Spitsbergen: The end of the world - Trekking in your 70s
Clive and Jennifer Darley believe age should be no barrier to having great adventures in the mountains: "Equipped with a cardiac pacemaker and a prosthetic hip and with a combined age of over 140, we set off to prove that venerability, a degree of infirmity and not-unlimited finances need not be a barrier to ambition in seeking out new challenges. The armchair and slippers can wait!"
‘If only’; ‘I wish’. The two saddest laments of the newly retired. ‘Carpe diem’ should be the motto of those of vintage years when opportunities to realise trekking ambitions have never been greater.
Having trekked across the Biafo and Hispar glaciers in the Karakorum to celebrate a first retirement at 60, I wondered what appropriate challenge could be undertaken to mark entry into my 8th decade. After a lifetime of involvement in trekking all over the world, my wife and I came up with a plan to trek in Spitsbergen, the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago, which is nearer the North Pole than the Arctic Circle. Ultima Thule – the end of the world. Equipped with a cardiac pacemaker and a prosthetic hip and with a combined age of over 140, we set off to prove that venerability, a degree of infirmity and not-unlimited finances need not be a barrier to ambition in seeking out new challenges. The armchair and slippers can wait!
In a sense, Spitsbergen is the end of the world, being the most northerly inhabited land on the planet. Smaller than Scotland, 60% of its land area is covered by permanent ice, although the last ghost whispers of the Gulf Stream enable ordinary vessels, rather than specialist icebreakers, to reach over 80 degrees North. It has always exerted an attraction due to its forbidding terrain and daunting location. Today, ease of visiting has been enhanced considerably by the development of the airport at Longyearbyen, with regular flights from Oslo or Tromsø. Spitsbergen has well-publicised environmental credentials of which prospective trekkers should be aware. It is not easy to journey into Spitsbergen except as a member of an approved party accompanied by an armed guide. Polar bears outnumber humans on Svalbard and there are sufficient anecdotal references to their lethality. A hungry male polar bear weighing 700 kilos and moving at the speed of an Olympic sprinter is not to be taken lightly! For the intrepid enthusiast, however, it is possible to join a trekking group via a number of agencies, including Spitsbergen Travel, or via the main Norwegian shipping company, Hurtigruten.
Spitsbergen’s name – from the Dutch spits (pointed) + bergen (mountains) – reflects the fact that jagged, serrated mountains fringe its western seaboard, rising above the ice-caps and glaciers. Fjords penetrate deeply into the interior affording convenient access but, as the Norwegian Government has decreed that only vessels burning light diesel will be allowed into Svalbard’s waters, large cruise ships are barred. There are no trees on Spitsbergen but in summer, the tundra is awash with flowers, softening the rugged, raw nature of the landscape. None grows more than a few centimetres high to avoid the rigours of the extreme climate.
The early exploration of Svalbard was undertaken by whalers and hunters, but it owes its more recent development to the presence of coal, which accounts for the establishment of the main Norwegian settlement of Longyearbyen. With global warming thinning the ice of the Barents Sea, the presence of gas (and potentially oil) has excited the interest of the Russians, who retain a semi-derelict mining base at Barentsburg. Outside these two settlements, the only other centre is at Ny-Ålesund, which houses a scientific research community and is the most northerly, permanently manned, non-military establishment in the world. The total population of the archipelago is less than 3000. In every conceivable sense, therefore, Svalbard makes a unique destination. Where better for septuagenarians to celebrate!
Longyearbyen gives all the impressions of being a frontier town at the very limits of human existence in the nature of its buildings and evidence of industrial detritus. The town extends along the main strand of the Adventalen valley and consists of a mix of basic barrack-style buildings in which miners were housed, and newer pre-fabricated constructions, usually painted in vivid pastel colours, Norwegian style, as if to assert that, despite the bleakness and austerity of the surroundings, life need not be grim and austere. Ghostly relics of wooden pylons that used to support the aerial cableways that carried the coal to the harbour in iron skips loom through the frequent chilling mists. A poignant collection of white crosses marks the last resting place of miners killed in accidents or who died of Spanish flu. Graves are rare in Svalbard as the process of freeze-thaw has the habit of raising bodies back to the surface. And yet there is a school, a post-office, numerous hotels and a shopping ‘centre’, where the display of foodstuffs such as bananas, pineapples and melons and other exotica testifies to the efficiency of links with mainland Norway. The museum is a revelation, providing graphic insights into the early days of whaling, mining and hunting. Until 1920, when Svalbard came under the jurisdiction of Norway, this land must have resembled the Klondyke, where claims to land could be made in the most rudimentary fashion. Displays of indigenous fauna and flora whetted our appetite for what was to come.
The journey to Raudfjorden
Casting off from the harbour at Longyearbyen into the mist-shrouded waters of Isfjorden in the dim light of a late Arctic evening was a chastening moment. All trekkers will know the feeling: a mixture of excitement and trepidation. They will also be aware of the importance of the group dynamic, whose harmony can splinter under pressure. Fortunately, the group was a cosmopolitan mix: four Americans, four Dutch, four British and two Italians, plus our three Norwegian guides, Ole, Gunnhild and Ingrid. We were by some margin the oldest, whereas Anya, the daughter of a distinguished American neuroscientist, was an impressively mature 12-year-old.
The age gap, therefore, was nearly 60 years but, as so often, this did not seem to matter. This was to prove the most dynamic, cohesive and stimulating trekking group we had encountered in half a century of trekking activity.
MS Expedition slid down the fjord, calling only at Barentsburg, where a statue of Lenin presided over a dismal scene of dereliction and decay. The contrast with Longyearbyen was stark. Soviet-style hoardings exhorted the workers to fulfil their collective purpose. The degree of dilapidation of the East German-style tenement blocks evoked the harshness of life on the other side of the Iron Curtain. However, after this dispiriting interlude, we re-joined the boat to bed down in our comfortable cabin, which must have been directly above the drive-shaft of the propellers: its throbbing pulse simulated panting huskies driving us relentlessly north.
We awoke to a grey, misty morning with occasional revelations of jagged mountains appearing through the cloudy screen. A simple building appeared on the strand at the entrance to the majestic Magdalenefjord, where sea-birds clamoured round the floes, taking their turn to feast on the body of a dead whale floating in the icy waters. Within minutes, a polar bear clambered onto the body to take its fill. The silence was sepulchral; the light, ethereal. The ship’s Zodiacs took us to the glacier snout amongst the sculptured blue ice floes, to survey the iridescent séracs (ice formations), which would crash into the water as they became unstable, unsettling the flocks of auks, guillemots, kittiwakes and skua. The remoteness and elemental character of this scene was humbling and quite literally awe-inspiring. After some festivities on crossing the 80th parallel, the hum of the ship’s engines quietened as we sailed gently into Raudfjorden at the extreme northern edge of Spitsbergen. Glaciers and snow-streaked mountains were bathed in an Arctic midnight glimmer. From the deck, eyes scanned for a possible landing site and then a cluster of tents appeared on a shingle strand. It was time to leave the comfort of the MS Expedition and cast off into the wilderness. Normally this would sound melodramatic, but as the ship slowly slipped out of sight, the term ‘castaway’ seemed entirely appropriate.
Camp 1: Raudfjorden
Arctic tundra does not make for a comfortable campsite, but the regime of camp life was quickly established. We gathered in the early hours to be briefed about the precautions that would need to be taken to guard against polar-bear intrusion. The polar ‘night’ would be divided into two-hour watches. If a bear was sighted, we were exhorted to make a hell of a racket to rouse our armed Norwegian guides. As extra insurance, we were taught how to prime simple explosive flares. These were located by the primitive toilet, basically a bucket with a lid on it. Misdirection of a flare behind the bear might only serve to accelerate its advance – not a happy thought, especially given that you may literally be caught with your pants down! As we sauntered back to the tents, a shout of ‘BEAR’ from Alex, one of the British contingent, elicited initial scepticism, but sure enough a polar bear came padding into view some 100 metres above the camp. It stopped, sniffed, stopped again, turned its head in our direction but then dismissed us as being of little immediate interest and carried on towards a snow slope. There it stopped, deliberated briefly and then spread out its huge front paws and slid gracefully downhill. It looked back at us again, probably expecting applause, but then headed for the fjord, swimming strongly through the placid waters. The timing was perfect, adding an immediate relevance and urgency to the bear-watch rota.
The stillness and solitude of the campsite were total. Near the camp, a pair of Arctic terns was trying to raise two incredibly cute, fluffy and vulnerable chicks amongst the tundra debris. The incoming parents would be mobbed by other terns and Arctic skuas to dislodge their cargo of sand-eels, to much general shrieking and crying. An Arctic fox loped through the boulders, attracted by the commotion. On the fjord, rafts of Eider duck cruised along, cooing gently as they went.
Trekking in this polar wilderness was very much weather-dependent. When the mists cleared, one day was reserved for the ascent of Ben Nevis (Spitsbergen version). In rare, clear visibility, the views from its summit were stupendous: ice-shattered nunataks (pyramidal peaks) pierced an array of ice caps, glaciers plunged down to the fjord, and snow-streaked, spiky peaks studded the horizon, beyond which lay the Polar Sea. Even at 80 degrees North, in the blinding sunshine it did not feel unduly cold until a biting northerly wind caused us to make a hasty descent.
When the mists enveloped the camp, mountain trekking options were more limited, but the forays along the shores of the fjord were fascinating. Walking across Arctic tundra strewn with boulders is rigorous, and numerous melt-water streams had to be negotiated via improvised bridges or by leaping or paddling though the braided channels. Arctic terns dived at head height to divert us from their nest sites, and the skulls and vertebrae of Beluga whales provided added interest.
After such a walk one day, we hatched a plan to combat the inevitable listlessness that might develop when the mists thickened, by suggesting to our Norwegian guides that we should organise an international tournament. There were, after all, four obvious teams of four: four British, four Dutch, four Americans and four Norwegians/Italians. Four events would be staged. The first involved knocking down numbered tins using selected tundra pebbles at a range of twenty metres; the second, pitching pebbles into a defined target area carrying specified points; the third, casting a hand-made ring over a reindeer’s antlers; and the final event consisted of an apple-and-spoon relay over a brutish course. All would be refereed by Gunnhild, who was firm and impartial.
The Americans fluked a win in the first event, the Dutch won the second and the British team were handsome winners of the third.
That left the deciding relay, where the British, brought up on egg-and-spoon events, had no trouble in overcoming the opposition, coming up on the rails to defeat the Dutch. It was a bizarre and surreal occasion, but it did have the effect of keeping everyone warm and engaged on a dismal afternoon and of further nurturing a strong sense of camaraderie.
Despite its remote location, Raudenfjord does have cultural history. Logs floated to the north coast from the Russian taiga by the cold Siberian current have been used to cobble together trappers’ huts. We came across one with the remains of fox traps and a litter of rusting cans with Russian labels. Unsurprisingly, many trappers in the past became ‘hut-crazy’, partly due to the loneliness and desolation and partly due to their inadequate diet before the need to combat scurvy was recognised. Many just gave up the ghost and died in the long winter night; others took to the rigours of this indescribably lonely existence with tenacity and resilience. The grave of one trapper beneath a pile of boulders at the head of the fjord – a simple wooden cross – marked a hauntingly melancholic place to spend eternity.
North of the camp, a long trek brought us to Richard Lake en route to the shores of the Polar Sea. Although it was largely frozen over, fractured leads of open water supported flocks of barnacle geese that hooted their disapproval at being disturbed. (Two months later, a skein of barnacle geese passed over our heads as we stood on the summit of Great Dodd in the northern Lakes, heading for their winter feeding grounds on the Solway Firth and Morecambe Bay. It was a very emotional moment. Were these the Spitsbergen geese?) The shore-line of the Polar Sea is marked by a bank of shingle. Beyond this point lies nothing but a narrow strip of open water and then the floes and solid ice of the Arctic ice sheet. It was quite a place to stand and stare, before any reveries were broken by the Brits’ need to set an example by taking to the ice-cold water for a paddle – a numbing experience!
The four days at the Raudfjorden camp passed quickly, and in the Arctic midnight, eyes and ears now strained for the sound of diesel engines that would mark the arrival of the MS Expedition back into the fjord. When a curl of smoke announced its presence, there was both palpable relief and sadness, and one can only imagine what it must have been like for the early trappers, for whom such a moment would have meant so much more.
It was a late call at Ny-Ålesund on the shores of Kongsfjorden – the world’s most northerly settlement at 78 degrees 50 North. Like Longyearbyen, it owed its existence originally to the extraction of coal, and an old locomotive and trucks stand incongruously by the quayside. Mining finished in the 1960s due to geological difficulties and a catastrophic methane explosion that cost the lives of twenty-one miners. Today, it has transformed itself into an international polar research station. In summer, one hundred and fifty scientists live here, but that number contracts to about thirty in winter. Because of its cosmopolitan scientific community and evident recent investment in infrastructure and energy, the place has none of the down-at-heel, forlorn look of Barentsburg, but nevertheless there is a distinct awareness that this is the end of the line in terms of human settlement. It does have the world’s most northerly post-office (which does a roaring trade in franking postcards), a small museum and – incredibly – a shop, Kongsfjordbuttiken. It also houses the remains of the mast that tethered the airship of Amundsen and the Italian, Nobile, who flew successfully over the North Pole. From a British point of view, that seemed like the easy option as we jingoistically maintained that the first true trans-polar Arctic crossing had been made by Wally Herbert. It was a brief landing. MS Expedition now slid back down the Kongsfjord to land us at our second camp site, Blomstrand.
Camp 2: Blomstrand
In utter silence, the ship gently nosed into a sheltered bay littered with ice floes of all shapes and sizes, through which the Zodiacs weaved a path to deposit us on a sandy shore. Sleeping on sand made a pleasant change to unyielding boulders, but throughout the night, we were constantly awakened by the heaving and groaning of the glacier and occasional thunderous crashes as huge blocks fell away from it into the water, creating mini-tsunamis that threatened to engulf the camp. The plaintive calls of red-throated divers added to the sense of isolation. With there being little distinction between night and day, the passage of time became difficult to track, a situation exacerbated by the continuing mists.
Trekking from this base was certainly spectacular, no more so than on the ascent of Olsentoppen at 915 metres, which proved to be a testing, shattered ridge of ice-splintered rock. Puffins appeared, peering cheekily from behind precipitous rock faces, inquisitive at this human invasion, but not at all apprehensive. The climb required rapt concentration, but there was an awareness that the mist was thinning and, as we approached the summit, a temperature inversion spread like a blanket below us. The views were majestic. Pyramidal peaks of ice rose above the vast swathes of glittering white in the ice-locked interior of Haakon VII Land. The flat-topped summits of the Tre Kroner (Three Kings) were immediately identifiable. They are named Dana, Nora and Svea after ancient Norse kingdoms.
The camp was dominated by the adjacent glacier of Blomstrandbreen, which was responsible for the drifting icebergs and floes that littered the bay. The sun glinted on their sculpted surfaces and dramatic shapes. Although it was only mid-August, the bay was already filling fast with broken ice. One day’s trekking was to the glacier itself, the blue ice presenting a formidable wall of séracs, behind which the smoother slopes of crevassed white ice sloped into the distance. The route across the glacier was, therefore, circuitous to avoid the many deep crevasses that dropped into the bowels of the glacier. On the seaward side, other similar glaciers came into view, all ending at the water’s edge, but the grandest view was beyond the head of Kongsfjord to the vast expanses of ice, above which rose the Tre Kroner peaks. The translucence of the light enhanced this unforgettable image. Cold air funnelling down the glacier quickly chilled the bones, but there was time to practise semi-redundant skills of ice-climbing and abseiling before heading back down to the relative comforts of the camp.
Earlier we had watched the clouds gathering menacingly over Prins Karls Forland to the south-west and, by early evening, a malignant pall of cloud and heavy, icy drizzle had enveloped the site. It was not the most congenial bear watch (1-3am), but the guides’ polar suits made light of the penetrating cold and wet. From the hillock above the camp, the scene in all directions was from the pages of the beginning of time, elemental in its eerie stillness and desolation. Cries of skuas and terns punctuated the silence, and the crashing blocks from the glacier continued to resonate across the bay.
The weather constrained ambitions slightly over the last two days but, once again, there was much of interest to sustain us in the walks along the shores of the fjord. The tundra was awash with delicate flowers: moss campion, yellow saxifrage, bell heathers, mountain sorrel, Svalbard poppies and mountain avens. Dwarf birch and willow sprawled in carpets across the barely consolidated ground. Etched into the soft sand at the water’s edge were the huge paw prints of a polar bear which had passed this way recently. Guillemots, auks and terns flew above or bobbed unconcernedly offshore, and our progress was watched inquisitively by a bearded seal. Wildlife here seems to have no intrinsic fear of man, although the bleached bones of a mighty Greenland whale – a species hunted to near-extinction – indicated that this had not always been the case. We did come across a small Swedish scientific party by a trapper’s hut, and stopped to exchange pleasantries and to plead for a proper tea bag, not one of those fruit-flavoured infusions to which we had grudgingly become accustomed since we ran out of tea bags.
On the final day, there was the same mixture of anticipation and sadness as the pick-up time of 1230 approached and the soft purring of the diesel engines signalled the arrival of MS Expedition around the ice-encrusted headland. Emotions ran high. The Zodiacs approached with obvious care and circumspection as they meandered through the increasing density of ice obstacles to the shore. We were being whisked back to an environment of comfort and modernity and we all recognised that the rigours that had honed us as a collective unit were receding with each beat of the outboard engines. A certain unreality pervaded the atmosphere as we said our farewells after genuine expressions of comradeship and affection.
For over sixty years, we have been privileged to have visited many of the spectacular parts of the world away from normal tourist tracks and to have seen many awe-inspiring sights and met many fascinating people, but Spitsbergen will linger in the memory as perhaps the finest of them all. It has an indefinable atmosphere and allure. Pristine, forbidding, starkly beautiful landscapes, a huge diversity of fauna and flora, and interesting historical and political insights – Spitsbergen has it all. Above all, as with so many treks, it was the people that made the experience. Our Norwegian guides could not be surpassed. They served up some truly astonishing meals given the environment, including barbecued seal, reindeer and whale meat, and gained our respect and admiration. Their vitality, enthusiasm and sensitivity enabled the group to cohere. Our fellow trekkers were a companionable group, united in their desire to learn and to contribute with commitment and resourcefulness. We came to find interest, amusement and entertainment in each other’s company, and the collective camaraderie and sense of purpose certainly enhanced our experience and enjoyment.
So, fellow veterans, think on! Ambition and adventure are not the sole prerogative of the young. It’s still a great world out there. For all trekkers, young and old, the multi-faceted benefits of the outdoor life are tangible. We wish all fellow adventurers of all ages safe and memorable journeys. Carpe diem – seize the day. Assuredly it will not come round again!
Getting to Spitsbergen
Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) operate flights to Longyearbyen from Oslo and Tromsø. There are various connecting flights from the UK.
Clive and Jennifer flew from Manchester to Oslo via Copenhagen, stayed overnight in the city, then flew to Longyearbyen via Tromsø. All their flights were with SAS.
Spitsbergen-Svalbard, Rolf Stange (ISBN 3-937903-07-0)
Lonely Planet: Norway (pp 352-368), Anthony Ham & Miles Roddis
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