Arctic Ski Dreams Part 2: Weathering The Storm

This is part 2 of 2 stories from Jessica Baker's ski trip in Svalbard via sailboat. Check out the first installment here.

We wake to an overcast day, but the ceiling is high enough to see the tops of the peaks. We load the zodiac to head toward the shore near our first objective, a 900+ meter peak with a cirque glacier that looks relatively filled in and benign for our first adventure together as a team.

Our tiny zodiac can only carry three to four of us at a time, so we make two trips to get the team to shore. I have a VHF radio to communicate with Ben, who will stay with the boat, and we also have a set of DeLorme inReaches to communicate in case we lose radio contact. Otherwise, we are alone. Our resources are limited to what we have chosen to bring along, and the skill sets we possess. We are responsible for ourselves. It’s thrilling, and wonderful, and humbling.

We skin for several hours, up toward our objective, a warm up to get dialed into our gear and technical systems, nothing too extreme. Once we reach the main glacier we rope up and review butterfly knots and prusik use. The team has a variety of experience from never having traveled in glacial terrain to full professional skier and guide.

 

The light is very white and flat, but the glacier is well filled in so we push forward to a headwall that leads to the summit. When I arrive at the base of the headwall, I realize it’s far steeper than I anticipated. I look back at the team and ask them if they are up for the challenge. Everyone nods, perhaps some more enthusiastically than others. I ask everyone to transition to their crampons and ice axes, we are now going to head straight up the headwall that is too steep for skinning. Meredith has never worn crampons before, and just wants to make sure she’s doing it right. I go over a quick review of putting them on, kicking steps, and using anchor and arrest positions with our ice axes.

We plunge and kick our way up the 50+ degree headwall, and the team performs fabulously. As we crest the upper ridge we get a view of the other side out toward the sea. The light is deteriorating and the clouds are getting thicker. We celebrate our high point which is about 700 vertical feet below the true summit, and descend. The turns are nearly blind, in firm snow, but consistently steep and fun, until we take a break partway down to find what we thought was a polar bear between us and our boat.

 

After clearing that up and returning to the Knüt, we laugh over dinner and go to sleep at 1 a.m.—it feels like 9 p.m. Already our sense of time is beginning to deteriorate.  At 3 a.m. Ben wakes me up saying he needs help—we need to move the boat right away. The wind has picked up our anchor is no longer holding so we’re drifting too quickly toward shore. I help Ben pull anchor, but halfway up, the anchor motor breaks. We must manually pull the anchor, I employ more sleeping people to help with this urgent exodus. The wind is whipping, and I’m now wearing my tether to keep myself anchored to the boat. With two of us manually pulling up the anchor, it takes 45 minutes. Meanwhile the captain is using the Knüt’s motor to keep us from hitting shore. We raise the sails and work our way north at the whim of the weather. I help our captain navigate through a shallow passage and we discuss our next set of options.

The weather radio is reporting an intense three-day storm, with high winds and precipitation. In these winds and weather the safest and closest place for us to go is Ny-Ålesund, a small seasonal research community north of us with 35 year-round residents and 100 summer residents. The settlement is not incorporated and does not provide services to the public other than a small harbor to dock, and a set of bathrooms with showers.

By the time we pull into Ny-Ålesund’s small harbor the wind is something fierce. It’s nearly impossible to dock the boat because of a massive broadside wind. It takes the whole team to help get us docked and secured. There are several boats in the harbor but as the day goes on, more pull in until the harbor is at capacity. We sit out the storm.

 

On the third day the weather finally begins to let up. We have boat fever, and feel the need to move further north, into the great wild once again. We say goodbye to our new friends and wave to the random folks we met during our unexpected stay. The arctic fox that has been stealthfully perusing the shoreline makes one more appearance as we leave the dock, hoisting our sails and heading north to the land of couloirs and seabirds, Krossfjorden. It has snowed at least two feet during the storm, the mountains are covered in a fresh coat of white, and the glaciers glow turquoise blue.

 

Anchored in a protected bay, we ascend a wide glacier to a broad col. My topo shows similar terrain on the other side of the col. Much to my surprise, as we crest the col we come into couloir town and a breathtaking view of the fjord on the other side. There are endless ski descents lined out in front of us that drop all the way to the sea. The silence is broken only by our laughter and the sea birds nesting and feeding below. We ski back down the big, broad glacier with some powder and good turns. We’ll need to move the boat to the other fjord to take advantage of the lines we scouted.

 

Time is becoming one big blur. We make dinner at 1 or 2 a.m., and our start times have moved closer toward noon. We are contemplating letting go of our time concepts all together. The next few days we explore the region around us with spring ski descents and a walking mission to the ‘Lloyds Hotel,’ an old shelter from the early 1900’s.

 

With rising temperatures, we aim for higher elevations and big glaciated terrain in hopes for colder temperatures. We work Snowdomen, one of the larger peaks in the region. The first day, we uncover several gaping crevasses just barely hidden under a thin snowpack. One team member opens another crack off the back of her splitboard, and we decide it’s just too hazardous to move forward. We transition carefully and descend.

 

Snowdomen attempt day two, we decide to start at 12 a.m., in hopes of catching some slightly cooler temperatures. The temperature feels a little too warm. Another few hundred feet up in a different direction and we can hear free water moving through the snowpack and experience a massive slope-wide collapse. Time to retreat. The mountains are in transition, and the temperatures are not conducive to skiing at the moment. As we catch the zodiac ride back to the Knüt, we spot a seal resting on a piece of ice up close.

 

We head around the peninsula to see if we can ski the couloir zone we’d scoped a few days previously. As we round the point, it’s clear that a massive amount of snowmelt and runoff has occurred. Our couloirs are barely skiable and the temperatures are too warm. The team’s disappointment is palpable. To lighten our lamentation captain Ben takes us on a boat tour of the Lillehöökbreen glacier at the head of the fjord. Large pieces of the glacier are calving into the fjord, and we pass by numerous icebergs that are two to three times larger than our boat.

 

We make a plan to regress back towards Longyearbyen. The next two days are full of playful ski lines in spring corn conditions and a few polar plunges. And as a final treat we spot a whale breaching in the fjord as we ski one of our lines. The whale surfaces multiple times near our boat, while we watch from the mountainside above.

 

Upon return to Longyearbyen, the harbor is full of boats and the town seems to be getting busier with the oncoming summer tourism. I cannot help but feel a shift inside me: The place has worked its way inside my core. I hope for every human to experience the peace that comes with visiting a place that’s truly wild and untouched in so many ways. I hope that it helps us work to preserve this place in its natural state for many generations to come.

Photos courtesy of Jessica Baker, Nayla Tawa and Meredith Richardson.