Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Monday 10th October - Blomstrandbreen trek - "Get off the tundra!"

Monday 10.10.2016  Blomstrandbreen  79°00,2´N, 012°13.1´E

Cloudy and overcast, a dark but beautiful morning. 2°C, 2m/s. 
Sunrise 09:45 – Sunset 17:41

A wet foggy start to the day, still dark while we eat breakfast; even as we assemble on deck and climb into the Zodiacs it’s only just about getting light. We travel towards shore in the gloom of early morning, a pale green sea, mist clinging low to the mountains. No-one speaks, the bay is full of luminous glacial ice, pale turquoise blue, white, laced brown, large, small, flat, jagged, float silently passed us, jostling for space. Travelling by Zodiacs to shore is more hazardous today as we slowly push our way through the ice. 
I look back to where the  Antigua sits surrounded by a gently swelling turquoise blue ice sea; some of those pieces are pretty big.
We set off trekking up the mountain at a brisk pace; our aim is to reach the head of Blomstrandbreen. A tricky climb, the tundra crumbling and rocky, a bit like climbing up scree. Stones strewn across the ground - pure white, jet black, marble-like patterns, some like ancient bits of wood. Lying amongst them is a small piece of reindeer antler, soft grey with darker markings.
Then something white moves up ahead. We all freeze. Sara looks worried, her hand travels to the rifle; this is not a good sign. We’re too far up to retreat, nowhere to shelter. We stand exchanging looks, whispering, then relief, it’s a pale reindeer, its arctic coat beginning to show. I wonder what we would have done if it had been a polar bear - maybe better not to think. 
We continue upwards and pass a pair of harmless white Rock Tarmigan wandering amongst rocks and low foliage; they don’t seem bothered by us.
Rock Tarmigan (archive photos)
Climbing through mist it feels as though we are suspended, cocooned somewhere between sky and sea. 
As we reach the top it clears and there’s a spectacular view back to the shore. A thin line of a bright burnt orange winds through the deep gorge below us; up here I can’t hear the stream.
I peer over the drop; before me a stone strewn path dragged by the ice and then the glacier sweeps vertically down to the sea edge where blue ice pushes up together, growing high into fat rounded peaks, bunching on shoreline waiting their turn to calf and fall, break into pieces and float out to sea. Pockets of mist hover and drift about us. Much of the ground is bare rocks, small pockets of snow lying on slopes, but not as much as there should be.

On the edge
Get off the Tundra Zlatan!
Looking back down the way we’ve climbed I can see far across the bay to yet another gleaming glacier. Cloud and mist drifts, sun on ice. Below us lies the Antigua, a tiny speck in a vast space.

We pause, standing together where once has been glacier, a silent group listening to the land and sea and sky. I close my eyes. Now I hear the rush of water below us, then sounds of the glacier calving, of air moving, air that feels so clear, then silence. I feel so remote from the world and yet right in the midst of it. Overwhelmingly beautiful, I think we have a collective sublime moment. Then we are herded back down at breakneck speed, slipping and sliding on the scree, as we're late for lunch (never mind being sublime when the captain is pacing the deck).
Cloud descends again as we arrive back on the Antigua, hanging low of the mountain we just climbed, intensifying the blues in the ice, dark dramatic peaks rising behind the glacier. 
Leaving Bloomstrandbreen - a flash of blue sky
Afternoon, we head northwards, and I hang about on the deck and draw fast.
sketch book - drawing on the move - leaving Bloomstrandbreen
sketch book - drawing on the move- passing glacier
sketch book - drawing on the move- mountains and glaciers

We reach Ny Ålesund late afternoon. 
Once a coal-mining settlement, now an international centre for arctic scientific research and environmental monitoring, with a shifting population of scientists/researchers from 10 countries. 
Our arrival increases the population by 78%.

Ny Ålesund
Sitting against a backdrop of mountains, it feels somewhere between entering a sci-fi movie set and an episode of The Prisoner. Strangely-shaped antenna point into the sky monitoring the northern lights, white domes sit eerily in the landscape listening to the stratosphere, neat wooden buildings painted in pale colours, board walks, notices forbidding you to walk on the tundra - geoscientists are studying permafrost soils and changes in glacier systems and we mustn’t touch the ground. There are devises to measure how higher levels of UV radiation are affecting sea life in the fjords, to record how organisms are responding to increasing ocean acidification. Occasionally a few people appear busily walking from one building to another, clipboards in hand, a cyclist passes by.

Receiving strict instructions to observe all the signs and not walk off the path, we walk in file, careful where we put our feet, and arrive at the Amundsen/Nobile mast. A rather bleak place, I stare up at the metal structure. 

It’s all that now remains of the launch station for airship Norge, along with a plaque that hails the event as a 'glorious achievement'.
In reality the expedition seems less heroic and more of a feat of survival judging by the accounts of the trip. Launched May 11th 1925 the aim was to observe uncharted sea between the Pole and Alaska. Amundsen, the famous Norwegian expedition leader and navigator, and Umberto Nobile, Italian airship designer and pilot, apparently didn’t hit it off, relations becoming strained, understandable perhaps in such freezing, cramped and noisy conditions (there were sixteen of them inside the ship). It all became even worse when, a day later, they passed the North Pole and in true patriotic style dropped their flags and Amundsen saw the Italian flag was larger than the Norwegian and American flags. Size clearly matters. Amundsen later contemptuously described the trip as "a circus wagon in the sky".
Airship Norge hovers over Ny-Ålesund before heading for the North Pole. (Image: Norwegian Polar Institute Photo Library)
Photo taken in the Ny Ålesund museum
Ny Ålesund’s museum tells the history of mining up until early 1960’s when, on 5 November 1962, there was an explosion in the Ester mine. The entire work shift, consisting of 21 miners, lost their lives. 10 of the bodies were brought up to the shocked town, 11 were never found. The mine became their grave and was closed. 
The shop seems to sell mainly tourist stuff – fridge magnets, socks, sweets (maybe scientists have sweet teeth), the usual array of postcards, although there’s a couple of nice images of old Ny Ålesund amongst them. I buy a couple and write one to send home.

It’s already dark when we return to the boat; 20 minutes less daylight each day now. In a couple of weeks there will be no daylight for several months as Polar night sets in. Late evening the sky is clear and Northern lights flicker. I'm finally sleeping on the top bunk and have a porthole through which to see the world. I breath a little easier.