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