2009 – Touring Svalbard

Upon returning home, Sissel Aronsen sent us this report about their amazing trip, touring the length of Svalbard on skis.

Four of us decided we needed an adventure, and decided to ski the whole length of Svalbard. Our team consisted of: Håvard Fjeldheim, Kristin Haugen, Karin Franck-Nilsen and Sissel Aronsen. Our plans began to take shape in September, and we spent the winter detailing our trip, and training by dragging heavy sleds filled with sand.

Our plan was to be driven by snowscooter from Longyearbyen to Kvalvågen and start the trip there, ski down to Sørneset and take the same route back, and end up at Verlegenhuken, Spitsbergen’s most northerly point.

We started out with the best intentions, but the sleds were heavy and we weren’t quite in top form. Verlegenhuken seemed so far away, impossible to imagine. This was actually a good thing because it meant we had to focus more on enjoying the moment, and less on the final goal. After 4 days on skis, and 2 days out from Sørneset, the storm hit. We were at Isbukta, and became weatherbound for 3 days. It was a trying time and, in hindsight, some of the most exhausting days. Every other hour we had to get out and dig the snow away from around the tents. Otherwise the tents would have been buried in the drifts, and you can just imagine the consequences. So for three days we shoveled and shoveled and shoveled. We had very little sleep, and cold wet clothing.

When the weather finally calmed, we were exhausted.

We began to run out of petrol, and it was miles to the next fuel cache. In addition, the weather reports for the South Cape were not promising. So, we decided to turn around and head north to find more fuel. It was unfortunate we had to turn, but we weren’t keen for more storms. We wanted to get out and ski, not be stuck in the tent for days on end!

It had snowed a lot during the storm-filled days. We now had to push ourselves and our sleds through piles of snow. It was hard work, and some days we struggled to progress more than 1km/hour. It felt like we were constantly walking uphill, even if the topo lines on the map showed otherwise.

After 14 days we met our first snowmobilers, and we got a morale boost from seeing them. We knew the next day would be easier, and it was. But now there were snowmobile tracks for the remainder of the trip, and one can get sick of these too. The next days and weeks we covered around 30km per day, and made great progress. And we knew we’d reach Verlegenhuken, weather permitting.

Cold is the one factor you have to deal with constantly. You get warm when you ski, but it is windy and too cold to take off your jacket. So then condensation builds, and you are sticky and clammy most of the time.

It was around -30C degrees each day. You get used to it. You forget that you’re freezing. It’s a constant state. And you learn to do everything with mittens on.

There will certainly be many people who wonder why someone would bother to subject themselves voluntarily for a trek like this. And I must admit that, a few times, I wondered this myself. But now that I’ve been home a while, I have no doubt that it is the biggest and most amazing experience I’ve ever had. When I think back, it is not the cold and toil I remember. What I remember now is the sun, snow and mountains. Sitting in the tent with the primus and being warm, glaciers, crevasses, skiing, feeling in top shape, and goods friends with sleds. The silence. And I remember the polar bear we saw. And, last but not least, to be traveling in the wilderness together with good friends, who were still good friends after 30 days together.

Three days out from Verlegenhuken we were at Widjefjorden. We had skied close to 35km every day of late, and we knew that we would reach our goal. The route we had chosen now was up on Åsgårdsfonna (1200m). One of the reasons was lack of ice on the bay further north, so we saw it as the only possibility. We tied the sleds on were in good spirits, ready to ascend the 1,200m altitude. After about two hours we got reports from scooter drivers out on Fonna of very bad weather on the glacier. No visibility and strong northerly winds. It was a short day of skiing that day, and we lay in the tent pondering what we ought to do.

The next day we rang the meteorologist at Longyearbyen airport. He had bad news. Strong northerly wind and a low pressure system for the next four days. He strongly recommended that we stayed off Fonna. Boring, boring, boring.

That’s when we realized that Verlegenhuken wasn’t going to happen. Now that the target was so close, we weren’t going to reach it. Now our heads had to work, change our focus. What exactly is the goal?? Is it to be trekking in the Arctic? Or to ski a predetermined route with one goal? Eventually, we figure out that goal was always about being out on a trip, skiing and enjoying each day. So we turn southwards and westwards, and head down and over Austfjorden. And we understand that we made the right choice when the wind on the sea ice blows cold and strong. One can only imagine what it would be like 1200 meters higher up. We cross University Glacier, down Dickson Valley and Dickson Fiord and from there over to Billefjorden. Four lovely days on skis, with one goal – being out and about in the Arctic!!!

April 19th and the snowscooters have arrived, and we’re heading home. Us girls are crying. Is it really over?!?!