A diary extract from one of our charter guests on a recent Svalbard charter. Read more to find out about their adventures in this magical part of the world.
London, Gatwick – Oslo – Longyearbyen, Spitzbergen
With plenty of time to kill at the airport on our overnight stop in one of Oslo’s airport hotels, I made good use of this time by enthusiastically absorbing all the information I could about the wild expanse of white I knew as Svalbard, from a very informative guide book. The name ‘Svalbard’ relates to the islands north of Norway including Bear Island, Jan Mayen and Spitsbergen.
The capital of Spitsbergen (Svalbard) is Longyearbyen, 78 degrees north and a mere 600 miles from the North Pole! The island has a fascinating geological history and is a renowned stop-off for many polar explorers. Spitsbergen is the most northern city with a year-round population of only 2,200 people. The sun stays above the horizon from May until late August which is why it’s commonly referred to as ‘The land of the midnight sun’ – something we can’t wait to experience.
We were met by Peter, the Captain, who helped load us into taxis. Before we knew it there she was in all her glory, Firebird sitting in the glistening waters against the white and rugged backdrop of the Norwegian fjords. The last time I had the pleasure of seeing Firebird was on her previous Ski and Sail season based out of Tromsø, Northern Norway, a couple of years ago. Another wildly exciting and adventurous trip but not a patch on what we were about to embark on. After a very warm welcome onboard from Tim (first mate), Holly (stewardess) Andy (chef extraordinaire) and Massimo our mountain guide, the skis and ice axes were safely stowed and we sat down to beautifully presented canapés and champagne.
Before setting off, Peter gave us a very informative safety briefing which included slipping into the bright orange (of course) survival suits and dancing around the deck to check they fitted. A second safety briefing followed from Massimo on group management, behaviour onshore towards wildlife and bears – not an everyday charter briefing I must say.
We soon pulled up to our first anchorage – Tynarebukta of the Isfjorden which was beautiful. Rugged mountains with a splendid glacier, spilling out on to the sea ice filling the bay. A single Walrus made an appearance sending everyone running for their cameras.
After an excellent supper of mussels and locally caught fish, it was time for an early night. Thank goodness for the blackout blinds – 10pm with glorious sunshine outside.
Ski tour 1 – Sten De Geer Fjellet 558m
We woke to sounds of a ranging gale, however feeling quite smug as we were all curled up in our warm and comfy cabins. Having cracked the blind we were pleased to see that although windy, a stream of dazzling sunlight shone through. Breakfast is a banquet of fresh fruit, yoghurts, cured meats, freshly baked bread, juices, eggs…I could go on. The locally smoked salmon was a highlight for most of us.
A typical morning saw us packing up lunch, grabbing extra layers, skis and boot crampons, ice axes, shovels, probes and of course water. Our warmed boots were waiting for us on deck – a true floating chalet! Our skis, poles and Guide, Massimo, went ashore in the first run, whilst Peter or Tim find the best landing spot and check for bears. Guests head over in groups of four and leave the lifejackets in the Zodiac (tender) which returns to Firebird.
This morning we were dropped on a black sand beach with a small tide of maybe a metre and a half so the snow was just back from the water’s edge. After scrambling to get to the top of the snow ‘beach’, we clipped into our skis and took a moment to take it all in. This white world is so unique and peaceful, it’s quite hard to describe the sheer beauty. The glacier, snow-covered mountains and more birds whizzing around than I ever imagined, including Geese and Guillemots to name just a few. Anyway first thing’s first….we need to get out of the bear zone.
We didn’t get very far until one of the guest’s bindings broke but the crew jumped to immediately and after radioing down, Peter appeared with a replacement pair. Disaster averted, we turn to the mountains again.
We were all in awe as we watched whirls and vortexes created by the wind picking up loose snow around us – quite beautifully dramatic. We walked through a sheltered valley where we stopped for a drink and to reconfirm that we really wanted to get to the top – the answer was a resounding yes. As we climbed, the wind increased with us and ski crampons were needed for the last pitch. With just enough time to dig out a camera buried deep in our jackets, a quick team selfie was taken before starting the descent.
The ski down was brilliant fun, and the view looked like it had been ripped out of a fairy tale book. I don’t think I could ever get used to this raw and rugged natural landscape.
Once safely back onboard, tea, cakes and other treats were greatly received by the hungry adventurers!
Ski Tour 3 – Olsson Fjellet 921m
0100 – 0300 – Ice Watch
What a great job – we sat in bright sunshine rather than the usual dark and cold of a 1-3am watch. All totally still, and the water was like a mill pond. Aside from the odd bird chirping and glacier cracking we were stunned by the silence.
At 8am the crew brought Firebird in closer to the glacier to drop us off – there was so much ice around, it was like taking the Zodiac through a Slush Puppy. We headed up the valley that was hiding the full view of the glacier not far to the right of us and we made good progress up the slope that lead us up towards the summit. Every step we took, the views and great expanse of Arctic Norway opened up a little bit more. It was indeed one of the most spectacular sites I have ever seen with glaciers meandering inland and streaking with moraines against the stark contrast of the mountains. Way below us, Firebird looked like a toy boat bobbing calmly on the water. After reaching the summit with boot crampons and carrying our skis, the ski from the top was incredible. It was a wide pitch with lots of wind lips to jump, leading into a couloir where the snow was a little heavy but nonetheless, such fun.
With some downtime before dinner to read or take advantage of the yacht’s extensive collection of movies available from the TVs in each cabin subtly hidden behind canvas artworks. After the exquisite fresh fish, we were all pretty tired after another seven hour day of skiing (I know, hard life) so we gave the cards a miss tonight and turned in early.
Ski Tour 4 – Kronpris Olavs Fjellet North 1039m
So today looked pretty easy on the map but ended up being one of the most technical and testing days both on our fitness and mental strength. The face was steep with hard slippery snow meaning the skis had to be swapped for boot crampons and ice axes and we continued at a steady pace accompanied by light-hearted chat. After a steep gully that lined with two ridges of rocks, we reached the top and traversed to the right to get on to a face where we could put our skis on again. The wind had found us so we had to be quite careful as to the path we chose – safety first! The ski down was just as steep as the walk up – if you are into black runs in the Alps, you’d have been right at home!
Time for more food thank goodness. We had delicious reindeer rump, spicy reindeer sausage, mash, vegetables and the most delicious gravy! Pudding was poached pear in a cinnamon, clove and chocolate sauce. It looks beautiful and tastes good too – one I will try and recreate at home.
We set off on a scenic cruise on the western part of the glacier wall in Lilliehookbreen. We sat on deck feeling as small as ants and insignificant beneath this huge imposing wall of ancient ice. It’s not often I’m left speechless, but this was one of those occasions.
There had recently been a huge piece of ice that had fallen and broken into a million piece in the waters below, so Firebird slowly pathed her way through the picturesque waters. There was something almost hypnotic about the wall of ice which we all stared at in total fascination.
Ski Tour 7 – Ryggen 673m, Poolepynten
The clouds are moving fast today making the conditions extremely varied – one minute it’s bright sunshine, the next we were fully clouded in. On reaching the summit today, those with phones picked up the first signal we’d had in six days. Whist our phones buzzed like crazy we all chose to ignore them and switch to aeroplane mode to stay ‘off grid’ – a feeling of true escapism and a shame it can’t be done more often.
Back on the boat we were greeted with the delights of pasties and a choice at that! Beef, veg and salmon – oh and how could I forget the lemon drizzle cake. Gosh I am going to miss this food.
On our way to Trygamna back in Isfjorden we stopped at Poolepynten further down the coast of the island to visit a huddle (yes a huddle) of walrus. Dressed to impress in our Firebird beanies we headed to the beach. It was awash with driftwood from old whalers huts that had long been abandoned. We managed to get quite close up these dozing giants and their enormous tusks. Strange but impressive animals – they make moving look such hard work as they waddle over to see their friends. The youngsters appear a little more active as they play and splash in the shallows. They can hold their breath for up to 40 minutes to some quite impressive depths as they use their tusks to prise off clams and other seafood from the sea floor…lots of food needed to maintain their blubbery bodies in these sub-zero temperatures.
The crew had lifted the anchor and got us moving before we were up. We sailed round to Pyramiden, an old Russian coal-mining settlement that was abandoned in an afternoon. It was in operation from 1910 to 1998. The buildings are still intact and apparently, if you go in, it still looks lived in with toys on the floor, food on the shelves and tables still laid – bizarre.
We were due to have a guided tour right before the radio went to tell us a polar bear had been spotted in the next fjord. After a frenzy of everyone grabbing jackets and shoes and getting on deck as fast as possible, there he was, a young male, striding across the shoreline. Bigger than I ever imagined, huge paws and his thick coat swinging as he jogged along the beach. He was beautiful and everything I had hoped for. Once everyone had calmed down and got as many pictures as possible it was time to start packing and head back to Longyearbyen. I can’t believe this marvellous experience is nearly at an end, it’s been truly magical. I feel very lucky to have been part of this expedition and to have seen this beautiful place.
We got to Longyearbyen around 7.30pm. Just enough time to get to our dinner reservation at a fantastic restaurant in the town. The beer from the most northern brewery in the world went down a treat with good food but of course nowhere near as good as Andy’s (Firebird’s chef). The crew are amazing and have gone above and beyond in making sure we had the most amazing experience possible – we certainly have.
Back at the boat we had a cup of tea before turning in for the last time on the mighty Firebird. A true once in a lifetime experience that I will never forget…..where to next!?