Back to IndexThis is the full text of my article which appeared in the November 1996 issue of the magazine
"The Great Outdoors" (or 'TGO') published in the UK by Caledonian Magazines

See also my main Spitsbergen Gallery


A SPITSBERGEN CROSSING

Map of the routeMap of Svalbard

Dreary.  That was the word chosen by the 19th century adventurer Sir Martin Conway to describe the spot from which he set off to explore Spitsbergen.

The description still applies today, despite the fact that a reasonably large settlement has developed since.  And Longyearbyen, at the edge of Adventfjorden near the site of Conway's camp site, is still the starting point for all journeys in Svalbard.  It was established some years after Conway's arrival by an American, John Munro Longyear, keen to exploit the coal measures.  The modern town boasts a supermarket (the world's most northerly - there are many "most northerlies" around here), cafe, post office, and museum.  The latter is well worth a visit, with a fine display of exhibits covering all aspects of the geology, wildlife, and history of the islands, together with a "crawl through" gallery depicting an early coal mine.

Spitsbergen is the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago, and 1996 marks the centenary of Sir Martin Conway's expedition which carried out the first crossing so I was keen to join a small Anglo-German group that trekked across the island to the east coast, largely following Conway's route.Adventdalen

In Conway's time only the coast had been charted and very little was known about the interior.  They arrived in June with two sledges which were to be pulled by ponies, and were confronted with rivers in spate and everywhere covered with

"a nameless compound, neither solid nor liquid, neither ice, water, nor snow, but possessing the wetness of water, the coldness of ice, and while offering no support to the tread opposing a massive obstruction to the advancing foot"
Where there was no slush there was all pervading mud.  Thus they, in Conway's words,
"arrived with an entirely unsuitable equipment, and were about to launch forth on a journey at the very worst time of the year for its accomplishment."
In fact, the best time for trekking is late August to September.  By this time the summer thaw is over, the first frosts arrive, and rivers, which earlier would be impassable for those of us made of lesser stuff than Sir Martin Conway, are at their lowest.

HelvetiafjelletHaving exhausted the attractions of Longyearbyen (which doesn't take long) we set off in Conway's footsteps up Adventdalen.  The weather was overcast, a common occurrence we, and Conway, were to find, and this first couple of miles until we lost sight of the mines was, well, dreary.  This central part of the island, Nordenskiöl;d Land, is not heavily glaciated (an effect of the gulf stream and the great indentation of the Isfjorden) and the following day, in bright sunshine, we made good progress up the gently rising valley towards the Brent pass and our second camp.

Approaching Sassendalen The next two days took us to the watershed via the huge valley of Sassendalen, stopping en route to stock up at our first food dump, located, along with a good collection of fossils, on the top of a pingo.  Several of these food dumps had been deposited by skidoo the previous spring, which meant we had only to carry enough food to last three or four daysFossil.

Conway expected that Sassendalen would lead him onto the glaciers of Sabine Land but was pleasantly surprised to find a side valley leading off south east, exactly the direction they wished to go.  This valley cuts through the mountains to a low pass, where a glacier snout thrusts across the valley, a place Conway named "The Ivory Gate".  The modern map, surveyed in 1970, shows a large lake here, dammed at either end by glaciers, but by the time of our visit the outflow had cut a gorge through the ice of the Elfenbeinbreen glacier, and drained the lake.  This appears to be a cyclic event as Conway also found the lake at a low level, and many previous shore lines can be seen above the present one. Unfortunately, what is left in place today is a large area of mud and moraine that we had to pick a way through before we could reach the glacier.  We explored the ice gorge before fixing crampons for our first glacier crossing.  Although the initial few feet onto the ice were steep, it didn't present any problems and we camped, after a short but interesting day, on the east side of the "Ivory Gate" within sight of the coast at Agardh Bay.

The Ice GorgeBjarmebreen GlacierExcept for an attempt to wade through the slush to reach the coast, this was as far east as Conway got, but we continued further south over two more glaciers to reach the coast at Inglefield Bay, where we had planned to spend two or three days exploring the mountains overlooking the glaciers of Heer Land.  Unfortunately, our arrival here coincided with our worst spell of weather; sleet, snow, and a cloud base at times of, literally, sea level.  We were tent bound, venturing out just a couple of times in an unsuccessful attempt to find the food dump that was supposed to be around here somewhere, and to complete our crossing by walking the last mile or so to the sea.

Having failed to find the food dump we were getting a bit low on supplies, but Sven hadn't yet given up hope.  Unable to persuade anyone else out of their sleeping bags he set off on his own, muttering something about polar bears, and in fact managed to locate the dump, or rather what was left of it.  Something, either polar bear or arctic fox, had found it before us and eaten everything except the wrappers, though whatever it was hadn't developed a liking for meths.  We made a bonfire of the litter; at least it gave us something to do for a couple of hours on a wet afternoon.

Above Inglefield BayThe loss of the food meant that next day we had to move regardless of the weather, and so we re-crossed the glaciers, in a bitter east wind and light snow, to raid the food that we hadn't taken from the previous dump.  The weather in Spitsbergen can be very localised and it was much brighter inland, but cold - about minus 2°C.  We left Conway's route here, he returned down Sassendalen and continued around the coast back to Adventfjorden.  We, however, turned west and spent the next week working our way back to Longyearbyen through the central mountains, taking in a couple of peaks on the way.Camped below Trehøgdene


At one of our camps, in Lundströmdalen, we noticed that the dried milk we were using in our brew congealed into a gooey mess at the bottom of the mugs.  The stream where we had collected water flowed from black shaly rocks, perhaps coal deposits; we didn't like mud in our tea so replaced our water with fresh stocks from snow melt.  Stefan, however, had already drunk a full mug of fruit tea, without milk, so hadn't noticed anything unusual and was ill with stomach cramps the following day.

Moulin on the Bjarmebreen GlacierAfter a very cold night (-6°C with a stiff breeze blowing), and to give Stefan time to recover, we decided to spend another night at this spot; so, after a lazy morning, climbed Slottet, the plateau just above us, before tramping for the next two days down the huge valley of Rheindalen.  When we turned north, into Tverrdalen, we were again following in Conway's footsteps.  He and Prof. Garwood had made a foray from their camp in Adventdalen over the pass and down through Tverrdalen.  Most of this was in deep slush, and

"....after ten hours of this exhausting labour we were fairly done up.  Finding at last a small patch of dryish ground a little sheltered by banks from the cold wind, we halted for a few hours rest, lying side by side, wet to the skin and wrapped only in a Mackintosh".
When it came on to rain they returned through parallel valleys a little further west, and regained their camp thirty hours after starting "...in a condition bordering on complete exhaustion".  For us though, it was little more than a stroll to the roadhead and the waiting mini-bus.Isfjorden at Longyearbyan

Spitsbergen Information:
Independent travel presents practical difficulties; there are no huts or food supplies available once leaving Longyearbyen and the gear list has to include alarm trip-wires, flares and firearms.  It's unlikely that you would meet a polar bear this far south in the summer - they follow the edge of the pack ice as it retreats north - but it's not unknown, so the precautions are essential.  Several companies organise trekking tours, but be warned; no matter how you go it will cost a fortune!

Gear:
Equipment must be of the best (remember this is the Arctic) and this subject is well covered in the guide book.  A couple of points though; never having worn them before, on this trek I was totally converted to plastic boots.  For wading the freezing glacial rivers (and wallowing in the mud fields) we carried "wellies" with cut off overtrousers glued to the top, forming waist length waders.  We all had different arrangements but the longer type Nokia boots glued to lightweight Neoprene overtrousers (with impact adhesive) worked the best - I had a hell of a job pulling mine apart afterwards.

Guidebook:

cover  Guide to Spitsbergen.  Andreas Umbreit.  Bradt Publications

Also well worth reading, if you can find a copy, is Sir Martin Conway's  The First Crossing of Spitsbergen,   Cambridge University Press 1906.

Maps:
The best maps for trekking are the 1:200 000 series published by the Norsk Polarinstitutt.
Available in the UK from Stanford's

Trekking Tours:
Andreas Umbreit organizes trekking tours in various areas of Spitsbergen and beyond, and can help with independent arrangements.  See here.


© Vincent Lowe 1996   Sketch maps © Caledonian Magazines

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