Photo: Endre Før Gjermundsen

Published 14.06.2009. Written by Helge Kaasin.

Fieldwork in Northwest Spitsbergen 20th of April to 18th of May, 2009

The 2009 Icebound field campaign in one of the most alpine areas of Svalbard, - the spectacular Northwest Spitsbergen, became another successful campaign in this National Park. Despite a high amount of mechanical and technical problems this year we managed to bring lots of beautiful rock samples home and we also widened our working area and took samples more evenly distributed than the previous year. Working in this exceptional beautiful mountain area is a great privilege. The stunning combination of steep mountains, fjords, ocean and the large glaciers just has to be experienced. - And the best of it all; - we have the area for ourselves.


Finally after a long time of packing and preparations we were ready to head back to Northwest Spitsbergen for our second field campaign in this stunningly beautiful mountainous area. The team was the same as last year except for Trygve who stepped in for Bjørn Andrè. (Trygve and Bjørn Andrè both come from the same small, narrow, valley on western Norway so we knew that change wouldn’t affect us dramatically).

Trygve was catching a flight from Longyearbyen to Ny-Ålesund, while the three others of us were going to Ny-Ålesund by snowscooter. After a short hour of driving we had an accident with one of our wooden sledges. One of the skis broke and as a result the sledge flipped around on its head. The sledge turned into just a pile of wood (!!) so we had no option, but to return back to Longyearbyen. The following day it all went better and we got a lot closer to Ny-Ålesund before one of our scooters broke down. We continued on two scooters the rest of the day and knew that we would have to come back and pick it up the next day. We also had the feeling that it was likely that the damage to the engine was so serious that this scooter could not be used for the rest of our field work.

Photo: Endre Før Gjermundsen

Photo: Endre Før Gjermundsen

The coming days were used in Ny-Ålesund for final preparations, packing gear, filling gas and making sure that all the equipment were up and running. We even managed to get a replacement scooter for the one that broke down, thus we didn’t have to head into our field areas with less than one scooter per person. Because of the good sea ice conditions this year we could go directly across Kongsfjorden and drive a much shorter and faster route up to our base camp. Instead of having to drive behind (east of) the famous mountains Tre Kroner, we could now go up the scenic glacier fall of Blomstrandbreen. This was a majestic route in between towers of blue ice and surrounded by steep and alpine mountains on both sides of the glacier.

Once we had driven through the ice fall we were up on Isachsenfonna. Marcus and Moritz (manager and technician of the AWIPEV base in Ny-Ålesund) followed us all the way pass Monacobreen to Loüetbreen where a barrel of petrol was placed. The two guys drove back to Ny-Ålesund the same night and we continued to our Base Camp which now was only within a short hour drive. We were following the GPS-tracks from the year before and drove to the exact same spot and placed the camp only 40 meters away from the campsite 2008. The highest point of this glacier system which drains both to the east and to the northwest had actually slightly changed position since last year implying that these glacier systems are indeed dynamic, even on the watershed of the ice domes.

Photo: Endre Før Gjermundsen

Photo: Endre Før Gjermundsen

The weather had been terrific the whole day and the best thing was that it was forecasted to stay the same for the next couple of days. In such a weather-harsh environment as Northwest Spitsbergen we knew that we had to take advantage of the weather and start our work immediately. The next day we started our recognition to decide which summits it was feasible to try to get samples from and which routes on the mountains we would attempt. In the night we also did the most necessarily adjustments of our camp, but frankly this weather was not for building lee walls and other camp improvement.

The next day the weather was still beautiful so we decided to go for Munken, the highest mountain in the northern part of the national park. This was a mountain we had attempted last year, but were not able to climb because of severe frostbites on almost every one of us. The temperature that particular day previous year had been very low and in addition we were climbing in the shade the whole day, not making the experience more comfy. Thus, this year we chose a sunny route on the western/southern side of the mountain. The climb up the colouire was fantastic and two of us even managed to ski down even though the steepness was fairly decent. 3 rock samples were collected; one bellow the most likely position of the trimline (highest point of glacial erosion), one just above and the last one 10 meters below the very summit. Back in the camp that night we knew that even though the fieldwork just had begun, it would be hard to beat this day.

Photo: Endre Før Gjermundsen

Photo: Endre Før Gjermundsen

The good weather continued the next days, so we had to keep the speed high. The following day we went on a reconnaissance trip southwest in the national park. We had not been in this area the previous year and we were thrilled by the never-ending-beauty of Northwest Spitsbergen. In this part of the national park you can climb mountains next to the sea and on a perfect weather day you can almost see to Greenland. We found several interesting peaks we would be keen to investigate further, so we aimed to go back.

The following day was the last with good weather for a while. We managed to climb the mountain next to Munken, Munkehetta and get a beautiful sample close to the highest point of this peak. Next day we woke up to a complete whiteout, strong winds and a lot of snow. We were just surprised it hadn’t happened earlier. This finally made it possible for us to do the work we couldn’t have done when the weather had been perfect; - Build lee-walls, a proper snow toilet, make a kitchen bench inside the tent etc, etc.

Photo: Endre Før Gjermundsen

Photo: Endre Før Gjermundsen

This was the point when the mechanical problems started for real. Even though we had had some more or less serious problems up till this point too, what we were faced with now was far more problematic. The generator which we couldn’t get going the other day and which we had tried to repair wasn’t cooperating at all. In addition one of the scooters also seemed to have said goodbye. We were not sure of what to do, but after some discussion we decided to call the logistics at UNIS and have them to send another generator to Ny-Ålesund and make a trip back to town the next day ourselves. Back in camp after having picked up everything in Ny-Ålesund, the weather was still not that good. In addition the temperatures were very high, - well above zero. The days continued like this so we spent the time building and improving the camp.

We wanted to go back to Reinsdyrflya, the low-elevated plain northeast of Liefdefjorden. Last year we sampled 9 erratic boulders relatively well spread in this area, but we were lacking the northeastern corner of the plain. The weather had now improved enough to give it a shot. On the second boulder we visited Trygve climbed up to the top to get a good sample. When reaching up for the part of the rock he wanted to sample it turned out that it was loose. Unfortunately he discovered it too late and in a millisecond later he was falling through the air with the big peace following him. He managed to avoid getting hit by the rock, but injured his knee in the landing. Fortunately he managed to still walk on it, but it was painful. At least it seemed like he could continue participating on the fieldwork, as long as he skipped the harder climbs. We were all just relieved we didn’t have to call the rescue helicopter and have him evacuated. After a wet drive on superficial water on the sea ice of Liefdefjorden and some glacier driving we were back in our camp. In spite of Trygve’s injured leg we all agree that we got pretty much out of the day and the weather had also been far better on Reinsdyrflya then it was close to our camp.

Photo: Endre Før Gjermundsen

Photo: Endre Før Gjermundsen

Our field work continued with a good combination of bad weather with low visibility and beautiful days with blue sky and a smiling sun. We managed to get several more samples from interesting peaks and from areas we had previous not visited. However, the new generator we had got from Longyearbyen had just worked one night and hadn’t been cooperating ever since. We were running out of batteries on our cameras, video camera, satellite phone etc. What were we going to do? In addition, the new scooter that we brought back from Ny-Ålesund when we picked up the new generator was not starting. We tried everything, but there was no way it would work. Should we head back to Ny-Ålesund once more? Our days in field were soon running out and if we went all the way back to Ny-Ålesund there would not be much time for field work when we returned. We could contact the logistics at the AWIPEV base in Ny-Ålesund and ask if they could come to us with a new snowscooter and generator, but the chances for them having time now in their most busy period of the season was very unlikely. Our last option was to go to the trapping station on Andreèland, Mushamna. Linda Bakken was the trapper there and she was happy to provide us with electricity. At the same time we knew there were some erratic boulders close to the station. We were convinced that samples from the east side of Woodfjorden would be very interesting to investigate in comparison to our sample set from Reinsdyrsflya. The next day we were on our way to Mushamna.

There had now been a little while since Linda had had visitors and several people had failed to reach the station because of bad sea ice conditions, lots of snow on the glaciers or other problems. Our visit was therefore very welcomed. The dogs started barking a long time before we reached the cabin and both they and Linda were very happy to see us. Our stay in Mushamna became a very pleasant one. We got samples from the boulders we wanted, got all our batteries charged and had a wonderful time at the cabin thanks to Linda’s great hospitality. Our only concern was the temperature. It was very warm (around + 5°C) and humid, warm air was blowing from the south. This was the worst direction as it would weaken and in worst case remove the ice from Woodfjorden. We had to travel on this fjord to get back to the camp and there were no other possible ways to get out from Woodfjorden. - What were we supposed to do if all the ice was removed? We were risking not getting home and having to stay at Mushamna till the boats could arrive. In that case the scooters had to stay in this crowded polar bear area until next winter… We had to start heading back before it was too late.

Photo: Endre Før Gjermundsen

Photo: Endre Før Gjermundsen

Our journey home didn’t become the most pleasant one. The snow had become extremely saturated with water. Our strong scooters had problems getting through the snow. Because of the broken scooter in our camp we were also 4 persons on 3 scooters, which didn’t improve the situation. Lots of hard work later we finally reached the fjord ice in Woodfjorden. We knew that we could not drive the same way than the way to Mushamna, but were wondering if we were able to go on the fjord ice at all. After having checked the ice we were ready to go. It seemed as it was far better in the inner part of Woodfjorden than we had expected; - little superficial water and solid ice. However, when we got to the mouth of the fjord we faced a new problem. The river in front of Vonbreen was completely open and running. The spring had definitely arrived, - to get across it or up along was impossible. After thorough reconnaissance we concluded that it was no way we would have a chance to get on the glacier Vonbreen. We now were in trouble. There was no other obvious route up onto the ice plateau. We could go back to Mushamna, but that wouldn’t help us much (other than survive). However, there was one glacier that we didn’t know if anybody had driven which could be an option. This was Elnabreen, east of Vonbreen. The crux was probably to get on to the glacier. All these glaciers have enormous terminal moraine systems that might be impossible to cross. Fortunately after good work we found a way through it all and were on the glacier. We were met with a complete whiteout, and we had no GPS-track. Some points had to be put into the GPS and then we could keep on going. After about 30 km of driving from one GPS point to another we were onto a GPS-track from the year before. The rest of the way was therefore quite a bit easier. Before the camp we had to refill gas at our depot on Loüetbreen. Two of the scooters had indicated low gas for a long time, so we would probably not have made it to the camp…

Photo: Endre Før Gjermundsen

Photo: Endre Før Gjermundsen

Our departure was now approaching and we had to start planning the return drive. However, we managed to do some more reconnaissance and climb and sample another peak before we had to pack everything and go back. In order to lighten the weight of the sledges we placed a lot of gear at Lloyds hotel. This gear was later to be picked up by the Kings Bay boat Teisten. At Lloyds hotel it was indeed spring, the snow was extremely wet and we struggled to get to the “hotel” at all. A bit later we were on our way back to Ny-Ålesund. Driving on the ice plateaus was fine; however, the last bit towards the town became quite interesting. We got stuck quite a few times and we had one quite time-consuming rescue operation with a scooter which had drowned in water. We managed to get it up and bad sea ice was awaiting our visit. By keeping high speed we passed it and all the water on the top, but there was no doubt we were quite happy when we got back to Ny-Ålesund and were able to lay back and rest. The party the next day, which included the final in the European song contest, became a memorable one. On 17th of May, the Norwegian National day, we were quite tired, but we managed to take part in some of the activities after all. The next day we drove our scooters down to the harbor to have them transported by boat and we took the flight back to Longyearbyen. The field work in Northwest Spitsbergen 2009 was definitely over, but we were all happy and well satisfied by our achievements and the amount of samples, despite our technical and mechanical problems.

Photo: Endre Før Gjermundsen

Photo: Endre Før Gjermundsen

Participants of the field campaign in Northwest Spitsbergen, April/May 2009

Anne Hormes

Anne Hormes

Associate Professor in Quaternary Geology

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Endre Før Gjermundsen

Endre Før Gjermundsen

Ph.D. student, Glacial geology

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Helge Kaasin

Helge Kaasin

Assistant

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