Korpijaakko

– my personal views on all walks of outdoor life

Tag Archives: expedition

Svalbard – Summer 2015 – Special Edition

My main trip for the summer season 2015 was a summer packrafting tour to Svalbard. After the superlative-packed winter tour in Svalbard in April I was excited to get back.

This trip had been on the drawing board already for a few years and now it was about the time to change a digital line on a digital map into a real line of footsteps on tundra and series of paddle strokes on river. And then later let that physical effort turn into intangible, but still very real, memories. The sort of memories that define us.

This post is only an introductory post of the 11-day adventure which I will explain in more details in a few upcoming posts.

The plan

As I mentioned I had been planning a trip like this for quite some time and had come up with several route options. As we wanted it to be a summer trip we didn’t want too much skiing (possible through the whole year on the big glaciers) and we didn’t want to do “only” hiking or sea kayaking (quite popular options in summertime). And with the usual limitations of time and money the logistical options were also somewhat limited (only one town and major airport, no “bush-pilot flights” for tourists, no surface travel with vehicles allowed in summer time).

Thus we chose to do a packrafting tour through the Nordenskiöld Land traveling through Sassen-Bünsow Land and Nordenskiöld Land national parks. We decided to do the trip in July partially because it would fit our schedules but also because we estimated that at this stage of early summer the ground would not anymore be too wet for hiking but there would still be enough melt water to paddle the rivers. Timing this stuff is a game of chance.

It’s pretty easy to spot the major rivers from a map and draw a line via these waterways and major valleys. Knowing whether the rivers are passable or if they offer any good paddling is more difficult to tell as very few people have paddled the rivers and beta is very limited. But judging from the aerial pictures is seemed possible so a plan was hatched.

We would take a boat ride from Longyearbyen to the far corner of Tempelfjorden and camp on the site of tragic polar bear attack in 2011. From there we would walk up the Von Postbreen, cross Fimbulisen and descent Rabotbreen glacier to get access to the Sassenelva river. After paddling down roughly two-thirds of the river we would switch back to hiking and leave the Sassen-Bünsow NP to hike through Eskerdalen and upper Adventdalen to the huge valley of Reindalen. After Reindalpasset (pass) we would reach the upper parts of Reinelva river which we would then aft South-West. Before reaching the sea we would switch again to hiking, hike to the Russian mining town Barentsburg and turn to North-East for a coastal hike to Longyearbyen, passing the abandoned Russian mining settlements of Colesbukta and Grumantbyen on the way. This would also keep us inside the Management Area 10 saving us from the bureaucracy.

A few glaciers (30km), two big rivers (62km) and some hiking (120km) in between. Some 210+ kilometers of proper Arctic wilderness. We estimated that his would take us 12 days. Either long or short. And as that was all we had, it had to work.

But things don’t always go as planned.

The crew

From the left: me, Antti, Thomas, Venla and Nina.

The Famous Five of this tour consisted of a team of wilderness-loving outdoorsy types around their 30s doing their first trip together:

Thomas: Aspiring wilderness guide with solid glacier travel experience e.g. from Patagonia and one winter tour in Svalbard under his belt. A first time packrafter (well, he did test the raft on a lake a day before leaving). Always cheerful, always hungry but also always willing to share his food. Awesome addition to any expedition crew.

Antti: wilderness guide and experienced packrafter with solid mountaineering and glacier travel experience. A first-timer in Svalbard. Antti was sorry for not bringing his fishing kit and down jacket – and was seriously hungry towards the end.

Venla: Antti’s girlfriend with varied outdoor background and packrafting experience. Also a first-timer in Svalbard. Very determined when needed and incredibly talented in falling asleep (though in camp only). Once out of food, seemed to be happy just to have coffee.

Nina: my trusted companion in life and on countless tours. And often the voice of reason on our tours. Specialized in hauling heavy loads through wast snowy and icy landscapes (Vatnajökull, Greenland, Svalbard…) but carries a heavy pack too if needed.

and me. Well. You know who I am.

The story

Starts from here.
Continues here.
And ends here.

Crossing the Vatnajökull

After the three weeks spectacular in Svalbard I had a week back home to take care of mundane issues and repack for another two weeks on the ice. This time the destination was Iceland and the plan was to guide an Avotunturit ski expedition across Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Europe.

This would be my third time crossing the Vatnajökull, this time from East to West once again visiting the Grimmsfjall volcano, a high-point in the middle of the glacier with spectacular views and a cozy hut on top of it. I was looking for a nice, relaxed little ski expedition with easy-going, good food and good company, mixed with little bit of infamously bad Icelandic weather.

But it didn’t go quite as a hoped for. The tour turned to be quite different from the three superlative-packed weeks in Svalbard. Good with it’s own highlights, none the less, but different.

The logistics of getting at the Eastern edge of the Vatnajökull are little more difficult than getting to the fjells in Lapland (or to Svalbard in that matter). We flew to Keflavik, took a rental car to Reykjavik were we shopped for food and fuel and spent a night in a familiar cozy hostel. The next day we drove along the Southern coast to a small village of Höfn near the glacier. The last time I did the drive straight from the airport, driving in the dark and missing most of the beautiful coastline so this time we took our time stopping every now and then to admire the sights. It got windy quite soon on the way, a state of conditions that would define our little excursion.

The views along the coast were not too bad.

In Höfn we returned the car, made ourselves home at nice bed & breakfast accommodation and readied our gear for the start. And of course we made time to enjoy the geothermal heat in the pools nearby. It was windy. And colder than it should be in early May. When walking from the pools back to our rooms the wet swimming suits and towels didn’t dry in the wind but instead froze into hard plates…

The next morning we got a ride to a pass near our entry to the glacier. The previous night I had asked about the road conditions (a small private road recreated every summer after the spring melt washes it away) and I was told they hadn’t yet driven up to the pass that spring but would go for a reconnaissance drive in the evening. In the morning I was told they didn’t go but instead would “just wing it.” And that’s what they did. Excellent driving once again.

And no, we didn’t all die on the way.

The drive wasn’t too long in kilometers but it took about two hours. We didn’t get quite to the pass because of sloping snow blocking the way but this was expected. So we carried our ski expedition gear in 20-24 m/s headwind over the pass and down to the glacier where the valley protected us from the worst of the wind.

Down in the valley we repacked the gear once again, this time for 11 days of skiing and manhauling, and set on the glacier after searching for a safe route. Because of the heavy hauling and carrying, we skied just a short stretch to a safe and flat campsite before calling it a day. It was beautiful but windy day.

The next day started beautiful with very little wind but while pushing up from the glacier to the plateau of ice, the wind picked up. And it wouldn’t stop. For five days.

In the afternoon the drifting snow hampered the visibility and wind got bad enough (15-20 m/s) that going downhill to the plateau wasn’t safe anymore so we camped. The next day we spent a good hour digging our tents out of the snow (mostly a single geodesic dome, the tunnels did a lot better) and got back on our skis but stopped again after four hours because of bad conditions.

The next day we postponed the start by two hours, then again by another two hours and then once more by two hours to decide it would be a full weather day. Wind wasn’t impossible but around 15-20 m/s with thick drift lowering the visibility to 5-10 meters at the worst. On the evening’s radio call the inhabitants of the dome tent, referring to themselves as the bear cubs, asked if someone would bother to come and dig them out of their tent. And of course we did. And the next morning we once again dug up and packed the tent, an hour of group effort…

The weather was only slightly better than the previous days but that was enough for us to start the push towards West. We skied some 15 kilometers in eight windy hours before setting up camp. This time the dome tent stayed in the bag and we utilized the extra space in our three person tunnels to make things faster – and cozier. We did the same on the following two days after skiing nine hours in varying weather. On the fourth day after the storm we got the Grimmsfjall in our sight and climbed the icy slope up to the cabins. A small victory! We relaxed at the cabin, enjoyed the volcano-powered sauna and went for a little walk at the edge of the caldera to witness a beautiful sunset.

The next morning was gorgeous but we missed most of it sleeping long and relaxing in the cabin. Soon after we had departed from the safety of the cabin we skied into very humid wind. Those who have been to Iceland know what I mean. But that doesn’t really stop one from skiing so we continued towards the Western edge for half a day.

The next day offered the best skiing of the trip: good weather, good condition and nice looong downhill. It was not difficult to persuade the group to do a longer day of full ten hours on skis to reach the edge of the glacier, and another Jorfi cabin. And that was it. The biggest glacier in Europe was crossed!

The next day we were picked up by a trusty super-jeep driver and delivered safely back to the cozy hostel at the heart of Reykjavik through the snowy (and officially closed) highlands. After ski, dinners, a visit to Bluelagoon and other appropriate pastime followed until we returned to Finland.

The ski season was over for me for the year but I wouldn’t quite get rid of the snow. But more about that later…

– – –

And as usual, more photos in my gallery.

Three Weeks in the Wonderland

It’s pretty much summer now. At least in most of Finland. The snow has melted away, the winter kit is serviced and packed away and plans for summer adventures are being finalized. But let’s go back a couple of months and return again to the winter wonderland of the high Arctic…

In April I was guiding a three-week Ankarat avotunturit ski expedition to Svalbard. When the starting date drew closer, for some weird reason, I was more excited about the Vatnajökull crossing waiting in May, thinking it would be more interesting than Svalbard. I was wrong. So wrong.

Three weeks is a long time and there is too much to write about in detail but I think the photos do justice for the tour, to the time and place where we were.

We where there…

…sweating our way up the hills.

…skiing through the remote valleys.

…crossing the wast glaciers.

…waking up to the gorgeous mornings.

…climbing up to the jagged peaks.

…and skiing back down.

…finding our way to the cold shores.

…overcoming obstacles.

We where there…

…for the scenery.

…for the wildlife.

…for the sweet little surprises along the way.

…for the good life.

To make memories that define us.

I’d like to thank the great group I had privileged to guide. And the weather gods. And who ever sold his/her soul to keep them happy and favourable. Sorry for the soul, but it was well worth it.

Weeks like those, in wilderness like that, leave their mark. They change us. They define us. They leave a longing for more.

And so, I will return to those cold shores and jagged peaks.

– – –

As usual, more selected photos in my gallery.

– – –

And a little technical side note:

Due to hassle and serious sleep deprivation on departure, I accidentally packed my spare camera batteries to my checked luggage and as li-on batteries they were confiscated by the airport security. I noticed this way too late in Longyearbyen and didn’t have a chance to get any spares and thus had to survive with the single battery in my EOS 6D. I turned off the screen, the image stabilization, etc. and put the camera on only momentarily to take pictures trying to conserve power as much as was reasonable. I was amazed by the performance.

I took 1178 pictures with my camera (EOS 6D with 24-105 4 L IS lens)! And in the end the battery even had a tiny bit of juice left despite the camera warning of low battery level for the last three days. I was pretty damn impressed. But the next time, I will take spare batteries. And pack them to the carry-on luggage.

The best winter yet? Starting from Sarek.

The blog has been quiet since my contemplations of saying farewell to winter.

The reason is, that I succeeded and found the winter. And definitely didn’t have to say good byes in February. At the end of February I headed to Sarek in Northern Sweden and found beautiful winter on the fjells. No signs of the wet misery of last year but simply great late-winter conditions.

After Sarek I got a taste of wet winter on an overnight expedition training trip at Southern Konnevesi National Park and as I didn’t want to let go of the winter quite yet, I soon headed to Svalbard for a three-week expedition. As the pile of photos from the Svalbard expedition is still a mess of raw files, I’ll just settle into saying: It. Was. Awesome.

Well, there is one photo, so I’ll include it here as a teaser.

15-04-15EOS 6D1180_900But Sarek was awesome too, and the photos from Sarek are ready so lets get back there…

The first tour we started from STF station at Ritsem. We got a firm welcome from Nordic nature crossing the lake Ahkka: heavy winds with drifting snow. But starting from the second day it all got better. A lot better.

We were mostly blessed with bluebird skies and light winds. Temperatures dropped occasionally well below -20°C but mostly it was quite warm to be early March. In addition, one night we were blessed with short but spectacular auroras! We also saw quite a lot of wild life with the highlight, for me, being a wild wolf! We saw plenty of wolf tracks and on the lunch break of the fifth day spotted a black silhouette moving in the distance and later confirmed from the track that it was the wolf we had been skiing with!

Thanks to the good conditions we managed to ski “the long tour” as planned and clocked a bit over 120 kilometers in the seven days dispite a pretty serious burn on one participant caused by spilling a litre of boiling water on his thigh. It looked really bad, but he was a seriously tough guy and soldiered through the remaining three days of skiing without any issues.More photos from the trip in my gallery.

After a recovery day at Levi, it was time to go back with another group. Meanwhile Tero from the first tour had braved the winter storms solo and joined us for another tour.

The second tour started in spectacular weather but on the third day and the fifth night we got hit by a nice storm, not too bad, but enough to say it was a storm. In between the weather was again great, colder at times but mostly pretty warm. In the end we blasted over 5 kilometers in an hours (with pulkas!) and enjoyed coffee and refreshments at a pop-up coffee on lake Ahkka.

More photos also from the trip in my gallery.

Thanks for the great groups for the great tours! It was awesome.

For me the winter will still continue for a while as soon I’ll be heading to Iceland to once again cross the Vatnajökull glacier. I sure hope I haven’t burned all my good weather karma quite yet as the weather is Iceland can be horrible. I wouldn’t mind the spell of good luck continuing for a few more weeks. Or a few more years…

Getting over the expedition hangover

The blog has been quiet for about two months. That’s a long time. Of that time I’ve spent about five weeks on my longest expedition yet, skiing 27 days across the Greenland icecap. It was a wonderful tour and I had great time. But the price to pay seems to be the worst expedition hangover I’ve ever had. Some sort of post-trip torpor is typical to me but this time it feels exceptionally bad.

Yours truly enjoying life at the Greenland icecap. Photo by Matias Utriainen.

Yours truly enjoying life at the Greenland icecap. Photo by Matias Utriainen.

I was physically fine after the trip. I had to catch some sleep and took it easy for the first couple of weeks after the skiing but I lost only 2 kg of weight and it was solely fat so my body was fine. I didn’t have any bigger aches except for minor cold damage on the tips of my middle fingers and big toes but basically after a week of rest I was ready to go and ski cross the thing again.

And actually, I was also mentally more than eager to return to the simple life on the icecap. Back home I was initially interested mostly in sleeping and eating. After some time reading, sauna by the lake, sitting by a fire and walking and biking in the forests also started to appeal but most other things felt repulsive. And they still do. I’d rather be in some remote and wild place than back home with the myriad everyday responsibilities. This is what I call expedition hangover and that has also kept me away from the blog…

But in addition to longing for another expedition I’ve been also going through the huge amount of photos and video we shot on the expedition. I alone took over 1800 stills and nearly 50 GB of video. And I wasn’t the only one with a camera.

The first patch of photos is now ready and published and you can find them from my gallery. The photos are accompanied by short captions and I think they are best browsed in full screen view (click the icon on top right when browsing the photos) by clicking through the photos one by one. But you can watch them also as a slide show and also hide the texts if you want. You can get to the gallery by clicking any of the photos in the post.

Oh, and if you know cure for the post-trip hangover feel free to share it! 😉

PS. I also gave some interviews about the expedition. You can find the list from a post in the expedition blog but the only one in English is on Explorer’s Web and can be found from here.