a ski- & snowboardexpedition high up North on Svalbard
Mid-April three members of the freshies.ch Crew - i.e. René, Salomon and Stefan - went on a ski- and snowboard expedition high up north on the archipelago of Svalbard (Spitzbergen).
Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. The islands of the group range from 74° to 81° north latitude, and from 10° to 35° east longitude.
For two weeks, we undertook various tours in the icy noman's land and pitched our tents on the Sagabreen, an anabranch of the Fridtjovbreen, the largest glacier in the central Nordenskiöld Lands.
We've created this website to share our adventures and memories with our families, friends and all of you who are interested in them. And of course, also as sweet memories for us.
We woke up our leadguide Greg Johnson from his deep sleep and patiently waited for his "Ok let's go for it boys - now!" The adrenaline was pumping through our bodies and even the rattling temperatures of almost -30° C couldn't stop us now.
But wait - let's go back to the very beginning of our adventure in the freezing temperatures of Svalbard. It all started at a place that couldn't have been more different than this place here.
During a surf trip in Portugal last summer we discussed our plans for the winter time and what tours and adventures we wanted to undertake. We all have traveled to many different places and were fortunate enough to ride first lines in many places. So this time our big winter adventure should take us to a remote place far from civilization. Somewhere unknown - at least to us. And when Stefan all of sudden came across some incredibly beautiful pictures of Spitzbergen while surfinng on the internet, we were immediately fascinated by the untouched nature.
Is it possible to go freeriding there? How can you get there? What is the best time to go so far north? All these unanswered questions piqued our curiosity and had to be further investigated.
Soon we found out that there is a logistics base operator on Svalbard called "The Empire", which offers expeditions to the noman's land on Svalbard. And by coincidence "The Empire" planned its first freeride expedition in an area where, as far as the local people were aware, nobody had ever gone with skis or snowboards. Wow - we were just overwhelmed by this idea and immediately decided to make this trip happen.
Back in Switzerland we got into the detailed planning. Our mail servers ran hot, our checklists got longer and longer; and our patience thinner and thinner towards spring. And finally, on a wonderful spring day in mid-April we stood in front of the check-in desks at the Zurich airport and were ready to get all our equipment on board. While some people (in particular the lady at the check-in desk) were slightly surprised, we thought nine bags with a total of 200 kilograms of materials and clothing for two weeks of adventure were rather reasonable.
Floating ice sheets in the Polar Sea made it clear - we arrived in the freezing Arctic.
It felt somewhat surreal seeing all the floating ice sheets covering the Polar Sea when approaching Svalbard on our flight. An unmistakable sign that we arrived in the far north. Just a short time later we were standing with a somewhat queasy feeling next to a big polar bear - fortunately only a stuffed one in the arriving hall of the Svalbard airport - and in the middle of our dufflebags. "You must be the guys from Switzeland!", a bearded man with a thick fur coat and a broad grin - our guide Steve Lewis - greeted us and took us outside. An icy wind hit us into our faces and we quickly loaded our bags into the bus and drove off.
The closer we got to this village on the coast of the Advent fjord, the more Longyearbyen reminded us of a mixture of a Russian polar research station, a coalmine town from the past, and modern terraced houses taken from a fairy tale book. Abandonded, wooden aerial tramways previously used for transporting coal run from various snow-covered mountains. Even though the cableways have long since stood still, the coal mines operated by Russian miners nowadays still leave their dark tracks in the eternal ice. And in sharp contrast to this scenerey one could see the white mountains, rising steeply from the Polar Sea, glowing in the light of the midnight sun.
So this was it. Here we were. On the legendary, longed-for archipelago of Svalbard at 78 degrees north. Somewhere between the North Cape and the North Pole. Cold and barren. Inhospitable at first sight. And yet of intoxicating beauty.
When all of a sudden the midnight sun casted the landscape in violet light nothing could stop us anymore. Armed with our cameras we ran out into the rattling cold to capture this unique scenery. Three hours later we finally realized that the sun was actualy not going down but was at the same time rising and that this natural phenomenon will repeat itself for the coming two weeks. Obviously you just need some time to really understand this. And so we finally went to bed at three o'clock in the morning despite a glaring sun.
For the first few days we stayed at the Russkiy Dom, a Russian hostel run by Fyodor Gilbo and just recently built. The hostel will serve as a starting point and training base for future expeditions to the North Pole. Just the right place for us to get prepared for the upcoming freeride expedition with the local logistics partner and Arctic Guide Steve Lewis of The Empire and the two guides Greg Johnson and Ryan Koupal from 40 Tribes Backcountry. Despite our preparation back home there was still a lot to do before we could get into the untouched wilderness around the Sagabreen and the Hanekammen mountains.
We also wanted to take advantage of our time in Longyearbyen and went on some short trips in the surrounding area of Longyearbyean just to get used to the arctic cold of -30- Celsius, the local snow conditions and the somewhat unfamiliar mountains. And of course we also checked our equipment for the last time before heading into the wilderness. After all none of us felt like camping on a windy glacier without the proper down gloves.
Steve also instructed us on the specific safety measures out there. Taking into account that the population of polar bears outnumbers the number of people living on Svalbard made it necessary that at any time of the expedition, someone with a loaded hunting gun had to be ready to protect us from the greatest hunter of the Arctic. And obviously there was no other weapon better suited for this than a full-mechanic storm gunshot of the British Army from the Second World War. "Everything else would not work in the icy cold of the Arctic, anyway," Steve mentioned during the safety instructions where we also learned to use the flare guns (for deterrence and signaling in an emergency) and how to operate the satellite phone, our only means of communication during the time in the wilderness.
Gruvefjellet & Helvetiafjellet - the first tours in the Arctic snow
After all the preparations, we were finally ready. Together with our Icelandic guide and Snus ambassador Porlakur Laki Jon Ingolfsson (also called "Laki" what is way easier to remember) we went for a first hike 'n' ride up to the Larsbreen and to the Gruvefjellet. Riding the first lines in the Arctic snow just felt great. And we liked the couloirs down from the Gruvefjellet so much that we went for a second time despite the 'dust on crust' snow. Guess our first backcountry experience in the Arctic could have been any better.
And the reindeer burger with a local pale ale at the Coal Minors' Bar & Grill were a welcome add-on and
made us look forward even more to the coming days.
We just had one day left and decided to go for a snowmobile tour to the Helvetiafjellet - just the right peak for us Swiss people. Unfortunately, the weather was very unpredictable that day and when the fog and snow got to intense we decided to turn around before we had reached the summit. After all safety first is always key!
All the more fun we had with our snowmobiles on our way back to the Russkiy Dom . And the 'trip' was still instructive and helpful as we now knew how to protect our knees from the cold while sitting on the snowmobiles. We just cut some isolating mats into pieces and used them as protectors in our pants. An 'invention' we were more than happy to have on our forthcoming journey from Longyearbyen to the Hanekammen mountains.
Before we could head out to our basecamp we had to pack all our stuff. The equipment of the entire expedition crew had to be loaded onto our transport sleds - duffle bags, board bags, expedition tents, two yurts, food supplies, an oven, kerosene supplies, a mobile kitchen, film and photo material equipment. Once again we stood in front of a mountain of equipment. Don't know how exactly but we did manage to load everything on our sleds and snowmobiles. Anxious of the days to come we just waited for Steve's starting signal. "We're ready boys! Let's go!"
Following Steve's snowmobile, our caravan of sledges finally headed out of Longyearbyen to the southwest. Ahead of us a one-day trip through glacier valleys, past the Russian coal mining village of Barentsburg at the Grønfjord and on to Christophersenfjellet. We were completely overwhelmed by the beautiful Arctic backcountry. But Steve kept telling us to stay calm as the best was still to come.
And as if he had already guessed it, our euphoria was just too big and distracting and all of a sudden the first rollover with a snowmobile was a fact. Fortunately no one got injured and - with remote help via our satellite phone - we were abel to fix the broken snowmobile and got it back running. Luck seemed to be on our side and we keppt our fingers crossed it would stay with us for the rest of the trip.
Steve hadn't promised too much. The first glimpse of the Fridtjovbreen, the largest glacier in the north of Nordensköld, paid off for all the ordeal to get there. All the untouched, snow-covered mountains were simply breathtaking. Incredible couloirs in all directions, difficult to say which ones to ride first.
We drove further down ot the Van Mijenfjorden, just a short distance away from the location of our basecamp. From here we just had to turn right right into a mountain bowl and headed up to the top of the Sagabreen
And here we were - at the final destination of our dreams, surrounded by the Hanekammen mountains. Unreal. In the middle of the place we have only known from a picture seen on the internet a few months ago. An image that Ryan made during a boat trip through the fjords of Svalbard two years ago.
We were jolted back into reality and into the arctic cold by Steve: "C'mon boys, let's get started and build our camp." And yes, indeed, there was nothing yet where we could stay in the coming days. So we started to shovel snow, to flatten the places for our tents (as we know sleeping on a flat floor is much more comfortable) and to build walls to protect us from the icy winds. In addition to our 2-people expedition tents we also had to set-up our kitchen tent and the "lodge" yurt.
And we also had to build some other facilities, protected from the wind as no one could yet imagine how to spend some very personal time in -30 degrees Celsius. So we paid due attention to the construction of a wind-sheltered Klohaus. And as we would eventually see our open-air Klohouse would also serve as a perfect obstacle during our forthcoming Shithouse-Jam session.
The tents all had to be arranged in a well defined order. The Klohouse and pee-tree as well as the kerosine depot was located far outside the main camp. Our food supplies were to be buried some distance away from the camp as the they would be the first place a hungry polar bear would start looking for something to eat. Our expedition tents, the kitchen tent and the yurt were all placed in a line which made it easier for everyone to get an overview of the camp and the surroundings.
An important aspect considering that we had to protect ourselves and maintain a polar bear watch around the clock. Thanks to the experience of Steve and all the hard work of the whole crew our basecamp was all set-up and everything was in its place later in the evening.
If it wasn't for the violet-orange light of the midnight sun, we all would have crawled into our thick down sleeping bags tired after all the work. But the everlasting sunlight just wouldn't let our minds settle down and we kept talking about all the first lines still to ride in the coming days.
After just a few hours of sleep we woke up again in our tents and had to get out of our sleeping bags into the Arctic cold. Not a pleasant experience as the temperatures in our tents had dropped below the freezing point during the night and everything was frozen. So another lesson learned: not just the jelly bottle, but all other vital items for the coming day had to go into the sleeping bag. But at least our clothes (already kept in the sleeping bag during the night) were (almost) dry.
Snow covered mountain flanks right down to the Arctic Sea -
we have arrived at our final destination.
In full anticipation of our first tour in the backyard of our basecamp we didn't think any longer about all the ordeals of camping on a glacier in the Arctic. After a short breakfast - homemade soulfood by our chief Erla Johansdottir - we hiked from the camp to the top of the Kleivdalsnuten. A small peak of 606 meters of altitude but with a great view to the Kleivdalsbekken and the Varsolbucht towards the west. Being at the top and seeing the Arctic Sea just at the bottom of the mountain flanks we just realized once again that we had arrived at the point of final destination.
Riding down to the lowlands of Kleivdalen we noted that this side of the mountain facing the Arctic Sea had been much more exposed to the winds and the snow was rather crusty. However, there was also some fresh powder left in the small couloirs.
And so our dreams of riding powder lines down to the Artic Sea finally became true. Hell yeah!
Hanekammen - the magic of images
After two more days and several tours in the neighborhood of our basecamp on the Sagabreen, we were ready to tackle the mystic Hanekammen couloirs. The anticipation of these magical, steep and gorgeous couloirs had been huge for days. After all they were the reason why we decided to get here. It was that picture of the Hanekammen taken by Ryan Koupal during a boat trip two years ago and which Stefan had found on the internet during our surf trip to Portugal last summer. Crazy feeling. We were finally staying at the bottom of the Y-shaped, 45 degrees steep couloir. So once again we put on our crampons and took out our ice axes and climbed up to the top.
During the ascent we found - somewhat to our great surprise - powder snow in the wind-protected places inbetween the rocks. Afer a while everyone was on the top, with a big grin on our faces. Looking down to our basecamp made it clear that this was one of the highest peaks around the Sagabreen. More than 500 meters down to the glacier surface with a view of the Fridtjovhamna Bay and the opposite (still) Unknown Peak p. 620. We couldn't ask for any better location for some freeride shots. After the riding and photo shooting we definitively deserved a few shots from the bottle with the good old Grappa inside. It wasn't that easy for the Swiss Army Knives - as Stian Aadlan, our camp guide, now started calling us - to simmer down again. "Highly amazing" so to speak!
As we strolled out of our yurt some time after midnight - well understood still stoked by the earlier rides down the Hanekammen - the mountains around us were glowing in the violet light of the midnight sun. Especially the The Unknown Peak 620 south of our camp was shining in unrealistic hallucinogenic colors. "Can you imagine to stay on the top right there at midnight - what a feeling this must be". And so this was our plan for the following day.
To be ready for this peak we took it a little bit easier the following morning. To climb to the top of this mountain we just had to be fit - legs and in our heads. No mistakes were allowed when climbing and riding a 50 degrees steep couloir with various windlips and massive rocky shoulders. So we only went for a short hike to the already known Kleivdalsnuten, before taking a nap in the middle of the afternoon. Well, the time you get to sleep doesn't really matter when you live on a 25 hours day routine wiht constant sunlight.
We were a bit nervous when we woke up in our tents just before midnight as the possible lines we were about to ride down this monster face of the Unknown Peak 620 looked quite scary from down here. It was crispy cold that evening, much colder than during the previous days. -30° Celsius and a light wind that made it almost impossible to get your hands out of the gloves and to operate the cameras. But this was not ours, but Laki's challenge who stayed in the camp for shooting our rides and for the polar bear watch.
As our lead guide Greg Johnson finally said the magic words "Let's go for it boys - now!" our tension decreased and there was no holding back and we started hiking and climbed up the steep couloir on the right side of the mountain face for the next hour and a half.
Thanks to the adrenaline rush we reached the top in a rather short time. In anticipation of a first descent we just couldn't help ourselves and our legs just carried us up there. And even the pain from a broken toe got forgotten. And the view from the top was just breathtaking. And now being at the top of it we could finally put this mountain of its misery of being an unnamed peak. And just named it "freshies peak".
Using our standard approach to decide who should ride first - rock-paper-scissors - Stefan had the great honor of the very first line on "our" onw mountain on Svalbard. Hard to imagine the feeling of riding down these 50° steep spines in the pink light of the midnight sun and in Arctic powder snow. A "subdued" shoutout accompanied by a choir of shrieking seagulls and roaring polar bears is probably the best way to describe it.
Birthday party on the Grånutbreen
The first descent on the freshies peak was hardly to top - at least not in the surrounding mountains of the Sagabreen. That's why we decided to hike to the glacier in another side valley, i.e. to the Grånutbreen, another anabranch of the Fridtjovbreen. We were somewhat unlucky with our first mountain that day. The southeast face of the Granutane was just too icy and we decided to turn around before reaching the sumit. After crossing the glacier and walking to the other side of the valley we stood at the bottom of the backside of the Hanekammen mountains. There was still quite some fresh powder in this northwest face ready to be shredded by us. And just the right place for our celebration of Salomon's birthday.
But before we could ride the fresh powder we first had to overcome some overhanging windlips on our way up. Stefan volunteered and used his poles as axes to cut a way through them. Once we made it across the windlips it was a rather easy walk along the ridge to the top of the (now re-named) Salomon Peak. To our big surprise there was no wind at the top and we spent some time celebrating with some tea and good music. And then it was Salomon's turn to ride the first line back down to the Grånutbreen.
Impossible for all of us to think of any better birthday present than this.
To get back to our basecamp we had to put on the skins on our boards and skis once again and headed back home. It felt quite weird to call the basecamp on the Sagabreen our home. But after one week in the Arctic wilderness our expedition tents and the yurt, surrounded by walls made of snow to protect us from the harsh winds and in the middle of beautiful mountains we just couldn't call it something different. A place we could have called our home for a while longer.
We just had fallen in love with this little side valley in the central north-western country, the middle west of Svalbard. A beautiful place despite (or maybe just because of) the harsh and cold weather. And there were still endless opportunities to ride first - in the truest meaning of the word - lines in the Arctic snow.
Back to civilization
Despite so many incredible impressions, intensive feelings and wild adventures it still felt like a dream - even after a full week in the wilderness. Hard to imagine to ever leave 'our' Sagabreen again. But even in the Arctic al things come to an end. And after these days in the cold it was time for us to say goodbye to the Sagabreen and get back to civilization.
But before we turned our back on our basecamp, we had to clean-up the place of our basecamp. We were not to leave any traces - just as we had never been here. It was not just out of respect for mother nature and the great time she allowed us to spend here, but it was also because of all the wild animals that should never get accustomed to human beings out here.
We felt like in a movie when we drove on the Fridtjovbreen back in the direction of Longyearbyen. Countless pictures and memories crossed our minds on our way back. The constant hum of our snowmobile in the ear, lulling our minds. Only the icy wind saved us from falling asleep. Melancholic, a little bit nostalgic and now definitively completely tired we approached civilization again.
But to be honest, thinking about a hot shower, a cold beer and a warm and cosy bed were also very charming thoughts at that very moment. And we most likely stank like the smelly walruses on the beach.
When finally arriving at Fyodor's Russkiy Dom in Longyearbyen we just realized how being out in the wilderness can change you - even if it had only been for a week. All these people, the many houses, snowmobiles, cars, internet and slippers - all of which we had to get used to again. Even the longest shower ever could change this feeling. But the inconveniences of everyday life were slowly catching up on us. And yet, our thoughts and a part of our soul were still out there on the Sagabreen
One thing is fore sure: "There is something magic about Svalbard. Svalbard gave us the chance to experience an incredible adventure and we will always have great memories of our time on Svalbard. In exchange, it retained a large part of our soul." What else is there left for us to return to Svalbard some time in the future? See you again at 78° North!
we couldn't have done it without you
Many thanks to the whole crew for an incredible adventure up north!
Guides & Locals:
Steve Lewis - The Empire / serious worker
Stian Aadland - Camp Guide / highly successful polar bear protection
Laki Ingolfsson - Camp Guide / kerosineer
Erla Johanndsdottir - Chef de Cuise / soul food
Ryan Koupal - 40 Tribes Backcountry founder / mr. coffee
Greg Johnson - 40 Tribes Backcountry lead guide / momjohn
Fyodor Gilbo - Russkiy Dom Longyearbyen
Trond Hindenes - trondnet
Simen Opsal - mr. broken toe
Nick Welsh - chili nøtter
If you have any question about our adventure on Svalbard or freshies.ch just write us and we will get back to you as quickly as possible.