By: Phil Hayward
John's ski touring expedition to Spitsbergen began in Longvearbven, the main settlement on Spitsbergen (part of the Svalbard archipelago), which was reached by air via Tromso in Norway. This area has been in the news recently as the starting point for the 'Help for Heroes' expedition, which included Prince Harry, and also for the tragic attack by a polar bear on a British school party. Longyearbyen is not a beautiful place, it is known mainly for its mining activities.
The party consisted of 2 French leaders, normally based in Val d'Isère, and 7 guests - 4 British and 3 French, (including a cardiologist) - all very fit and able skiers. John had met the leaders whilst working as a Ski Club of GB rep. The trip lasted 14 days during June 2010 and took advantage of the 24 hours of daylight. A cruise ship transported the party and their equipment across the fjord to the start of the expedition. The ship had to be wedged into the ice to allow the equipment to be unloaded. Each person had to pull a sled (pulk) containing a 120kg load. They travelled a circular route, a distance of 150 miles in total.
The outward journey was taken at a faster pace to ensure the trip would be undertaken within the estimated time, covering up to 22 kms a day, stopping every 2 to 3 hours for drinks and energy snacks which included caviar, (apparently a high source of energy)! The average height gain was 500m. The weight of the sleds meant that they sank about 4 to 5 inches into the soft upper layer of ice, making the going even more difficult at times. Even on the downhill sections the sleds had to be pulled. Skis were fitted with skins and each skier was attached to their sled via a harness and rigid shafts, great care had to taken to avoid falling through the ice as it would have been extremely difficult to uncouple the sled. Fortunately most of the crevassed areas and thinner ice were nearer the coastline. Throughout the expedition the temperatures varied between -2ºC and +2ºC so they were able to ski in tee-shirts, but sufficient clothing was carried to deal with potential temperatures down to -20ºC.
There were several crystal clear days but the majority of the time it was misty and cloudy although fortunately no strong winds.
The return leg was more leisurely which allowed for some exploration and skiing around the local mountains, the highest being around 2000m. The estimated depth of ice in this region is 1000m. During the trip they found very little evidence of other groups apart from some old ski tracks and dog sleigh tracks. Occasionally they saw tracks of polar bear and arctic foxes.
In camp they quickly established a routine whereby the mess tent was put up first and a circular pit dug in the middle of the floor so they could sit in comfort. They spent 4 or 5 hours a day melting ice to provide enough drinking water. Their provisions included meals which had been prepared to a very high standard in France then freeze-dried. All the rubbish was burnt or taken back for disposal. Communication was intended to be by satellite phone but unfortunately reception was lost for most of the trek. Luckily there were no emergencies.
Generally the only problems were severely blistered feet and fatigue.
Preparing for a possible polar bear attack was necessary; they had no detection equipment such as trip wires, and only one rifle between them which was tested by firing it at a spade! They carried flares for use as a deterrent, it was important to aim these in front of the bear and not behind it which would be disastrous!! However the only bear seen was around Longvearbven, it was anaesthetised and moved to a safer location.
On the last day they managed to get a cell phone signal to confirm pick up by the charter boat 'Polar Girl' which had dropped them off 2 weeks earlier. Negotiating the unstable ice to reach the boat proved hazardous. Once safely on board they sailed off with the other tourists to experience a further 16 hours of sightseeing...... before returning to Longyearbyen.
The talk from John was illustrated with some dramatic and exceptional photography of this wild and interesting place, (some of the landscape he likened to the 'Grand Canyon'), and it portrayed his love of travel in the wilderness.
John also brought along a small selection of his photography, enlarged and framed. To view all of the photos visit his website (recommended). They are also available for purchase in various formats.
It was an enjoyable and interesting evening, appreciated by the members who braved the poor weather conditions to attend. We're looking forwards to hearing about his next trip.....