Part 1 – Up, down and under the ice
This is the first part of my trip report from a summer packrafting tour in Svalbard. You can read about the plan, route and crew in the introduction post.
After a quite sleepless flight, short night at the camping ground and quick shopping and repacking in Longyearbyen we started the tour with a rib boat ride away from the little civilization there is in Svalbard. We didn’t see too much views during our ride as thick fog covered the sea on Isfjord. But when arriving to the bottom of Tempelfjorden the sun pierced through the fog opening beautiful vistas around us.
We hopped a shore, unloaded our gear and had a quick chat with a Polish (?) couple who started from the same place on a shorter, direct route back to Longyearbyen. They were the last people we saw for over a week.
We were not in hurry so we sticked to the plan and made ourselves home at an old well-used camp spot near the shore. Evening’s program included barbecue, swim in the sea and wandering the majesty of our surroundings: mountains, big active glaciers, the sea and abundant bird life in the bright Arctic midnight sun. There were no signs of polar bears but this is a place where the threat should be taken seriously so we had a guard through the night. Between the guard duties we ment our sleep deprivation. Some got lucky enough to have a brave little arctic fox to share their two-hour watch.
Picture by Nina Teirasvuo.
Picture by Antti Siltala.
In the morning the fog vanished again and we packed and shouldered our rucksack, mosty around 30 kilo including food for 12 days, packrafting gear, basic glacier kit, etc. For the first hour the packs didn’t feel too bad but a weight like that gets to you after some time. We walked through moraine ridges to reach the Von Postbreen. Before getting on the glacier were comfronted with a swift melt water river. Thomas waded through making it look easy but being mid-thigh deep and hearing boulders rumbling at the bottom, the rest of us thought paddling would be better option. We inflated one raft and ferried over one by one using our climbing rope to pull the raft back. The rope caused significant drag in the fast flow and it would’ve been better for everyone to inflate their boat and cross individually. But we made it safely across anyway.
Soon after crossing the stream we reached the glacier: nice crunchy ice with reasonable friction. No need for crampons. If not counting going uphill, walking was easier than on the moraines. After some time the bare ice gave a way for snow and soon we found ourselves in a proper slush-fest: wet and slushy snow with plenty of small melt rivers up to knee-deep. We rationalized that if there is plenty of water on top of the glacier, there is probably no big crevasses underneath and thus continued unroped coming up with various ways of crossing the melt water channels.
Packrafts proved to be useful as bridges or as sort of “assault boats”: you would place the raft at the edge of the harder snow, run towards the boat, jump on it and glide over the water channel. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. After quite a long day we camped at the side of the Przybyllokfjellet mountain (What a name!) with wet boots. Maybe it would’ve been simpler to accept the wet boots in the first place and just wade through the slush…
The next day we continued in good weather across the Fimbulisen glacier, down the Rabotbreen and towards the source of Sassenelva river. For most of the day we traveled on snow so we roped up and used our packrafts as sleds to easy the stress on our shoulders. On the high glacier it was still full winter, though it was very warm. The snow was quite good to travel on even without snowshoes or skis (we didn’t want to carry the extra weight as we had only about 30 kilometers to travel on snow), most of the time we sank only ankle-deep but sometimes went all the way to the knees or groin.
Up on the glacier we followed faint snowscooter tracks (must have been well over a month old!) but on the way down diverged from the tracks to avoid the worst of the slush and melt-water pools. This lead us finding some crevasses – but luckily only one leg at a time. Lower on the Rabotbreen snow tuned again into crunchy ice so we packed our packrafts and continued on foot unroped. The melt water channels grew bigger and bigger but we found a good ice ledge to jump over the final channel. After the final crossing we called it a day and pitched our lavvu on the dry moraine. The channel at the edge of the glacier seemed to offer adventurous packrafting but it had been a long day (close to 20km) and it was time to get some rest.
The next morning we slept long and started the day discussing whether we should first walk down to the terminal moraines or start packrafting straight from the camp even though the river was running on top of the glacier. We ended up doing the latter: neoprene socks to the wet boots, extra layers on and shell clothing on top of it. After doing a quick test run under the ledge we had jumped down from, we headed down stream. The river was quite interesting as you can expect from a river running on top of a glacier: very fast current, very few eddies, shallow in places, deep in others and often making serious undercuts at the edges.
Picture by Antti Siltala.
When closing to the moraine piles we scouted the river both from opposite shore and from a high moraine: The river gained more speed, got some bigger but still reasonable waves and then eased after passing through the terminal moraine. We decided to continue in our rafts. Antti and Venla were going first with Nina and me following, Thomas being last taking some video footage.
Antti and Venla got ahead and didn’t see us anymore so Antti decided to eddy out and wait. In normal river the spot would’ve worked just fine but now, instead of a safe eddy, Antti found a strong flow that flipped his raft and pulled him under the undercut ice. Venla followed to help and the same happened to her. Both took (apparently) quite frightening dive under the ice but managed to get back to the main current.
We didn’t see this happening but soon found Venla stranded on an iceflow in the middle of the river. Antti had swam ashore little further downstream. Coming down the rest of us eddied out next to Venla but soon I continued down stream to check Antti. Antti was wet but okay and had lost his paddle so run down stream to see if he could still catch it. I run upstream to the rest of the gang to rescue Venla. Climbing rope doesn’t make such a great throw bag but it works. We first pulled her packraft on the shore, threw her a PFD and then pulled her to the safety of the shore. She was seriously cold but otherwise okay. Antti returned without the paddle and we decided to pitch camp to warm up.
In camp we counted the losses: two paddles, a food bag and a pair of gloves. Both swimmers had bruised legs from hitting the ice but were otherwise okay. We decided to call it a day and let the evening sun and cold breeze to dry the wet kit. We discussed options now that we had lost two paddles, some food and a half a day but decided to carry on as planned and see how it would go. We spent night in the lavvu listening the active and unstable moraines sliding into the river with varying magnitude.
The aftermath. No photos as I was too busy rescuing.
The next day we continued walking past the last bit of moraines (founding an intimidating whirlpool in the river on the way) to the huge Sassendalen valley. Even though we had spent only two days on the moraines and glacier the green vegetation, goose and reindeer in the valley were welcome! In the valley we improvised canoe paddles from hiking poles, ice axes and gaiters. Antti and Venla paddled an Alpackaraft Denali Llama as a duo towing a smaller MRS Microraft as a “gear barge” behind them.
Sassenelva would have offered awesome paddling but when we were building the paddles, a stiff headwind blowing from the sea started. The wind pretty much cancelled the effect of the swift flow and we had to really paddle to get forward. When the river meandered in the vast valley we paddle through wind-born lengthwise waves sweeping across the river – the first time I’ve seen such waves on a river.
But slowly and steadily we reached the mouth of Eskerdalen valley some 17 kilometers further downstream. The landing and exit turned into a mud-fest as we had to walk/wade/run through a section of quick-sand-like silt in water that was too shallow for paddling. The cold wind continued and we walked deeper into the Eskerdalen in search of shelter from the wind and pitched camp in light drizzle. Tired and muddy but somewhat satisfied.
Next we would have a couple of days of simple walking through valleys so at least the we wouldn’t have to worry about treacherous rivers.
The story will continue later with our way up to and down along the Reinelva river in Reindalen…
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Few thoughts on the swim and loss of gear:
We discussed the capsize and swim quite thoroughly during the trip. In my opinion the decision to paddle the river was right, it wasn’t that difficult water. Problem was that a river that flows on top of ice (even though covered with moraine) acts quite differently than a river on land or over rock. If Antti and Venla would not have tried to eddy out, they would not have capsized but when the group was splitting up, stopping was the right thing to do.
Conditions were unfamiliar to us and we had a bit of bad luck judging them. Paddling this sort of water (fast, very few eddies, a bit like the upper Visttasjohka in flood) requires commitment and accepting the related risks. Go, if you know what you are doing, otherwise walk until the river gets more gentle. Walking is always an option, especially with packrafts as they are so easy to portage.
Antti and Venla had decided not to take PFDs to save weight. I opposed it and told I would definitely take a life jacket but in the end it was their decision to make. In this case PFDs would have helped to keep Venla a bit warmer while waiting for the rescue and maybe made the swim a bit easier but luckily both stayed safe without them.
The lost food bag was a bummer and in my opinion all gear should always be attached fail-safe to the raft when paddling in moving water (or at sea). The lost paddles were a major set-back but also “unavoidable”. When paddling swift water you definitely don’t want to have a paddle-leash and when swimming in such water and having to choose between getting out from an undercut riverbank or choosing between paddle or raft, abandoning the paddle is the right decision. We didn’t carry spare paddles. Packrafters rarely do as walking is always an option and often you can improvise a paddle. Though next time when on a group trip, I will take my Supai Olo paddle as a dedicated spare paddle.