78 Degrees Cold

Longyearbyen is a small town in Norway, in a archipelago called Svalbard, north of the Arctic Circle.  It’s home of the northernmost institution of higher education, the University Centre in Svalbard (78 degrees N).  Last month, I had the pleasure of visiting there to work with a friend and research collaborator who studies glacier caves.  I flew into Longyearbyen via Oslo and Tromso.  After hours of flying over clouds, the sky cleared as we appoached the island.  This made for a spectacular view of the mountainous snowy terrain as we descended.  The peaks were all lit by the setting sun, and this is the last time they would see the sun until spring.  Perfect timing on my part.  The beginning of the polar night.

My first day was spent in a safety orientation, which mostly consisted of loading and shooting a .30 -06 rifle, in practice for polar bear encounters.  The next day was our first day of glacier caving. We went up to the glacier nearest town, Longyearbreen, to visit a cave there.  This cave had a walk-in entrance and around 1 km of passage, which was mostly walking.  Right near the lower entrance was a belly crawl, which had the novel feature that if you stayed too long in one place the floor would start melting and make a puddle.  Surface temperatures were cold that day, around 0 F, and, while they were at least out of the wind, the caves weren’t much warmer.

The next day, we went to another glacier and cave, called Rieperbreen, which was a much longer walk (3-4 miles) and a more challenging cave.  The entrance was vertical and dropped into a narrow meandering canyon.  After some roped traversing, and a couple of restricted drops, we reached the base of the glacier and an active flowing stream of water. Most of this cave is formed along the contact between the glacier ice and the rocky glacial till beneath the glacier.  This cave felt more like real caving, with its squeezes, climbs, ropes, and crawls.  It was strange to cave in crampons though, kicking into the walls while climbing, and to be able to see several feet into the walls.  It seemed like there should be real rock down in there somewhere…way down inside…but it was nothing but ice.

-Matt, the elder

Hiking up the Longyearbreen glacier in the midday sun, on the way up to the cave.

Looking back down at the town of Longyearbyen from the Longyearbreen glacier.

Nice banding in the Longyearbreen cave.

The crawl in Longyearbreen.

Clear ice from an old refrozen channel.

One of the crawls in the entrance canyon of Rieperbreen.

The passage at the base of the glacier in Rieperbreen.


8 Responses to 78 Degrees Cold

  1. Ann says:

    It makes me cold, just looking at these pictures!

  2. Daniele says:

    Very nice pictures! I didn’t know this cave… How many distance from the city? Is it possible to visit this cave?
    I think I’ll come back to Svalbard the next march.

  3. Matt says:

    It’s probably around 5-7 km from the city. There is some more information here.


    Most of the caves in Svalbard are only visited by researchers, however the Longyearbreen Cave also has some guided tours. This is probably the best way to visit, since glacier caves can be quite dangerous. It could also be difficult to find on your own. Especially in the spring after all of the snow.

  4. Daniele says:

    Thanks, Matt. I’ll try to visit it in my next trips. Is the summer the best season to visit this cave?

  5. Dorothy Covington says:

    Thanks for sharing about this assignment. I’ve been wondering about it.
    How about a report on your Florida trip? Did you enjoy some sunshine or were you in the water most of the time. I’m so glad you took Elizbeth for she is alone so much of the time while you are off caving. And are you now certified?
    We missed you Thanksgiving – we only had 8 present – what a switch. But we are looking forward to seeing soon at Christmas time.
    Love, Grandmother Dorothy

  6. Matt says:

    I think summer is actually the worst time, though I don’t know exactly when they run tours. I don’t think you want to be inside if it is above freezing outside (or has been recently). They get very wet then.

  7. Matt says:

    I think I will write about the Florida trip soon too. We’re looking forward to being back in Fayetteville soon.

  8. Don Schaefer says:

    We only had six people present at Thanksgiving (not 8), unless you count James and Allison. We all got to talk with them and see each other via Skype both before and after our meal here.

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