Sunday, May 3, 2009

Ice Caving In Longyearbyen Norway

We were on our way to the North Pole, but the weather was bad and we were holed up in the northernmost habitation in the world – Longyearbyen, the main city of the Svalbard Archipelago of Norway. This was one of the few places on Earth, where a Polar Bear had the right of the way on a road. The gun laws were ludicrous at the best. With Polar Bears often straying close to civilization, it is mandatory to carry a gun when venturing out anywhere, even slightly out of the town lights. To hire a gun from a shop, all one needs is a photo id and demonstrate that one knows the general direction the gun barrel must be pointing when one is pulling the trigger. But that doesn’t mean that one can rampantly kill a Polar Bear. Surprisingly, but obviously, if a shooting accident happens and a Polar bear does get seriously damaged or dead, then the benefit of the doubt is awarded to the bear. So after you kill a bear, you have to conclusively prove in the court that the bear had every intent to kill you and you acted in pure self defense. Which normally means that you must wait till the bear has bitten into you or better still if he has bitten off a sizeable part of your earthly body, and then go for the trigger. In one of my trips there, I once found a man serving three years of confinement because he did not wait that long to use his gun.

The North Pole odyssey can take up an entire book by itself and several blogs even to start scratching the surface, hence I would only relate here a miniscule part of the journey. Ice caving in Longyearbyen Glacier. I had friends at the UNIS, the northernmost university in the world and gathered a small team of two men (including me) and two girls. It was a two nation team (India and Germany). Ulli is a renowned glaciologist and a name to reckon in the polar adventure world and his friends Elke, the pretty lass with glasses was doing her masters in Permafrost fauna from UNIS while Megan pursued skiing in between ripping her yacht across the globe, winning ocean races every now and then. All three of them were veteran polar skiers and knew the area inside out. We were headed for the Longyearbyen Glacier where the ice cave was located. We took Skidoos till the end of the town, where the snow became too soft and steep. We dropped the skidoos and strapped our skis. Svalbard has some of the most fickle and dreaded weather patterns in the world. People have died within sight of the little town.

Ulli carried his map, but soon, as a massive weather front hit us, it became useless. We simply skied uphill through a blank, white thick curtain of hurricane blizzard. I had complete trust on my companions. Though new to me, this was their backyard. Purely by instinct we climbed. Eventually the gradient and the sinking snow forced us out of the skis. The moment I took the skis off, I sank till my upper thigh. So we silently flopped towards the glacier basin like clumsy seals, hoping against hope that no Polar Bear would stray out in such atrocious weather. The gun barrel jutting out of Elke’s sack was a reassuring sight though. We had to stop intermittently to clear our ski goggles and take bearing. Though they didn’t tell me, but I sensed that my companions were totally lost and they had no idea where exactly the entrance to the ice cave lay. So I gently prodded Megan to let me in the search party. She gave me a fairly accurate description of the marker flag and the wooden board plank that covered the gaping hole on the ground that lead into the cavernous interior. She also told me a bulge of the high ridge that often one could see from far and the entrance lay almost in line with that bulge. But it was a hopeless situation since we could barely see each other even when our bodies touched. The blinding blizzard stung our exposed eyeballs like specks of fire whenever we took off our goggles, to clear them of frost.

And then, I saw it, as clearly as day, though I simply don’t know how, or was it purely my instinct, since no one else could see anything except impenetrable whiteness in the direction that my finger pointed. I lead them, through sinking snow, with a horrid feeling that I could be walking atop hungry crevasses. Shortly we arrived at the fluttering flag, and we all gave a whoop of joy. With combined effort, we managed to clear the snow hill atop the wooden plank and a crack barely wide enough for all of us to wriggle through. Though Ulli, at 188 cm, was the giant in the team, he squeezed in even before I could take off my sack. I have no idea how he managed it, but then a driving blizzard and intense cold is a good motivator for doing impossible things.

The moment we dropped in, everything became calm and quiet. I stood on a tiny ledge of rock solid ice with a deep dark tunnel leading into the bowels of the glacier. A rope anchored to a screw snaked away into the dark hole. My companions had already disappeared from sight, and I could only hear their laughter and expressions of amazement, that came up to me like a whirlpool churning up cold air. Switching on my headlamp, I discarded the rope and simply glissaded on my back, keeping the ice carefully away with my shoulders. As I sank deeper into the bowels of the glacier, the world outside seized to exit. After a drop of around 50 ft, I found space enough to stand up. Illuminated by four headlamps the ice chamber sparkled like million diamonds. The ice floor was so slippery that we could barely stand straight and had to keep our knees flexed for balance. Absence of wind made the place comfortably cool and we explored further. Ulli had once done a project inside this cave and now he showed me the probes and measuring benchmarks left by some of his students. At places we had to squeeze with our faces tilted to a side, else we could get stuck and also at places we had to expel all our breath. We kept on dropping from one level to another and then climb at places where the ice was thick enough and there was room to swing our axes. Ice climbing inside an ice cave, located several hundred ft underground inside a glacier must rank among the oddest and least practiced of adventure sports. Being such a dynamic medium, ice caves change their shape and size even within the span of months and ice-pools and melt water streams were not a welcoming sight. On our return, Megan slipped and fell into one, sinking to her waist by the time we extracted her. We had no spare shoes or socks or trouser. Once we exited the cave, and hit the blizzard, she started losing heat fast and was not in a condition to ski. She could soon go into a shock. It was becoming a dreadful situation fast and I was once again in my elements. With god knows how many years of climbing, skiing, survival in such places experience between Ulli and I, we knew that the situation was well under control.

Using her skis and poles and our only rope length, we improvised a sled. She was strapped and anchored to it like a turkey headed for Christmas supper. And then, off we went like the space shuttle. Ulli short-roping her from the front while Elke and I pushing from behind with all our might. By the time we reached the UNIS hostel, and Elke started frying some crackers and bacon we were rolling in mirth including Megan. It had been an exhilarating outing and breathtaking in every sense of the word.


  1. Had no idea one could enter such glaciers, looks dangerous, but i guess thats your middle name, so u must have been most comfortable!!!
    am sure the beauty seen inside is worth every all the risk!

  2. WOW, this is breathtaking... you must talk to me about your whole experience in person, S...