The preparations for this 8-day, 150 km hike from Norwegian Longyearbyen to Russian Barentsburg and back, took almost a week. It was part of my participation in the Arctic Nature Guide course on Svalbard. Please note that due to regulations, polar bears, and the absence of trails, it is mandatory to hire local guides when hiking this route.
The class was divided into small groups. Every day, one of us had the guide responsibility for decision-making, navigation, polar bear safety, storytelling, and much more. In addition to the physical challenge of hiking 20 kilometers a day in rough terrain and with a fairly heavy pack, it has been mentally demanding, but incredibly educative to reflect on the guide role.
The first day started well with nice weather and lots of reindeer in the mountains. We quickly learned that a 1:100000 scaled map requires more advanced navigation. What looked like an easy 8-kilometer day trip over the mountains, with an easy descent, resulted in 18 kilometers of trial and error, turning around in a narrow and steep ravine, filled with loose boulders and large insurmountable amounts of snow and ice. It is difficult to find better places to camp than Bjørndalen. The sun colored the sky over the Icefjord to the west in all the colors of the rainbow, while the valley and the mountains to the east seemingly were on fire.
The landscape and weather change quickly on Svalbard and on day two, we experienced both sun and fog. Bjørndalen ends in a chaotic landscape of ravines and gullies, filled with yellow and green streams, frozen waterfalls, huge piles of rocks, and views of mountain peaks, glaciers, and moraines. The surreal landscape consisting of ice and rock in unknown mixing ratios gives you the feeling of being an explorer. Time and spatial dimensions seem less tangible so far north. The absence of trees makes it almost impossible to assess distances.
We had to take compass bearings in a whiteout to find our way to the coordinates of the planned camp. In the fog, I struggled to get the pegs into the frozen earth. Suddenly, the fog just disappeared and the sky opened up. Our nearest neighbors turned out to be two snow-capped mountain peaks, a steep foggy valley, and the wide Icefjord. The sunset was just indescribable, only beaten by a crescent moon that lit up and transformed the surroundings into a mysterious winter landscape.
Day three started with removing a few centimeters of fresh snow from the tent, before descending to Coles Bay, crossing the several kilometers wide marshy Coles Valley and the numerous branches of the meandering Cole River, through the steep Fossil Valley, and up to the Vesuvaksla plateau above the clouds. The swamps were partially frozen but were crossed by a lot of zigzagging and splashing. The last ascents just sucked all the energy out of our bodies. Group dynamics are important for motivating each other. A little black humor is good, but teacher Sigmund summed it up bluntly: “Shut up, and just have fun”.
The sun was about to set and the temperature dropped well below zero. On days like this, you realize that the job of a guide can be challenging at times, requiring a good dose of discipline.
On day four, I was the guide, leading the group to the Dutchman Valley. After having awakened everyone with the Dutch national anthem, I guided my group to the volcano-shaped Vesuv Mountain. The short but steep ascent to 739 meters was rewarded with vistas on much of Nordenskiöld Land and Icefjord.
That day, I realized exactly how valuable two years at Hardanger Folk Highschool have been. It is difficult to describe how rewarding it is to guide people enjoying themselves in one of the world’s most beautiful sceneries. We sang and solved riddles, ate lunch in the sun, shared fried bacon, and just soaked up the nature experience. Before departure, I had read about Willem Barentsz’ (re)discovery of Svalbard in 1596 and told with joy and passion about the Dutch explorers, whaling, and ancient settlements like Smeerenburg and Rijpsburg.
On day 5 we walked to Russian Barentsburg, The hotel bar was open, and the Russian pint tasted incredible. Drinking beer in the middle of nowhere was almost as unreal as the subsequent lunch we had in the old park, surrounded by old communist monuments and an Olympic cultural center that was moved there from Moscow after the 1980 Games.
After a few days in the wilderness, you’ll find yourself in a new reality. On day 6, all internet-related twaddle and a busy every day seem distant and forgotten. The routines were in place and the pack was getting light. After a while, you’ll become one with nature. With an emptied head, we hiked to the top of Oppkuven and down again to Cape Laila, where we camped and had a huge bonfire on the beach.
That night, I had a bear watch. When you are standing there alone on a cold dark September night, with a rifle and flare gun in your hands, while everyone else is asleep, you absolutely DO NOT want to see a polar bear. Throughout the hike, we actually had only one false alarm, when the bear watch got terrified of a pair of eyes slowly approaching camp. It turned out to be an innocent polar fox.
On day 7, we had to cross the river and marshes of Cole Valley again. The frozen landscape made the hike a lot easier and offered amazing views and reflections. The journey continued through Fardalen and after 23 long kilometers, the tents were pitched for the last time. The last barrier separating us from Longyearbyen was an ascent to Longyear Glacier at 650 meters.
On our way down on the blue ice, we discussed our personal reflections. I have become more confident in terms of my outdoor skills and routines, while others in the group discovered new jovial sides of themselves, and managed to push their limits much further than thought beforehand. On longer trips, you really learn in many different ways!
1,300 km from the North Pole, I engaged in the Arctic Nature Guide course. Glaciers, polar bears, midnight sun, northern lights, and living in a tent for months.
Part of our final guiding education exam, I have been part of 2 ski expeditions to the magic and desolate glacier world of Trollheimen.
As part of my Arctic Nature Guide education, I worked as a snow mobile guide. Mainly to either the East Coast of Spitsbergen, or Russian Barentsburg.
An 8-day ski expedition from Longyearbyen to Svea at the Van Mijenfjord. Crossing glaciers and sea ice, in -20 to -30 degrees Celsius. Challenging!
8 days on blue ice at Isfjorden in the high Arctic; to learn about glacier navigation, crevasses, belaying, rappelling, pulley systems, and rescue operations.
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