Aboard the Aleiga, Ski + Sail Svalbard, May 10-20, 2019
Day 1-2, Longyearbyen
It is a long haul to Svalbard, a place the Vikings dubbed “Cold Edge,” a tiny Norwegian archipelago between 74 and 81 degrees north. After 24 hours of travel, we fly in on beautiful sunny day: the landscape is covered in snow and fjords are blue with water and white with ice. It looks monochromatic—which I’ll later find is not the case. Longyearbyen is a coal mining and tourist town of 2500 permanent residents with a small university outpost and a few shops with an excellent selection of high-end outdoor gear and gun rentals. If you leave town, it’s mandatory to carry a rifle for polar bears. At the grocery, we show our boarding pass to buy beer, rationed because it’s tax free. At this time of year, it’s daylight for 24 hours. We see locals run and ski and bike: we later learn it’s because today is a less-common sunny windless day with temps above freezing. Snowmobiles litter the landscape like kids’ toys left in the yard. Stray reindeer nibble the tundra: they look like a cross between an elk and cow, but the size of a Shetland pony. The buildings are classic Scandinavia: outside nondescript and simple almost like pole barns with windows built on stilts because of permafrost; inside suddenly beautiful wood floors, knotty pine ceilings, stylish furniture, crispy clean. And the indoors are roasting warm. At the museum, we leave boots at the door and wear loaner slippers. At the restaurants, we eat moose burgers, fish burgers, fish stew.
Day 3 Longyearbyen to St. Johnsfjorden
We meet Christian Cesa, our jovial Italian mountain guide. He is a bit concerned about space because we have six skiers plus him and the skipper Delphine in the Ovni 455—a 45-foot aluminum-hull sailboat named Aleiga, meaning “All In.” The boat has 8 berths, two toilets, a small dinghy and lots of electronics. In addition to skis and a ski backpack, we each have a small duffel. I have spare ski clothes, comfy boat clothes, 7 beers (one per night), two pints of Oregon whiskey, indoor shoes, a camera, my new Kindle, and 3 packs of wet wipes (no showers on the boat).
At 4 pm we meet the boat at the harbor in Longyearbyen. The weather overcast and blustery with whitecaps and cold and sea dampness. The boat is stocked with a week of provisions including 550 liters of water. Our skipper Delphine is a smiley good-natured French woman living in Norway. After a safety briefing, she makes the difficult upwind exit from the harbor with expertise. We motor-sail out Adventforden (forden = fjord), and into the huge open water of Isforden. Jill and Eric rig the jib sail: we make 10 knots downwind. Since conditions are good, Delphine decides to pass the planned anchorage, and continue up Forlandsunde (sound) into St. Johnsfjorden at the foot of the Gaffelbreen (breen = glacier). She finally anchors at 4 am, 10 hours later.
Day 4 St Johnsfjorden to Lillehookfjorden
In the morning, I make coffee and scramble above deck. We are in a bay surrounded by mountains which are covered in ice and snow and spackled with rocks and tundra. After breakfast of muslie, yoghurt, cheese and bread, we assemble to ski: don clothing, pull on climbing harness, load our packs, crowbar feet into ski boots, unstrap the ski bags from the deck (no easy task on the slippery deck wearing ski boots), put on life vests. Before loading into the dinghy, we have a polar bear safety briefing. Our weaponry includes: a small handheld flare, a flare gun with three cartridges, and two 30.06 rifles. The flares are not to signal for help, but to point at the bear. Eric and I climb in the dingy with Christian, the arsenal, seven pairs of skis, and Delphine at the outboard motor. Ice chunks float in the water like melting cubes in a punch bowl. Delphine noses the dingy to an ice shelf three feet above the water and presses the dingy bow against the ice by revving the motor while we clamber out and haul the skis to the ice.
When the rest of the crew arrives at the ice shelf, we skin up the ice onto the Gallelbreen. But the weather is stormy and wet: poor visibility, 2 degrees C, and light snow. About an hour into our ski up the low angle glacier, conditions deteriorate. Had we been in the Alps with towns and rescue nearby, says Christian, we would keep going. But, considering the remoteness, we rip skins and ski back to the ice shelf where the glacier meets the sea. No is low tide, so we step from the ice to the exposed rocky shore.
Once back to the boat we lunch on reindeer stew with lingonberry jam and rice. Then set off motoring to the next anchorage. At one point, the snow comes down so hard and thick is creates a layer of broken snow patches on the water. We sail well into the next day.
Day 5 Lillihookfjorden to Ny-Ålesund
Time is measured by breakfast, ski, lunch, motor to new location, light dinner. After our last meal of the day it seems like 9 pm perpetually, because it’s late in the day but with the constant light doesn’t ever seem quite like bedtime. Today Eric and I wake up in our bunks at 2 am from the sea ice hitting the aluminum hull of our boat like an ice machine. I wake again at 3 am to the sound of the anchor dropping—Delphine anchors us in a fjord at the bottom of glacier with sea birds all around. We are tucked into Signehamme (hamme = bay) where Lillehoodbreen (glacier) meets Lillehookfjorden (fjord). We see two other boats anchored among the floating chunks of sea ice—more skiers. I’m fully up by 7 am drinking coffee on the boat while tiny sleet pellets ping the vinyl deck cover. We spy ptarmigans, seals, and an Arctic fox. More ice litters in the sea like gravel strewn on a driveway. Gray clouds hang above the mountains.
Again: don ski gear, ride the dingy to shore, and climb from the dingy onto an ice shelf. We climb Dronning Maud peak 866 meters: with intermittent fog we barely see the bay where our boat is anchored, but still make the summit. On the ski down, we find soft powder over granular ice, and then slushy powder over granular ice: a university student Eric and I met in Longyearbyen told us this granular ice is called “Svalbard Sandpaper.” After lunch of baked salmon and pesto pasta, we motor to within a hundred meters of the Lilliehookbreen: a massive wall of seracs that stretched a mile across the bay; the sea of ice chunks tinkle against the aluminum hull as we drift and stare.
Day 6 Ny-Ålesund
In stormy conditions, Delphine expertly brought Aleiga to dock late the last night to Ny-Alesund, small research outpost, the most northern settlement in the world with permanent residents. I wake up abruptly when another sailboat of skiers pulls into the tiny harbor and slams into Aleiga. Only minor damage. Stormy, no skiing: low clouds, fog, wind, snow, cold. In the research outpost of 50 buildings occupied by a dozen nations and 50 permanent residents, a 1-kilometer gravel road loops through town. This road is the only place visitors are allowed without a rifle. We learn there’s no locks on the doors for polar bear safety. This place started as coal mine, then became a base for whaling, fur harvesting, polar exploration, and now research on all things Arctic like ecotoxins and climate change. We visit a self-guided museum that’s always open (no lock) and a small tourist shop (bought hats, chocolate, and other sundries). We meet two friends of Delphine and grill them with typical tourist questions about their life at Ny-Alesund. We mention we are low on wine and later the friends bring us two boxes and a bottle—generosity in this place where supplies of everything are likely short.
We are stuck all day—too stormy to ski and too stormy to sail—and pass time by walking the town loop. I get restless so I put on winter gear and run 10 laps around the 1k loop. We hope we’re not stuck her too long. Baked halibut for dinner.
Day 7 Ny-Alesund to St. Johnsfjorden
After two nights in Ny-Alesund we head south at 5 am in slightly lighter wind and steel gray overcast. The sea is rough, so everyone feels crappy in various stages of sea sickness. Intermittent napping during the day helps. Delphine and Christian look at two ski spots on the way back down the Fordlandsunde but the Aleiga is limited by seas too rough to anchor. We are anxious get off the boat and ski. We see lots of reindeer on shore. Finally, 10 hours after sailing we arrive back into St Johnsfjorden. This time, Delphine pulls the Aleiga directly alongside an ice shelf, which extends at least a half mile from the glacier seracs to the dark sea. “How thick is this ice?” I wonder when I jump off the boat. Christian places three ice screws to tie up the boat, and then we drag the anchor nearly the entire length of the 50-meter chain up onto the ice as a safety. Eric and I unload skis, being instructed to deposit them five meters apart to distribute skier weight on the ice shelf. I silently run through the procedure if someone falls through the ice into the water. We skin across the ice and up a peak called Lowzowfejella, 642 meters. At the top I connect with a cell tower and try to send a text to my girlfriend Syd. No luck—we are far from everything, incommunicado by today’s standards but have coms: a marine radio, two sat phones, Eric’s satellite Garmin In-Reach. At the top, the ski down is variable: wind crust mostly, but I follow Eric down a gully where we find soft snow. After dinner of cabbage soup, Christian and I drag the anchor back to the boat, remove the ice screws, and jump on Aleiga where the two sailors of our group, Jill and Eric, are always crewing for Delphine. She anchors a few meters away.
Day 8 St. Johns Fjord to Trygghamma
I wake early to the noise of the anchor coming up and diesel motor starting. Eric and I have a bunk room, which is has enough floor space for two ski packs and one person to stand—we get changed for skiing one at a time and keep our duffel bags on our bunks. The first few days, I notice the stench of sweaty ski clothes, but now I don’t really notice any smell. Delphine is at the helm photographing two seals on the ice; she puts the Aleiga within five meters of the seals. Then we head south, to a walrus colony on Poolelepynten, a point on that has an old trapper’s cabin. Seals, a fox, many walrus and a minke whale, but no polar bears. The day’s sail takes several hours; we have a bit of warm wind so Eric and Jill put the stay sail up. The sea is much calmer and the temperature much warmer. Getting closer to civilization, we get cell reception, sail past the Russian settlement of Barentsburg, and head into Gronfjorden. We anchor at the Aldegondbreen and take the dinghy to shore, a rocky coastline on the edge of the glacier. We ski up an unnamed peak at 669 m between Strandlnulen and Qvidstadfjellet peaks. The ski down starts as firm windblown then as we tuck into a gully, becomes dry dense wind-packed powder—six inches of soft, untracked that is fabulous. We exit to glacier, load onto the Aleiga, and sail to Trygghamma (hamma = bay) for our ski objective tomorrow. Dinner: rice and salmon.
Day 9 Trygghamma to Longyearbyen
When I wake, I noticed something odd—the boat is not rocking. The water in Trygghamma is glassy with high overcast and warm temps. By warm I mean just above freezing with no wind chill so for the first morning of the trip I wear my light puffy instead of my thick down one. We don ski gear and take the dingy to Protektorbreen and skied up Daudmannen, a 770-meter peak. On the peak, we see many ski tracks. Fog lifts and we have enough visibility to ski supportable smooth firm crust and then traverse to the top of Daudmannenbreen, a steep glacier with a collection of seracs and an ice wall. Christian pulls out a rope, and anchors it on the tail of his ski jammed into the snow, so we can slide onto the glacier using a hand line. We exit by skiing down a drainage runnel that’s 3 meters deep. Back at the boat, we lunch on mutton stew and sail to Longyearbyen harbor. En route, half of us take hot showers, (the first of the week) in the tiny bathroom with a scant two liters of water. At Longyearbyen, we moor, take on 285 liters of diesel, and fill up the water tanks. Patty gives Christian and Delphine each a pair of sunglasses. We walk to town for dinner and a tour of a few bars with Delphine and Christian.
Day 10 Longyearbyen
We pack up for the trek home. We spend the day in town before heading to the airport at midnight. I want to run to the seed bank so I set off. But I don’t want to go past the sign demarking the edge of town, the point where I need a gun. I go past the town coal-fired power plant, a kennel with 50 sled dogs and a snowmobile shop. I run all the paved roads in Svalbard: it takes an hour. We walk through town again and again to pass the time in the perpetual daylight before we begin what is at least 24 hours of travel to get home. In a few hours when we land in Oslo, I’ll be shocked by how green the land looks—adjusting from the many shades of white snow and many shades of blue sky and blue sea. Just before leaving our small guesthouse at midnight to catch our flight, I see Wendy and Chris walk into the shower with their skis, to wash off the saltwater and the last remnants of Svalbard Sandpaper.