Waking up in the polar darkness to the sounds of the wailing Arctic wind, one just wants to remain cosy and warm in bed. Then your mind slowly wakes up to realising that you are supposed to go ice caving that day.
Chucking on layer after layer of technical clothing too keep warm, you head out the door and are almost instantly blown over by the freezing wind. There is no way they will go out into the Arctic wilderness in this, you think to yourself.
But then you meet your guide, a smiling, maybe a little bit crazy, Russian man from Moscow. Asking if you are still going hiking up the glacier to the ice cave, the resolute response was one of:
The location is the small Norwegian town of Longyearbyen in the Svalbard Archipelago, high up in the Arctic. It’s early February and still very cold, with average temperatures of -20 degrees. But add in some strong wind, and things get real freezing, real fast!
Meeting up with some other tourists who had booked to go ice caving that day, you greet there somewhat bewildered looks with a smile. They had the same look as you must have had only moments before, when learning that you were going out in this weather. I bet they thought they could go back to bed, nice and warm.
Driving to the edge of Longyearbyen, you get out and try to stand up in the howling wind and blowing snow. You put on the snowshoes you were given, and pack into your rucksack the crampons and helmet you will need later for the cave.
Grabbing hold of some ski poles to help stand up, you listen to the instructions of the guide. There are 3 different groups going up that day, and after a few hundred metres of walking you will have the option if you would like to turn back.
With that being said, you step out into the polar wilderness. Well step out is used very lightly, because after only a minute of walking almost the entire group get blown over, you included.
Indeed there is a girl from another group who is quite small and lightweight, and cannot physically move without being knocked down. She has to give up at the very beginning.
The visibility at times is only 10 metres, with the guides headlamp the only real focus point. Wearing ski goggles you start to feel claustrophobic as the inside of them has frozen up, and the blowing snow keeps hammering your face, making everything almost invisible.
In fact you take the goggles off and just have to keep your head down and follow the snowshoes in front of you for direction. If you lift your head up you will get blinded by the snow.
Another guide comes and says that most of his group has given up, and he joins us, taking up the rear. You haven’t even gone more than 2 hundred metres yet!
Even your Russian guide speaks up saying this is some very extreme weather, and they don’t normally go out in this. He says:
“Now you get to really feel the true Arctic”!
Given the choice to go back or not, we all agree to keep on going, resolute in our will to conquer the Arctic conditions. And then just as that decision is made, almost half the group gets knocked over in the wind again. No joking.
Onwards and upwards! Yes now you learn more about the ‘upwards’ part. As if the weather wasn’t bad enough, you have to plod along in very deep snow up the moraine of the glacier you are heading towards. Even with the snowshoes on it can be very tiring work, with constantly having too stop every 40 metres or so to check how the rest of the group is doing.
The trick you soon learn when stopping, is to face away from the wind, and dig your ski poles deep in the snow for balance. Some people in the back are finding it somewhat overwhelming, but keep on going.
Then there is movement ahead, and 6 figures are spotted. It is another group that had gone up before you, and say that they had given up before reaching the cave, due to the weather. Their guide goes back down with some of her group, but 2 of her team decide to try again and join on with yours, as well as a trainee.
You push on, with the wind getting a little less strong. The Russian explains that you are somewhat sheltered now with the moraine of the glacier blocking a lot of the wind. Even so it is still quite harsh.
Bam! You arrive onto the glacier itself, and the wind and snow is the worse you have experienced so far. It is crazy! If a polar bear decided to attack the group here, you wouldn’t see it coming. Visibility was at best was 10 metres.
But you had reached the cave!
So you were told anyway, as all you can see around you is snow. Then the guides start digging, explaining that the cave entrance had been covered in snow from the storm.
While they are busy digging out the entrance, you have to take your snowshoes off and put the crampons on your boots, and helmet on your head. Easier said than done in the weather conditions.
In fact taking a piss out there the slogan of “don’t piss into the wind” was never more true! The thought of the man shown on the Top Gear Polar episode of a frost bitten penis because he forgot to zip up after going to the toilet also sprung to mind. Triple zip check…
With the cave entrance clear, you slide on down into the darkness of the glacier. Putting your headlamp on, you look around, and see the beautiful ice formations.
After the conditions outside it’s a relief to be out of the snow and wind, and you even find yourself getting warm. I bet people never thought they would say they were warm in an ice cave!
With everyone inside you descend deeper, the crampons on your boots stopping you from slipping. At times you have to hold onto ropes and squeeze through narrow gaps. Certainly not for the claustrophobic.
The guides amuse you with a story about a glove that was left behind one year, and had formed into the ice from above, sticking out slightly. They would tell other groups that it was someone who went ice-caving previously and had died, and the rest of his body was buried there, with the glove the only part of the body showing.
However after a woman who believed the story got very distressed the year before, they had to stop telling it. Since then the glove had disappeared into the ice.
You spend around an hour wandering the dark labyrinth of the cave, stopping to enjoy a well deserved hot drink for a while. Everyone turns of their headlamps at one point and enjoys the peaceful darkness, before turning them back on to be surrounded by the natural beauty of nature.
The ice cave truly is stunning.
But now it’s time to head back out, with many people dreading the weather and wishing to stay inside a bit longer. Well that wish was granted when you find out that you are snowed in.
Yes that’s right. Snowed into an ice cave, inside a glacier, in an Arctic storm!
Ok, this is certainly a new experience. The Russian guide takes his shovel (a shovel being one of the most important winter tools, and for good reason) and starts to dig his way out. But it is not easy, and even he finds it hard work, taking well over 30 minutes to dig a clearing large enough to exit.
Imagine how harsh the weather conditions were, that within only one hour inside the cave, the blowing snow had filled in the entrance entirely that it took 30 minutes to dig out.
But you were out, and yes back into the howling wind and cold snow. The guide continues to keep the entrance to the cave clear for the others to escape.
You take your crampons and helmet off and put your snowshoes back on. You have to pull hard at the snowshoes as they are now half buried in the snow.
With everyone out and ready to go, the party heads off, with the glowing lights of Longyearbyen visible in the distance and tantalising close. It is certainly easier going back as the wind is behind you, and it’s all downhill, although still very windy and slippery.
Your fleece top has frozen solid like hard cardboard, and ice forms around your warm headwear. In fact the guide has icicles coming off his beard.
But you made it. In what experienced guides called hardcore Arctic conditions, you made it. In fact the trip would normally take around 5 hours in normal conditions, but took over several hours in this case.
It was even more fun going up in such weather when looking back on it, as it was certainly something you won’t get to experience often. And that’s one of the joys of travelling, experiencing new things.
At the end of the day you head down to the bar to meet up with friends and enjoy some good ales, or whatever you may drink, looking back on a fun adventure.
I didn’t take any pictures on the hike up due to the bad weather. I managed to grab a few quick photos when exiting the cave. Inside the cave was no problem.
So if you are thinking about doing such a trip, it can be highly recommended. Whether you get clear weather that will be good for views, or some serious wind and snow, it is definitely worth it too visit the ice cave. Don’t be put off by bad weather, in a way that is the most fun part!
After 17 years of travel that was one of the hardest snow conditions I have ever been in, along with being stuck in a blizzard 4000 metres up in the Himalayas in winter.
What are some serious weather conditions you have been in?
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