|This 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
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.
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.
Having 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.
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 days.
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.
Except 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.
The 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.
"....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.
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.
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