Svalbard Expedition - Ice Diaries
Updated: Apr 4
Nine days on the ice in the remote wilds of this Arctic archipelago is complete.
I have completely fallen in love with polar exploration.
We have navigated our way through this Arctic wilderness, hauled our pulks up immense glaciers, weaved through complex moraine fields, lowered our sleds by rope down steep drops and felt minuscule as we skied along the base of tremendous ice carved valleys.
We have endured polar temperatures of -30 degrees, pitched our tents in the wildest of places and guarded our camp from polar bears each night.
I am extremely grateful to have learnt from such masters of this cold and unforgiving environment @ericphilips@mardiophilips_and camerawomen @pagodroma. They have taught me so much about survival in this extreme climate.
I’m going to miss the team and the daily grind of brushing the layers of ice off my sleeping bag in the early mornings, dragging our pulks up mountains, the rewarding pot noodles at lunch time, the satisfaction of getting into the tent each night and the endless laughter. I cannot wait to come back to this extraordinary place.
The following is written by Eric Philips IPGA Polar Expedition Guide, during the expedition. Eric is the founder and head guide at Icetrek Expeditions. With a history rooted in professional adventuring, Eric, from Australia, brings to guiding decades of personal experiences skiing to both the North and South Poles and across every major icecap in the world.
#1: WE ARE READY
After two days of skills instruction and packing we are ready to depart on our Svalbard Polar Expedition 2.0. Dinner at Stationen restaurant was a nice way to round off our prep. Temperatures over the next 9 days are well into the -20’s and bottoming out at around -32ºC at our highest point on the route, a small icecap called Hellefonna. Bring it on, we are ready!
#2: FIRST DAY
After gathering at the warehouse this morning for last minute preparations, we loaded up the belt wagons with sleds, skis and adventurers, and began our journey out to Eskerfossen, our start point for the expedition! The weather was perfect for a scenic drive, sunny and blue skies. Not so scenic for the people in the back though, who had a view for about 5 minutes before the windows iced up! After a hot noodle lunch (the first of many!) we left our sleds and skied in through a short winding valley to check out the frozen waterfall ‘Eskerfossen’. Due to the recent warm temperatures followed by the cold snap we are now in, the icy waterfall had almost doubled in size since the last expedition! This little jaunt without our sleds allowed us some time to practice gliding with our skis and finding a comfortable and efficient stride. Back at the sleds, feeling the chill of -20 degrees, we got ready for our first hauling session. With a slight wind on our faces we were sure to cover up using masks and buffs to avoid exposing too much skin. Everyone on the team made great decisions on what to wear and how to dress for this session, and our first hour went by without a hitch! Being the first night, we stopped to make camp after our first session, ensuring plenty of time to get set up for the night. The sun disappeared and the temperature dropped to -25. It’s cold! Colder than we’ve experienced so far this year. Everything is crisp, the snow is squeaky and our clothing crinkles and crackles as we move. It’s funny, not much survives at temperatures like this, and yet the world feels bright and alive, sounds are sharp, the surroundings look crystal clear, feelings are acute, and smiles are radiating around us. Pairs worked together to choose a flat area, erect tents, cut snow blocks, inflate sleeping mattresses, organise their equipment in the tents, and get their stoves started. Henry and Ram were feeling the cold in their fingers, and so had the extra challenge of setting up their tent with their big polar mitts on. Certainly a tricky feat on the first day! Everyone clambered in for the night, eager to get warm and settled, doors zipped up and we said our goodnights. After some issues with our fuel pump, we had to turn our stove off and swap the pump out. With our burner off for 30 seconds or so, it was nice to hear tent partners chatting away over their humming stoves, perhaps comparing their dinner choices! We are camped in Sassendalen, and will continue skiing up the broad valley tomorrow with Tempelfjorden behind us and speccy views all around. Looking forward to our first full day! Time to put the kettle on to fill up our hot water bottles for the night, I think we’ll be needing them!
The -27c overnight low was a bit of a challenge for some, it takes more than just warm sleeping bags to remain comfortable in those temperatures. But the team are here to learn and a few adjustments will lead to increased comfort and better sleep tonight. The next day saw us ski up Saddendalen, following a snowmobile trail for the sake of convenience, knowing once we turn up Fulmardalen we’ll be free of them. At the first break all our faces were festooned with ice. Yet the low sun was for the first time bringing warmth to our faces and lighting the valley and surrounding mountains with sharp light. Spring is well under way. I called an early lunch before slipping into the dense shadow of Fulmar’s valley wall. Watching Henry ski up with Heath and Mardi I could see he wasn’t in great shape and not at all surprised that he wanted out. The cold and activity has challenged him to the limit and he asked for a vehicle to come and get him. We pitched camp and the Hagglunds arrived at 5pm taking Henry and Heath back to Longyearbyen. Heath hadn’t been feeling well and took the opportunity to head back and rest. We wish both of them a quick recovery. We’re now camped in the still cold of the valley. Twilight has settled on our camp, stars will shine and maybe the glow of an aurora will grace the skies. Here’s to the Arctic.
#4: GOODBYE TO ONE VALLEY, HELLO TO THE NEXT!
We were treated to a slightly warmer night last night (-17), and absolutely stellar conditions today with blue skies and minimal wind. The nearby mountains however, shaded us from the morning sun and by the time we packed up camp we all had cold fingers and toes. Our first hour of hauling went by quickly as we raced out of the shade to the nearest sunny spot, reaching the -relative- warmth just in time for our first break. Our horizons changed as we turned out of Sassen valley and entered the broad base of Fulmar valley. This change in direction brought a brand new panorama to feast our eyes on, just as spectacular as the last, as is the nature of this stunning archipelago. It blows our minds to think about how much there is to explore here! We fit in three hour long sessions before enjoying a sunny lunch break, then continued up the slowly narrowing valley. After two more sessions, it was nearing time to find a campsite. The area we were in however, was very shallow snow, with rocks and solid permafrost beneath, near impossible to pitch our tents on. We pushed on, headed for a nearby frozen lake where we would be able to make anchors with our ice screws. The terrain that followed was trickier to navigate, the valley narrowed slightly and steepened, and the floods and warm temperatures last week had created a slick icy slope. Favouring small ‘islands’ of snow and roughed up ice on the surface, we navigated the slope without too many slips, slides and falls. Our efforts were rewarded with some beautiful frost flowers at the top of the icy section. Having coming unstuck on a particularly slick patch before making it onto the snow, Ram and I found ourselves at the back of the group, staring at a steep climb. Feeling the weight of our sleds we hauled up the pinch and were delighted to come over the crest and look down at the team taking off skies and putting on big down jackets, having found a flat area of deep snow perfect for pitching tents, what luck! We are camped at the base of the Marmor glacier. Hoping to get some views of the East coast tomorrow, fingers crossed our weather luck continues!
#5: SUPERB DAY
Another cold night of -22 and no morning sun on the tent courtesy of the high valley walls. Light clouds threatened to obscure our view of the east coast but after two hours of skiing we topped a pass and were rewarded by magnificent views over frozen fiords. A winding track, some of which we tobogganed on our sleds, led us down to the base of Elfenbein glacier where we lunched next to it’s glistening terminal ice face. From here we are on virgin snow, nobody comes out here. We saw quite a few reindeer among the moraine though saw nothing of anything nutritional on the ground. They only live an average of 7 years, their teeth becoming ground away from the constant gnawing and eventually die of starvation. After crossing Agard valley a hefty climb took us onto Sveigbreen glacier where we found a flat site overlooking the fiord. The team are pretty good at setting up camp now - tents pitched and secured, bags filled with snow blocks for water, latrine dug, Mardi sets out the polar bear fence, and we’re in for the night. Another night of -20’s forecast.
#6: GLACIER CLIMB
We usually wake at 6am but I declared a 7am start to give some extra sun time on the tents in the morning. Alas, it was overcast. And a balmy -13C night to go with it, too warm for the Arctic pumps on our MSR stoves, though they were absolutely required the first 3 nights. After pack up we ran a quick seminar on setting up a crevasse rescue Z-drag and a debate ensued about the ratio of mechanical advantage in a typical set up. At lunch Mardi proved that a system with 1 block and 1 return at the anchor and 2 returns on the rope creates a 9.1; for every 9 metres a rescuer hauls the rope a casualty is lifted 1 metre. So long as it works I’m happy! The glacier proved to be a grind from start to end with a 2 hour stretch of sastrugi for good measure. It was important to get our layering right, too many clothes and we’d sweat dangerously into our base layers, too few and we’d struggle to keep out the light but chilly breeze blowing up the glacier. We made camp below the final steep push to the pass between Steig and Såte glaciers. The surrounding mountains are virtually all white - although camped at only 427m elevation it has a distinctly alpine look and feel. As with all of our expeditions, we introduce areas that we’ve never been to, exploration being at the core of our intent. Our maps and GPS give us an idea of what lies ahead but we’ll see it all with fresh eyes.
#7: TWO GLACIERS IN ONE DAY
I woke expecting a whiteout so was overjoyed to see a clear day for our ascent to the pass between Sveigbreen and Satebreen glaciers. It was a hefty climb taking us over an hour to cover around 1km. The views from the pass were spellbinding with endless vistas of sharp mountains living up to their name sake; Spitsbergen. But we didn’t linger, the temperature plummeted as a stiff breeze blew drift snow around our feet. I was hoping for a quick toboggan descent of Satebreen but it just didn’t have enough slope to get a good glide. We nevertheless enjoyed the easy and picturesque ski. Lunch in the sunny valley below was blissful, Mardi even had a little snooze. Reindeer and fox tracks are everywhere, thankfully no polar bear tracks. We’re now snugly camped, stoves roaring among lively chatter. One of the best days I’ve had skiing in Svalbard.
#8: ANOTHER BIG CLIMB
We knew another solid climb lay ahead of us to get back to Adventdalen and we braced ourselves for a big day. The start of an unnamed valley was an inconspicuous cleft that slowly broadened to a beautiful open glen flanked by mountains and glaciers. The usual reindeer and fox tracks criss-crossed the snow as we ploughed ever upward. Just before lunch a bitter wind blew down from the pass ahead and left us chilled as we’d dressed lightly for the climb. Thankfully we found a windless sun-drenched spot where we ate our ramen noodles and melted cheese, salami and crackers. Nom. After 7km of climbing we topped out at the pass and looked back at the impressive view into Reindalen and beyond. It sure was a solid climb. Our descent into Adventelva (a frozen creek bound by steep walls) provided a few adventures, the first a 20m lower of our sleds by rope followed by a comical tumble and jumble of skis, skiers and sleds down into a snowy bowl. We continued down the creek for 4km before finding a flat camp site just before 6pm, a few kms short of Adventdalen. A big day with big rewards.
#9: FINAL DAY
The temperature in the tent dropped to -17C overnight, wouldn’t be much different outside given the heat from our bodies is well trapped inside our sleeping bags. We skied the last few kms down the frozen and snow covered Advent river and onto the broad plains of the upper Advent valley. It wasn’t long before we hit the snowmobile highway and ground out 12km to make just short of the road where a bus will pick us up tomorrow. It’s already our final night. What an adventure. It was a tough trip with some truly bitter days and nights and some grinding climbs. We missed Henry and Heath on the trip but they had very good reason to leave us on the second day, Heath with Covid and Henry with some mild frost damage to two toes. We look forward to seeing them again tomorrow. Mardi also tested positive on the 4th day but persevered, isolating in the single tent. She’s tough as nails. Thanks for following our trips this season. We’re sad that our North Pole expeditions were cancelled due to the Russia Ukraine conflict but Svalbard and the people who joined us brought us so much joy, we hadn’t guided a polar trip since November 2019. We will go home very happy.