The raw beauty of Svalbard

By Matthew Harris (lambchopeindhoven)
From my hiking blog on Svalbard.

Not so long ago, in a land far far away, I spent ten days on a rocky, icy landscape, bathed in the eternal sun. This far away land was Svalbard – a distant Norwegian archipelago at 79 degrees north. We set up base camp on a remote fjord and explored the neighbouring glaciers and peaks.

I was part of a trip organised by High Places. Our base camp consisted of a large orange dome which was the mess and hanging out tent. Then we had 3 small sleeping tents. This and a few logs to sit on, a fire, and an outside loo around the corner was to be our home for the next while.

Base camp on Svalbard

Base camp on Svalbard

During the day we would make hikes through this barren, cold landscape. In the night – a night as light as the day – we would sleep. And we would watch for bears.

Time loses its meaning on Svalbard. The sun doesn’t set. The sun doesn’t get near the horizon. It just precesses around the sky in never ending circles. We decided to lose time, collectively, as a group. In this eternal day, we would define ‘night’ as we pleased. As a group, we decided that 22:00 would be when we go to bed – by definition. Ten hours later (8 hours sleep and 2 hours bear watch), we would get up, and it would be 08:00 – by definition. We would hide our watches, and eat when we are hungry, and sleep when we are tired. So was our time on Svalbard. Away from the world, in a timeless land of rock, ice and snow.

The sun comes out in this barren wilderness

The sun comes out in this barren wilderness

Sam, our guide, who did keep an eye on the real time, told us later that within 3 days we were 6 hours behind real time. Our days had been long. Our hikes had been long.

Our walks took us along rocky fjord shores and across glacial streams. Water from the glacier melts and flows down into the fjord, fanning out into long tentacles. In order to cross these icy melts, you walk to where it is most braided and cross one little stream after the next, wearing neoprene socks for the cold, and sandals for the pointy rocks.

Crossing a glacial stream

Crossing a glacial stream

A glacier is a beautiful expanse of turquoise blue ice, etching its way down a valley. A moraine is a pile of rocks and sludge that the glacier vomits out at the bottom. We had to cross our fair share of moraines.

Crossing a massive moraine

Crossing a massive moraine

Crossing all these obstacles, we were able to walk in a land of rock, cloud, ice and snow. Across glaciers, over ice sheets and up mountains.

Up an icy valley

Up an icy valley

Up into the clouds

Up into the clouds

A rock configuration called Tarantallen

A rock configuration called Tarantallen

Coming out of the clouds

Coming out of the clouds

From the pass into the valley

From the pass into the valley

A rest in the sludge

A rest in the sludge

Every ‘night’ was punctuated with bear watch. Polar bears roam around Svalbard, and, although not their first choice, a human could make for a tasty (if lean) morsel. At a different time each night, I was woken to be the only person awake at our camp, panning the landscape for polar bears. On these watches, armed with an alarm flare, I would sit on our little log in front of the mess tent, write my journal, and do some exercises. The daily two hours of bear watch became a favourite time of the day. Alone in this arctic landscape, I gazed over the fjord and soaked in the peace and tranquility. Seagulls would fly past. Arctic terns would hover above the water and then dive, dining on the fish swimming below the surface of the still fjord waters. The light would change as clouds came and went. The wind would pick up and die off. And I was here, alone, now.

On our only multiple day trek, at our advanced base camp, I presided over the most spectacular views of the whole trip during my polar bear watch, accompanied only by Genou – the guide’s dog. It was 3am, the skies had cleared, and the sun bathed the whole lunar landscape in the most amazing light.

Bear watch in the sun.

Bear watch in the sun.

The advanced base camp in the sun.

The advanced base camp in the sun.

That day saw us climb up a glacier onto the wide ice sheet above. Bathed in sun (the best weather of the trip), we trudged through the slushy snow on the ice sheet towards a nunatuk – a mountain surrounded by ice. We had beautiful views, but, due to the sludge, didn’t make it to the nunatuk.

Climbing the glacier.

Climbing the glacier.

Looking down the glacier.

Looking down the glacier.

On the ice sheet.

On the ice sheet.

Svalbard, apart from being a destination for tourists seeking the barren beautify of the far north, it is also a mining island. Mining still takes place there. A lot of the unused mining infrastructure, although decaying, is protected, and touching or tampering with it is against the law. Consequently, there are pylons and posts, worn and decrepit roads. There is also an (almost) abandoned Russian mining town – Pyramiden.

Rusting mining infrastructure on Svalbard.

Rusting mining infrastructure on Svalbard.

Pyramiden

Pyramiden

Pyramiden

Pyramiden

A captivating sight. Mining buildings and equipment, rusting and decaying in this bleak, polar desert. Walking through this ghost town, it feels like planet earth after society has collapsed, and humanity has left. Svalbard is truly at the end of the earth.

Copyright: Matthew Harris (lambchopeindhoven)

119 thoughts

  1. Wow, was für eine großartige und außergewöhnliche Reise und welch wundervolle Worte du gefunden hast, all dies zu beschreiben.

    Das mit der Zeit ist sehr interessant, dass ihr euch sechs Stunden hinter der realen Zeit befunden habt, indem ihr es so gelebt habt, wie ihr es gespürt habt, wie es für den Moment richtig war für euch.

    Hab kürzlich von einer spirituellen Lehrerin gehört, dass aufgrund des Übergangs des Zeitempfindens von der 3. Dimension in das Zeiterleben der 5. Dimension (so man so einer Theorie überhaupt folgen möchte) so viele Menschen in Zeitstress geraten, solange sie den Übergang noch nicht vollzogen haben, was im Laufe von 2013 dann globaler der Fall sein würde. Aufgrund dieser Umstände sei es auch stressig geworden, multimedial unterwegs zu sein. Es helfe, immer nur ein Ding nach dem anderen zu tun. Dabei ist mir aufgefallen, dass es mir durchaus so geht, dass ich immer häufiger immer nur eins nach dem anderen tue, weil mir alles andere zu viel wird (und ich dachte, es liegt daran, dass ich älter werde).

    Liebe Grüße
    Marion

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    • das finde ich jetzt interessant, liebe Marion, denn auch ich habe in diesem Jahr “multitasking” weitestgehend abgeschafft🙂 danke für diesen interessanten Beitrag! herzliche Grüße Frau Blau

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    • Liebe Marion.
      Vielen Dank für deine sehr netten Eindrücken.
      Das mit der Zeitverschiebung fanden wir auch sehr interessant. Irgendwie das Wegstecken von Uhren und das Verlassen von der Zeit hat es uns (zu minderst mich) mehr ‘in the now’ gebracht. Man kümmert sich nicht auf was kommt, sondern man lebt jetzt, und intensiver. Das waren 10 Tage (oder besser gesagt 240 Stunden) von Abschalten vom hektischen Leben, und einfach Erleben von einem wunderschönen Ort am Ende der Welt.

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    • Lieber Matthew,

      das kann ich mir sehr gut vorstellen! Beim Lesen bin ich mit euch in den Flow gegangen…🙂

      Meine momentane Lebenssituation erlaubt und zwingt mich ebenso, so oft wie möglich im Hier und Jetzt zu sein, alles andere ist viel zu stressig und macht mich nur kaputt.

      Zweifellos war dies eine ganz besondere Erfahrung für euch, die euch niemand mehr nehmen kann und immer in angenehmer Erinnerung bleiben wird. Vielleicht trägt sie auch dazu bei, immer wieder einmal im Alltag innezuhalten und sich zu fragen: Was möchte ich wirklich? Was ist mir wirklich wichtig?

      Liebe Grüße
      Marion

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  2. What a surprise! A post about Svalbard, I can’t believe, that’s great, thank you Matthew.
    I know what you mean about loosing time staying here, that goes for the long dark winter as well as the short summer.
    It was a pleasure reading about your hiking trip, visit us again soon!

    Greetings from Longyearbyen
    Per Magnus

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    • Hi Per.
      Greetings back to Longyearbyen. I really enjoyed my time there at the start and end of the trip. On our last evening we visited the night life of Longyearbyen, ending up at Huset. Also a surreal experience, moving from bar to bar in the middle of the night in the bright daylight.

      I am curious to experience Svalbard in the winter too. I was in Tromsø last December where there was only 3 hours of (the most beautiful blue) twilight each day before the darkness fell again. Svalbard is completely dark in December, I heard.

      I also heard of amazing expeditions possible in March when there is daylight. Amazing glacial caving, and expeditions through the snow and ice. I would, indeed, like to return.

      Greetings from Eindhoven.

      Matthew

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  3. What a wonderful post, so interesting! I couldn’t go on a trip like that, I couldn’t do all that climbing and walking, but if I could be parachuted in, I would love the experience of being in such a remote and different place!

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  4. Hi Matthew,
    I would never have believed that as someone who has become used to the climate in southern Texas I’d ever want to experience anything that far north, but your posting here about Spitzbergen, as it’s called in my native German language, really makes me long for such a landscape: thanks for sharing!
    Best regards,
    Pit

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  5. dear Matthew, wonderfull pics again about an interesting jouney … to be honest, I was awaiting pics from the bears, as well🙂
    thank for sharing, wishing you a good time
    heartly regards
    Frau Blau

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    • Hi Frau Blau.
      We didn’t see a bear, but we did see a bear footprint near our advanced base camp. It was maybe a few weeks old..
      So, worth watching out for them. To be honest, I was kind of hoping to see one (in a safe situation).. I was also hoping to see a walrus. Didn’t see any of them either. We saw lots of puffins, though, who are really cute.

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  6. Such gorgeous landscape and your pictures captured it very very well. Your words too gave such a good feel for what your trip felt like. I don;t think I could have enjoyed the quiet bear watch times quite as much as you though, what with the whole watching for bears thing!
    Thank you for this wonderful post.

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  7. Einfach phantastisch, was Du hier mit Text und Bildern erzählst und zeigst. Man kann sich kaum wirklich vorstellen, wie und was Ihr dort erlebt und empfunden haben mögt. Das ist schon sehr speziell. Vielen Dank, Matthew, dass wir zumindest einen Einblick davon erhaschen durften.
    Wunderbar.

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    • Ach. Die Eisbären.. Wir waren vorbereitet und hatten einen Gewehr. Nur der Reiseführer dürfte den benutzen, aber, sicher waren waren wir. Und, Eisbären sind schön (wenn sie weit genug entfernt sind..).🙂

      Like

    • @allesistgut – herzlichen Dank für den Besuch.
      Deine Berichte von Island verführen ebenfalls zum Reisen, eine wunderbare Fotogeschichte.
      Liebe Grüße
      Dina

      Like

  8. What a great, great & fun adventure! Woehoe! Cool & cold too!🙂 Thanks for sharing. When I was younger, my parents & I climbed mountains like that on our Holiday’s in Switserland!🙂 but in Summertime!

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    • Hey Sophie. Thanks for your lovely comment. Switzerland is also a beautiful country. The alps are amazing.
      I am glad that I was in Svalbard in the summer. It is a very cold and dark affair in the winter (although you can see the northern lights)..

      Like

  9. A great post about Svalbard and great pictures. So far I have only been sailing along the shore of Svalbard, but one day I’ll make onshore. It’s such a beautiful landscape.

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  10. Stunning pictures … and I’m entirely fascinated by your report. I love the thought of eternal sun .. I think I’d like that – because I always find this dark time of year from November to February quite difficult … while you could just define “night” by yourself .. but I actually wouldn’t like to be there in winter when it’s eternal darkness😉

    My favorite photo is that breathtaking view with Genou in the front and you both as “shadows” ..

    Thanks so much for sharing that experience with us🙂

    Like

  11. What a fascinating blog! I particularly liked being able to view the industrial remains as well as the beautiful scenery – an interesting contrast.
    Thanks for checking out my blog and liking many of my posts!

    Like

    • Hi Bill, thanks for visiting, following and your kind comment. I’m glad I found you, I really enjoy your blog!
      Greetings from the far North
      DIna

      Like

  12. A great report about your adventure. It brings back my memories about my journeys to Svalbard. Thank you for sharing your realistic pictures transporting the arctic mood very well.
    Have a great weekend
    Klausbernd

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  13. I’m in awe of such an intrepid spirit! That looks like pretty rough terrain to hike, but how awesome is that landscape! Intriguing how water transforms at low temperatures … Glaciers, ice, snow, nunatuk, and the colours. A wonderful post🙂

    Like

  14. Dear Dina: Thank you so much for visiting my blog. This blog post is just heavenly, the photos are marvelous. A huge contrast to the tropics, where I live, of course! But I often yearn for wild, empty, wind-swept, COLD places like these. Absolutely beautiful – and, as you say, a raw kind of beauty. Thanks, and please visit again soon! Greetings from Kingston, Jamaica…

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    • Thanks SJK. We didn’t see any polar bears. I was kind of hoping to see one from a distance, but, no. We did see a polar bear foot print, though..
      Apparently they are common enough to warrant a polar bear watch at night. Quite exciting..🙂

      Like

  15. Hi Matthew,
    Was just researching polar bear trips to Svalbard, and wondering who might have been there – and of course thought of you.
    What an amazing blog – well done!
    I don’t think I will go hiking, as you probably don’t really want to find a polar bear in your camp . .do you know anything about any of the boat trips? Or other must see places in Norway?
    Hope to catch you when you are in Australia.
    Best wishes,
    Kerry Gaudry

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  16. Guten Morgen, liebe Hanne,
    wunderschöne Fotos zeigt ihr uns hier.
    Da bekomme ich gleich Lust, los zu wandern.
    Leider hat uns der Schnee auch in Berlin wieder erreicht. Das finde ich nicht so schön, meine Stiefmütterchen ertrinken im Pulverschnee…..
    Wie sieht es in Bonn aus? Hat euch das Wetter auch getroffen?
    Einen schönen Sonntag Morgen sendet dir aus Berlin, Susanne

    Like

  17. Pingback: Northern Mindscapes | The World according to Dina

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