Today, we celebrated a birthday. We have just returned from our 8-day expedition to the tremendous Nordenskiöldbreen glacier, and, whilst noting down each others’ birthdays to produce a moonshine batch of student ID’s, we noticed one had passed recently. Very recently. And nobody had known. A secret council met and it was concluded that as a surprise for our unrequited classmate, we should make a cake and present it at lectures the next day. The grand moment arrived next morning and, ushering through the prodigiously eggy creation we had fashioned (more like a substantial omlette than anything else), we laid it triumphantly before the student in question. Through a combination of halting English and stunned facial expressions (though at first we concluded this was merely in reaction to the jumbo omlette), it became evident that a mistake had been made. The birthday in question had been on the 9th of February (rather than the date we had mis-read, the 2nd of September), resulting in an egg-ceptional mess nobody really had the stomach to tackle.
This moment was a little underwhelming, though it was ultimately a relief to discover we had not missed this opportunity to celebrate whilst on expedition. And what an expedition it was. I’ve never really had much time for glaciers. In stuffy geography lessons, you learn about these colossal tongues of ice that act as powerful erosive forces; of little interest, it seemed, to creatures whose lifespan is measured in decades rather than centuries. I have been on snow-covered glaciers before and, other than the gnawing threat of invisible crevasses beneath your feet, they seemed just as insignificant then. But finally, standing in the shadow of the mighty Nordenskiöldbreen, I understood why people make such a fuss about this natural process.
The first thing that strikes you is the raw energy of the thing. It thunders, cracks and trembles as it shifts on its stony bed; often so momentously that the shock of the noise hitting you can be felt as a physical change in air pressure. To be within Nordenskiöldbreen (pronounced nord-en-shoal-bray-en) is to be encased in a snarled, tangled, carved labyrinth of bright white ice; riddled with deep blue crevasses. At times, it reminded me of travelling atop a giant merange. Chunks of ice the size of cars crumble into the fjord from its scarred face, forming ice-bergs that fill the horizon on a clear day and provide resting spots for the fat bearded seal. It is magnificent, dynamic and awe-inspiring.
The face of Nordenskiöldbreen
A rope-team weaves its way through the glacier
We had the privilege of working on this entity for eight days, time spent learning some of the staple technical skills of Arctic guiding. Our foursome of expert teachers (soon reduced to a threesome and then just two due to a series of unfortunate circumstances) drilled us in crevasse rescue, abseiling and rope-work until we could perform it upside-down. In one of my classmate’s case, this became a necessity. When breaking for lunch, you get to sit in watery twenty-four-hour arctic sunshine and stare vacantly at a gorgeous vista of ice, mountain and sea, your mind blissfully wiped by the effort of the day.
“The White House” in front of the glacier
We return to camp at night for communal supper and then draw the lottery for polar bear watch. If you’re unlucky, you will draw a late-night slot, resulting in another student rousing you at four in the morning. Extricating yourself from a warm sleeping back and pulling on clothes and boots in a daze, you will stumble from the tent and up to a high point of the morraine to watch over the camp in case the world’s largest land predator should come calling. They’re everywhere here. A large male bear was seen at our campsite not six days before we arrived, with a mother and cub present just a week before that. Meeting another group of travellers, we heard how they had seen a bear in the neighbouring valley just the day before; news that keeps you vigilant over the long, cold hours on guard. We still have yet to see one, a duck I am determined to break.
The view from our watch-post
A sunlit Nordenskiöldbreen
Ice-bergs in the fjord
On Friday, Sigmund (our course coordinator) announced to our group that we would be staging a first aid scenario for the others. Rather foolishly, I rejected the chance to play the victim so that I could fire the flare-gun, a decision I would come to regret. Instead, my role was that of hysterical bystander, trying to make life as difficult as possible for the other groups attempting to rescue us. All was going according to plan and we even placed a call to the Sysselmann (Governor) to request a helicopter. Which much to our suprise, actually arrived.
The correct way to show a helicopter where to land
The downdraught from the rotor blades is immense, so much so that it blows chunks of ice off the surface of the glacier and sends them spinning painfully into any skin you have exposed. Which of course means, your face. It was only when the victims were winched into the helicopter that it became evident just how high a premium I had paid for the childish urge to fire the flare.
The arrival of the helicopter capped off an epic trip. There is little more satisfying than spending a hard day on the ice in one of the world’s most spectacular locations and then returning to supper, a camp fire and a warm sleeping bag. You feel there is nothing else you could possibly need, though a shower begins to look appealing after a week spent at very close quarters.
Returning from the glacier, I begin to understand how it must be for a hunter-gatherer society to suddenly find itself in the excesses of Western Civilisation. With everything on expedition in such short supply, it becomes difficult not to empty the store when entering a super-market, where you at last have access to unlimited goods. Some of this mentality may have been at play last night, when a beer-pong party escalated rather faster than anticipated. At some stage, a shaver was acquired with devastating consequences for yours truly. Another classmate, Ola, also suffered badly. The two of us emerged from our rooms at the same time this morning and, catching sight of our respective haircuts, wept with helpless laughter. In a town the size of Longyearbyen (just 1500 inhabitants), I think my one hope may be to sport my new trim so unabashed that I set a new fashion.
Not sure how I’m going to rectify this one. I look like a mushroom
Below is a link to a small highlights video I’ve made of the first few weeks. I’ve got some lovely footage but very little idea of how to put it together, as may become apparent.