This is the second part of a previous “special” post about a trip I made to Svalbard last year. The first part is here. (It seems to have taken me 6 months to get around to part 2, I hope part 3 won’t take so long!).
For my first full day in Svalbard I’d booked to go for a walk on the Lars Glacier near to Longyearbyen to a rock called the Trollsteinen (Troll Stone – trolls seem a bit of an obsession with the Norwegians). I booked through Hurtigruten who are known for operating the coastal ferries along Norway but also seem to own much of the tourist businesses in Svalbard (including the hotel I was staying at).
I slept well on my first night. The 24 hour daylight proved no problem as my hotel room had very effective black-out curtains. I was pleased to find even at this latitude there was a good breakfast buffet, including cooked food and even, I was pleased to note, baked beans.
For this trip (as was the case with all of the trips I had booked) a pick up from my hotel was included, which was at 9am. I decided to head out a bit before then to find something for lunch. I couldn’t find anywhere open at that time however, which I thought was a bit of a problem. I made do with grabbing a packet of peanuts and a chocolate bar from the minibar in my room.
Initially this meant hanging around the hotel reception but it soon got crowded and I couldn’t see outside any more so I headed outside and sat on an outside bench. I was soon joined by two polish ladies who it turned out were going on the same trip but were not staying at my hotel but an Air BnB nearby (I didn’t realise Air BnB operated this far north). As it would turn out I’d be seeing them the next day, too!
Bang on time a Hurtigruten mini bus arrived to pick us up. Our guide explained that the Hurtigruten office was also in my hotel so before we set off, he’d just head in there to pick up our lunch. It turns out lunch was included in the trip (I hadn’t realised), which was a relief. This gave me time to return the peanuts and chocolate bar to my room before it was cleaned to ensure I did not get charged for them!
He returned disappointing – apparently lunch wasn’t ready! So instead he opted to drive and pick up the other participants on this tour. I think in total there were 8 of us. He chatted on the way and I could tell right away our guide was a keen walker. The entire back of his van seemed to be filled with crampons, wellingtons, walking polls, various coats and goodness knows what else! I had I’m afraid forgotten his name but I do remember him telling me that he was Swiss but actually spent each summer in Svalbard working as a guide and mostly either went on walks or longer expeditions himself or ran guided walks/expeditions and commented that “hiking is my life”. Already I could tell we would get on well. He also told me that in the winter time, he lived in Lanzarote. It must be quite a contrast!
Having picked everyone up, we set off back to the the hotel where lunch was now ready to be picked up, and then headed to the top of the valley, parking up near the “Coal Miners Cabin” (now a hotel too I believe). Here gear was arranged. Already I was a bit out of my comfort zone! We had been advised to bring walking boots and warm clothes, which I had done. However on top of that, we would also need snow shoes, crampons and walking poles, which he provided. I have never used snow shoes or crampons before, so already I was a bit out of my comfort zone and feeling a bit “all the gear and no idea”.
Our guide however had to carry much more. As I mentioned in my previous post, when leaving the towns on Svalbard there is a whole host of equipment at least someone in your party must carry. This includes satellite phones, distress flares, GPS and a gun (amongst other things), the latter of which he had poking out of the top of his bag. I hope he would not have a need to use it, but it’s a requirement due to the threat of polar bears.
I was thrilled to spot a reindeer just wandering around and one of the other people in the group commented that they had seen it around a few times and it was quite a common sight in the town (I was later to find out this was true)
The weather sadly was not as good as the previous day, forecast to be overcast and drizzle and drizzle this far north means there is a good chance it will be sleet or snow instead.
So having managed to fit crampons to my walking boots, we carried the poles and snow shoes and set off up the mountain. The terrain started out as lots of lose rocks “moraine”. This is where the snows each year break off parts of the rocks on the mountains, leaving an area of lose rocks at the bottom of the hills and mountains, which we had to climb over.
This was intermixed with fast-flowing streams and our guide told us that when we came back these would likely be wider and might well have moved, because at this time of year, each day as it gets above freezing the snow and ice begins to melt, causing the waters to flow fast, but at night it often freezes again, so the flow of water slows or stops entirely.
At the low level we started at, there wasn’t any snow present, but soon there were patches of snow present and we had to make our way over the lose stones, fording a couple of streams, but all managed to keep dry feet.
As we began to climb out of the valley, snow became more apparent. As we gained height this also opened up views back over Longyearbyen. Our guide had parked his van near the green building you can see near the base of the mountain. Closer to us, the coloured dots are actually numerous skidoos. These are presumably left here during the summer, having become useless when the snow melts, but the main way to get around in the winter, over the snow and ice
You can also see the water in evidence, all these streams and rivers formed by melt water coming off the hills that surround the town. I did wonder if there are ever problems with landslides in the area.
Continuing to climb we now had patches of snow around whilst the tops of he mountains on either side had snow piled on top and indeed was over-hanging the top in places.
We soon reached the snow level and here the guide suggested we stop to put on the snow shoes instead. I’ve never worn snow shoes before and they were very uncomfortable.
You have to adopt a quite different style to walk, keeping your feet much further apart, so as not to keep standing on the snow shoe on your other foot (something I did quite a bit initially). However the point of course is to spread your weight out over a larger area, reducing the pressure on the snow and so reduce the risk of sinking into it.
Now we were walking properly on the snow and indeed I think at some point we switched to being on the glacier. This glacier does not really move so it doesn’t require being roped together as is the case on less stable glaciers.
Continuing to gain height gradually it was soon possible to see further mountains in the distance that were stunning with the sun catching them. Our guide commented that “it always seems to be sunny over there”!
The snow was getting deeper as we continued to climb and soon, as the terrain levelled out for a while we reached a small lake made from the melting snow and ice.
This is of course another reminder why it is a good idea to have a guide because once snow covers the ground it is impossible to see what is underneath be it solid rock or a frozen lake that has begun to melt!
The lake was a wonderful shade of blue and just turned to slush and ice at the edges. After crossing the plateau area we were soon climbing again and it was quite hard work in those snow shoes.
Our guide made quite a rapid pace. I managed to keep up with him but was the only one that did so and so he had to stop quite often to wait for the others to catch up (he went a bit too far ahead at times, in my view, you can see how far behind some of our group are in the second photo).
The two Germans were really struggling with the snow shoes and decided to try removing them but found this worse, so soon put them back on.
The tops of the mountains were now covered in some mist and I was a bit worried that if the mist should descend further, we might have to abandon the walk.
Thankfully our guide did not seem worried and the mist soon lifted a bit.
Areas of rock began to appear now suggesting we had crossed the glacier. As we neared the top it became misty again, but enough we could see the way ahead.
We had now reached almost the top and the last part of the walk was along a narrow ridge, only wide enough to go in single file, so the guide waited at the start of the ridge for us to reach the summit and then return. The summit itself is marked by this tall rock which is the Trollsteinen or “Troll Stone” and it 849 metres above sea level (which of course is the level we had started at). My GPS however showed 2779ft (847m) but then the top of the Troll Stone is likely another 2 metres so.
So here I am at the top.
It had been quite an experience and despite never having used snow shoes before or walked in similar conditions before I had made it without any problems – this is only around 200 metres lower than Mount Snowdon for instance, but a far harder walk with all the snow.
Having descended from the top of the ridge the guide suggested we stop in a sheltered area just below the rocks for lunch.
Lunch turned out to be a sort of meat wrap (I forget exactly of what type) and although the wrap itself was a pink colour rather than the more usual bread colour it tasted quite nice and was very welcome after all the walking. Our guide also had a sort of hot blackcurrent drink he made for us which was very nice and also some biscuits.
Being only just above freezing it was not somewhere you want to hang around too long as you get too cold so once everyone had had lunch we began the descent back down. The blue lake was a landmark and I could also see now over to the fjord on which Longyearbyen sits.
The sun too began to make intermittent appearances, lighting up the tops of the snow covered mountains.
Just near the lake our guide went ahead to find a good route and managed to fall over himself (but thankfully, he was not hurt). We agreed that wasn’t the best route down and so took a slightly different route back down. I had been ahead on the way up keen to get there. Now I wanted to savour the experience and was not so keen to get back, so I was now at the back of the group.
Being at the back meant when I slipped and fell over too, I’m pretty sure I got away with it because I don’t think anyone saw me! (It was a soft landing on the thick snow, anyway, so it didn’t hurt).
The rest of the descent was uneventful and soon we were back overlooking the valley of Longyearbyen.
Soon we descended from the snow and could take off the snow shoes and swap them for crampons. I was very pleased about that, though snow shoes are are also quite bulky to carry down.
Nearing the bottom we met some locals just out walking their dogs. Huskies, of course!
Now making our way back across the crumbly moraine the streams we had crossed earlier were indeed now noticeably wider and faster flowing than they had been on our way up.
Soon we made it back down to the tarmac road and the short walk onwards to the coal miners cabins.
Here it was time to return our equipment and we were then taken back to our respective accommodation. It was now mid-afternoon. The two Polish ladies had organised a dog-sledding trip for the afternoon and were worried about being late and missing it (but I found out later they did make it in time).
Although not a long walk by the standards of many I do it was quite tiring in it’s own way, largely because of the difficulty of walking in snow shoes and so walking in a different way I had aching muscles a bit. There is also quite a lot of ascent and descent, from sea level to over 800 metres. I decided to have a relaxing and warming bath for a while after which I felt much better.
I didn’t want to waste too much time lounging around the hotel though, I wanted to explore the town, so I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the town.
It’s fair to say much of the town could be described as functional rather than pretty. Many of the buildings are wooden on the outside at least and are raised up from the ground, which is mostly hard perma-frost, both because building foundations in perma-frost is not easy and also for warmth, though the raised section on most buildings is boarded up so you wouldn’t really notice other than having to go up some steps from the ground to get in.
The homes are a mixture of houses and small low-rise flats.
Though there are buildings to house tourists and scientists on a more temporary basis, too.
Whilst there are tarmac roads around the town centre the land beside the roads is mostly bare rock and gravel as with a covering of snow for much of the year, no day light in winter and the low temperatures there is little that can grow here.
The town is also criss-crossed by streams off the mountains which I imagine become rather wider when the snows begin to melt in the spring.
Up on the mountains either side the remains of coal mines can be seen though I don’t believe there is now any active mining in Longyearbyen.
One building I was keen to see was the wooden church so I headed across the stream to see it. It is quite pretty from the outside with a wooden frontage and small spire.
I decided to have a look inside which meant leaving my shoes in a rack in the entrance, as is the local custom (presumably to stop you walking snow and salt all over floors and carpets).
Inside it feels a bit more like a community centre than a church with comfortable seating areas with books and magazines to read and tea and coffee available.
Now heading back outside the extra height of the land around the church meant I had a good overview of the town in the valley.
Almost directly below the church is more remains of mining, with the wooden decks visible with wheels presumably once used for removing coal from the mine.
Now it is just left but walking past it I can see all the coal on the ground underneath the mine.
Continuing along the road I was now heading for the coast and passed a memorial on the right. I didn’t initially know to what, not speaking Norwegian, but the dates on it (1940-1945) suggest it is to do with World War II.
Up on the hills behind this area are the remains of more, much larger mines.
I also passed the buildings of the Governor of Svalbard.
Now I headed back down the hill towards the town centre again.
One thing I did notice was the cars. Most are either very new or very old, with seemingly nothing much in between. I was surprised to see even a Ford Cortina has somehow survived up here!
Having explored the town I headed back to my hotel for dinner and then ventured out again one to explore a bit of the coast.
As I approached, I got dive-bombed by some rather aggressive sea-birds that clearly resented my presence (though I stuck to the public road). They didn’t actually touch me but came close! (I later found out this is also quite common).
Some large boats were moored up in the Fjord. One looked like a cruise ship of some sort but the rest were very much working vessels.
The views either way were stunning.
I’d have liked to walk a bit but of course it’s not permitted to walk out of the town. So I headed back to my hotel as tomorrow promised to be a long day, where I hoped to reach the most northerly public town in the world, Ny-Ålesund.