and my nose to blow hot air on it. I feel the ice linking the bottom of my nose and my mustache. It is funny but I am starting to get used to it.
50 meters away from the pass, the wind turn to a second pass. And, in a few meters, the wind stops. It is so good to feel the sun warming you up. At the pass, we can enjoy the view of yesterday's valley and on the fjord where we are going. That one is starting to be iced over. The wind pushed the ice blocks to the bottom of it. We make a stop for lunch. But the wind quickly came back. So, we sit on the ground behind our pulkas to protect ourselves.
To go down from the pass, we used the best technique ever! You fix the skis and poles on the pulka, sit on it and… GOOOOOOOO!!!! You slide right into the slope. It is really fun! Further, it was steeper so I tried to ski. Not easy with the skins under the skis and only a flexible mount in front of a wide shoe. We continue to go down in the valley and set the camp half way to camp. As ever, the sunset colors are stunning in the fjord. We are surrounded by reindeers and the silence comes back. Love that feeling.
Day 5 - Discovery of the sea ice
3rd morning of the expedition. We continue to go down to the fjord. We hike along a river with beautiful turquoise shades. Sometimes, the pressure pulls out big blocks of ice. That is impressive to see how thick the ice is. They are as high as my knees, maybe more. the river is not easy to cross and you have to move carefully cause au the perfectly flat surface.
We finally arrive at the fjord and I see the ice floe for the first time. I find it really impressive to think that it's seawater that has frozen. In this little place, we find some weekend houses. It is fun to see this on a 2500 inhabitants' island. They really get a wonderful view of the big glacier a the bottom of the fjord. As the ice might be too thin, we walk along the coast till we find a spot for the lunch. Ice's conditions are better, let's cut and walk on it! The sea ice's surface can be very chaotic but that time, it is flat. The salt rises to the surface and gives a particular texture. Before the last spot for the camp, we have to cross a 6km wide valley. You really mind how wide it is when you hike and it looks like the other shore never comes closer.
Halfway, we leave the sea ice to walk on the frozen river. We were walking when suddenly, we stop in front of big pawprints! Big polar bear pawprints! And it is like there is a cub with it regarding the smaller prints. The paws are massive as the 7cm claws' marks. The guide knew that a female had been seen with her two cubs in this area the previous week. We are on its territory. The bears stay (most of the time) close to the ice floe to hunt the seals. Another key point to know is that they are walking at 7km/h, running up to 40 km/h, and swimming from 10 to 12 km/h. Not bad when you know that there are on the snow or the ice and that a male weighs 500kg...
We finally reach the shore and go up to the top of the first bump to set the camp for the 2 next nights. The view of the valley is wonderful. We can see the whole valley and a half of the fjord. Can not wait for the shift to enjoy the colors and the low light on this landscape.
Day 6 - On the way to the viewpoint
My shift is from 4 to 6 am, a great moment to enjoy the end of the sunrise. It slowly lights up the mountains and then the valley. I really feel privileged to be there. To think that we are currently only thousands of humans on earth to be so north is crazy. To wake up when there is already daylight to go back to bed when there is even more and wake up again is really disturbing. Without a clock, you can not know the moment of the day from inside of the tent.
Today is a day without pulkas, we let them at the camp. We start going up inside a canyon. As it is like a big hole between the mountains, it is like a cold pit. All of the cold air goes down inside and you are walking in a freezer. Last night was -21°c, and, it is colder inside of it. It is freezing and as there are potentially bears around, we have to stay together. But, everyone is not walking at the same pace. So, it is difficult to be well dressed. You feel great when you are walking till you have to make a stop. Then, you quickly get cold. I like to imagine how beautiful it should be in summer with this big flooding river.
We finally leave the canyon and start our way up to the top of the highland. Really cool to discover how it is above where we slept. When we arrive at the top, we discover the other side of the mountain, the inside of the fjord. It is mind-blowing. A 360 view on mountains, steps, wide valleys, the fjords, the sea ice, and, this massive glacier! Stunning! I remember it like it was yesterday. It is shades of white and blue. In the photos, you can see the difference between the old sea ice which is white and thick, and the newest which is blue and less thick.
After 1 hour spend on the top, we move back to the valley. On our way back, we pass by a trapper's hut along the coast. It is crazy that, decades ago, someone was living there. As our camp is overhanging the valley, you can not see it immediately. The closer you are to the step and the more we were hoping that a bear did not visit the camp during the day... Hopefully no! Uphill, we can see it. Relief!
I enjoy the last moments and the last night in this amazing place. Tonight, I will get the first shift from 10 pm to 00 am. The sunset is beautiful and the become slowly cloudy. Slowly, a totally different mood sets in, more subdued and mysterious.
Day 7 - Back to civilization
One hour after our shift, my neighbor wake me up:
- Philippe saw a bear!"
WTF!? I open my eyes with difficulty and try to wear my clothes quickly. (Not easy...) Outside, the atmosphere is hushed and hazy. Everyone is out. He explains to us where it was, around 500m away from the camp. Polar can smell a seal 8km away on the sea ice but they do not that well. When he sounded the alarm, the bear stopped and turned around. It is now snowing. I will wait for 3 hours hoping that it comes back. But, it never happens. Tired and a bit disappointed, I finally go back to bed.
In the morning, we tease the one who saw it asking if he is sure of what he saw. We pack off the camp one last time and the caterpillar arrives to pick up us. I like it, it looks like an old soviet one. Before going back to Longyearbyen, We go to the place where the bear was seen and we effectively find big paw prints. Inside the caterpillar, it is really noisy and not comfortable. Let's go for 3 hours of travel. And, do not expect the ground to be flat cause of the snow. It is not!
On the way back, I am looking through the windows when they are not covered by snow. Slowly realizing what I have been living for the last 6 days.
6 days walking in the Arctic,
6 days without passive heat,
-23,8°c for the colder bivouac
around -35°C in experienced temperature when we passed the pass
6 days of magical landscapes
It is not really finished but I already thinking about the next adventures.
I can not wait to begin a new adventure.
I realized one of my dreams.
As @mikehornexplorer said, "If your dreams do not scare you, you do not dream big enough!"
These 2 days of wind gave me a glimpse of what the conditions can be like in a polar environment. Now, I think that I realize the amount of engagement of adventurers like Mike Horn.
I have even more respect for the performances they have done.
Be ready for the next step! It was not an achievement, it was only a necessary step before bigger projects! Stay tuned!
It also means 6 days that I am wearing the same clothes and without a shower.
I think getting one will be useful!