Svalbard: searching for powder far North

By meteomorris on 13 December 2019 · 0

January 2019 The North Face launches FUTURELIGHT. During the ISPO at Munich I have the revolutionary piece of textile in my hands for the first time. Spring 2019 I get an invitation from The North Face to test FUTURELIGHT in an extreme environment. Destination: Spitsbergen. The plan is simple: in May, when there is day light for 24, we take a boat around the island, moor it off the coast, go ashore with a small rubber boat and walk up on my my splitboard and then descend. Never stop exploring as they say at The North Face.

Let me be clear: this wonderful story was made possible with the support of The North Face. Would I not have gone otherwise? A good question. I have heard great stories about Svalbard from many: snow, polar bears and guns, a boat and skitouring, best period mid-April and May. In other words, earn your turns at a time when the winter in the Alps is really coming to an end and I usually go out with my surfboard. This time no surf in May and let me already reveal that I am realy happy that I went to Svalbard.


Svalbard, or Spitsbergen, as the Dutchman Willem Barentsz christened the archipelago in 1596, is part of Norway. Norway is already very northern for many Europeans, but to put everything in perspective: the distance from Oslo to Spitsbergen is pretty much the same as the distance from Oslo to the Sahara. Spitsbergen lies between the 74 ° -81 ° North latitude, or rather at the North Pole. Because of its northern location, the winter days are completely dark while the sun does not set in the summer. At the southernmost tip of Spitsbergen, the midsummer night lasts 99 days, while the polar night lasts 84 days. Or 84 days without sun. At the northernmost point, this is 141 and 128 days respectively.


So close to the North Pole you expect a cold and snowy climate. At least I would. Yet it is warmer, especially in winter, than in comparable northern areas. The West Spitsbergen Current is part of the warm gulf stream that runs north near Ireland and Norway and temperes the freezing cold. The seawater to the west of Spitsbergen is always about 5-7 degrees Celsius, which ensures that this part remains open and navigable throughout the year. The second thing that I wasn't aware of is the amount of snowfall. Cold polar air from the north and mild moist air mix here with low pressure and a lot of wind as a result. Yet there is only 400 mm of precipitation in the west of Svalbard, of which 100 mm in the winter. For comparison: at the Gotthard Pass in Switzerland, 1200 to 1800 mm of precipitation falls annually. So Svalbard is relatively mild and dry. Also called the Arctic dessert by some.

Time to go

Halfway May I pack my winter gear for the last time and check my gear one last time.

Before departure, I offset the CO2 emissions from my flight from Amsterdam via Oslo to Longyearbyen and the diesel emissions from the boat by transferring an amount to trees for all. At the same time I study the weather maps. A nasty storm is located southeast of Svalbard and it will dominate the weather during the trip. First of all, the current is southeast, which causes the supply of mild and moist air, but later the wind should turn north, resulting in a significant cooling. 4 seasons in a trip it seems to be, but to be honest I have no idea. In the meantime I may have read a lot about Svalbard, but I have no idea what to expect.

Gale winds

Upon arrival at the airport of Longyearbyen it storms like crazy. A stormy wind from the southeast brings delicate, totally blown snow. My body may have already arrived in the spring mode, the arctic is immediately apparent. I am happy to have brought my winter pattas instead of my summer sneakers. On arrival the crew of The North Face is awaiting me. Because the boat is not yet ready for departure, we have some time to explore Longyearbyen.

Longyearbyen (c)Tristan Kennedy
Longyearbyen (c)Tristan Kennedy

In nice weather, that might be quite an experience, but the strengthening storm makes it rough and unpleasant. I decide to settle into the Kroa for a hot coffee and a veggie burger. Soon I get into a conversation with the man and woman who run the Kroa that afternoon and our conversation goes from heel to branch. Both are from the mainland, so Norway. The man has been working here for three years, the woman just a year. "The summers are the worst. It just doesn't get dark and your whole rhythm gets disrupted, "the man says. 'In the winter you come outside in the evening after work and it is dark. That feels natural and then you naturally want to go to bed, "the woman says.

'What I miss the most? The smell. When I arrive on the mainland again I smell the flowers and the trees. Here those smells don't excist. When I return to Norway, I notice how much I miss it. " With that in mind I start the homesickness topic. 'There is no authentic population. People come here for a few years but don't get old here '. After a while I understand what he means. "There is no cemetery here. People live here for a few years, sometimes 10 years or more, but eventually they return to the mainland.' Or rather, as it turns out, "we have to go to the mainland. No people are buried in Spitsbergen because the freezing cold would preserve diseases and viruses. If you want to die, you have to go to the mainland. Although climate change may change that," said the man and then seamlessly transfers to the world seed bank on Svalbard. A place 120 meters deep in a mountain near the airport of Longyearbyen. Because of the freezing cold, plant seeds from as many plant varieties as possible can be stored there. A place that is also called the "Noah's Ark". But climate change makes that the permafrost thaws and the seeds are no longer in the freezing cold.

My head dizzles. So mucg information. Summer night, the dark polar night, the lack of scents, not being able to die, permafrost, climate change and the world seed bank. There is so much you can learn in an hour. One question is still burning on my lips: "how is the snow here?" "Ha you come here to tour?" The man asks rhetorically. Mining was once the most important employer, but tourism has grown explosively: more than 50,000 tourists visit Spitsbergen every year. Most with a cruise boat, the others to tour in the spring. It provides people like Anders work. 'I am not here for touring, too many polar bears, too much hassle. I work here, that's it."

More polar bears than residents

"Too much hassle?" I ask. Almost 3000 polar bears roam on and around the ice masses of Spitsbergen. That is more than the total number of people who live there 'permanently'. Since 1973, the polar bear has been a protected species on Svalbard. Whoever leaves Longyearbyen to go into the wilderness is supposed to carry a gun, but that does not mean that you can use it with impunity. Whoever shoots a polar bear will have a lot to explain.

(c)Tristan Kennedy
(c)Tristan Kennedy

The boat is leaving

While the wind is still catching up, we are getting ready for departure. Guides and captain have picked a first destination based on the weather. The aim is to sail north that night and steer into the Krossfjorden. As we sail out of Longyearbyen, a Greenpeace boat approaches us to take shelter from the ever-increasing storm. Fortunately we are sitting on a dyke of a boat that is not easily disturbed by some swell. Not much later, the connection from my mobile phone drops out to have no coverage for the next three full days. I walk on the deck for a while before we go out into the high seas. The sea water has an icy gray-blue color similiar to those ice-cold winter days in the North Sea. Could there be good surf somewhere here? After all, it is already May. Time for my annual surf trip ..... With that thought I fall asleep.

(c) Tristan Kennedy
(c) Tristan Kennedy

Day 1: spring

When I wake up the next day and walk on the boat, one thing is immediately noticeable: there is no wind and there are some low clouds in the fjord. But there is something else. Something I cannot immediately put my finger on. Only later does the penny drop: because there is no celphone range, people talk to each other without interruption during breakfast. A special moment.

After breakfast I hoist myself in the FUTURELIGHT test set that I get for this trip. (You can find my test results here. Immediately afterwards I walk to the deck to get my shoes. Deep in thought I walk into the room where my shoes are. Panic arises because of me. The guides are loading their guns and then I am clearly not welcome. Not much later we are ready for a day of touring. First the guides go ashore to check the area for polar bears. The first 300 meters from sea level is their habitat. They never get higher because who would be fishing on top of a mountain? When it is clear that everything is safe we can go on shore. A Zodiac brings us to the shore. We prepare our skis and splitboards and hop on the road we are.

(c) Mathis Dumas, FUTURELIGHT
(c) Mathis Dumas, FUTURELIGHT

It is a mild spring day. The air coming in from the southeast has pushed up the temperature. The fact that the humidity is high does not help either. The snow cover gets wet, just like us. A great day to acclimatize, a great group to ride with. Three boarders and a few skiers including Evalina Nilsson. After climbing for a while we are at the point where we are going to draw our first lines. Time for a snow check.

Our guide digs a snowpit quickly and professionally, with a number of things striking. First of all, the snow cover here is a meter thick and I really expected that to be thicker. The Arctic dessert I mentioned earlier shows itself here. Second, there is the raincrust that we find deeper in the snow cover. Which I find particularly interesting. Do you remember the bizarre warm February week of winter '18 -'19? Well then it rained on Spitsbergen. It was then the middle of winter and continuous night. The Climate Change that Anders mentioned earlier in his restaurant comes very close.

We descend into butter-soft spring snow. It is rarely really steep but it is a nice warm-up. Certainly because of the environment. The descent to sea level is special, the glacier behind us impressive and the feeling that a polar bear might be spying on us is special.

The Lilliehöökbreen glacier

That evening the captain comes to us. We are given the opportunity to sail with a small group in a Zodiac towards the [Lilliehöökbreen] (öökbreen) glacier, provided that we do not get closer than 300 meters. When we hear a hatch of creaking and rumbling around, it becomes clear why. Part of the glacier collapses and causes so much swell that a ride on a longboard would not have been out of place.

(c) Mathis Dumas
(c) Mathis Dumas

The Lilliehöökbreen glacier is no small one. With a whopping 8 kilometers wide and 22 kilometers long, you quickly lose your sense of dimensions. The ice wall in front of us is quickly 100 meters high and after an hour floating around in the ice floes we quickly turn out to be a few kilometers away from our boat. But due to the lack of wind, the patches of clouds and the lack of sound (except for the cracking and sanding of the ice), you have no idea that you have been on the road for so long.

(c) Mathis Dumas
(c) Mathis Dumas

Day 2: fresh snow

That night, although that remains a strange word if the light does not go out, we stay close and sail only a few kilometers to the south. We spend the night in the Kongsfjorden not far from the island of Blomstrandhalvøya south of the Blomstrandbreen glacier. Blomstrandhalvøya means roughly translated flower beach peninsula and still refers to the time that the Blomstrandbreen glacier was still connected to the island and it was thought that it was a peninsula. We now know better and all the ice between the island and the coast where we will start our tour today has melted.

When I wake up there is a strong wind and with the Zodiac we chatter over the short wind waves towards our destination that day. The goal is to tour around the Skreifjellbreen glacier. First of all we check on polar bears and if the coast is safe we can put our skins on our boards and skies. The wind and lower temperatures make it really chilly. Just trying to do something without gloves results in rapid hypothermia. So moving quickly is the answer. The northwest wind has strengthened a little because of the venturi effect between the peninsula and teh shore and the snow passes horizontally. It is way colder than the day before. From spring we step back into the winter within 12 hours time. During the day we do two descents where the snow cover grows and grows. Fresh cold snow, I had hoped for that in advance, but not really expected it. Snow clouds and temporary clear-ups alternate that day. The view is therefore regularly diffuse, but the sight of the boat in the distance is magical, the faceshots during the descents priceless.

The fact that everyone is living in the moment makes it even more special. No social media that distract every few minutes, no whirring phones. Today this is our playground and there is no place in the world better. At least not that we know or what the timleine of Mark Zuckerberg and his friends wants to believe. When the day comes to an end, we are the last group to arrive at the coast. Because of the pack ice blown to the coast by the wind and the fact that it is slowly becoming low tide it becomes more and more difficult to sail from shore to the ship with the Zodiac. Time to lift the anchors for a new day.

c) Tristan Kennedy
c) Tristan Kennedy


But again there is a nice surprise. We are allowed to moor in Ny-Ålesund, the northernmost village in the world. This was once a mining town, but nowadays the village is populated by scientists. A maximum of 35 people in the winter, 120 heads or more in the summer with representatives from all over the world. In mid-May when we are there, the village comes back to life now that the long polar night is over. The wind is chilly bit I find some cover. I have some time to speak with the people of the Norsk Polarinstitutt. Spitsbergen is the hotspot of climate warming. They confirmed to me what the The Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI) wrote earlier: "Since 1961, the temperature has risen by no less than 5.6 ° C, about 1 ° C every ten years. Global warming is strongest in the last 20 years. Last March it was therefore warmer than normal for the hundredth consecutive month (1961-1990 average) for that month, up to 12-14 degrees above normal in extremely hot months. One consequence of this is that the winters on Spitsbergen are now two months shorter than normal. " (source)

Mayhem at sea

As we anchor and sail out of the Kongsfjorden, a huge swell on the open sea can be seen clearly in the distance. It reminds me of the big days on Hossegor. An interesting view knowing that we have to sail across the high seas to a new fjord during the upcoming night. But after the fresh snow of today there is some euphoria in the air and here and there a beer is drunk too enthusiastically. Full of bravado, a travel companion says that he has never been seasick. As we approach the high seas I take an anti seasick tablet and dive into my cabin. It is going to be a heavy night and even with the tablet I am about to spit everything out of my stomach a few times. When I open my porthole the next day, the sea is calm and the sun is shining. We are in the middle of the new fjord. In the corridor I hear the stories of that night. How a number of fellow travelers have spent hours hanging over the railing. It had been chaos.

Day 3: sunny and cold

That morning the wind has lost its storm force and it is fully sunny. We are in a side fjord of the Isfjorden with the name Trygghamna. The weather is really picture perfect but the wind of the past 36 hours worries the guides. With the skins under iur boards we climb over the languid glacier towards a peak.

c) Tristan Kennedy
c) Tristan Kennedy

It is a long hike with some wind once we arrive at the col, but the view is amazing with water on three sides. But we are not there yet, we are going even higher. It is wonderful to tour at sea level. If there is something that is nice, then it is that you are on high alpine terrain while the oxygen level is just a lot higher than when you are let's say at 3000 meters altitude around the Mt. Blanc. High alpine conditions at sea level, amazing.

Once at the peak the reward follows. A beautiful descent with an amazing view. We take a moment to recover and warm up in the sun. What a view. Secretly I search for the sea. Isn't there a nice pointbreak? I ask the guide if he knows if surfing is ever done here. He has no idea, so we decide to be the first and surf the somewhat blown out snow on our skis and snowboards.

c) Tristan Kennedy
c) Tristan Kennedy

Once down we quickly climb up again. Another descent. At the peak we enjoy the view again. While I am converting my splitboard to descent mode, I have time to look around me. I see a beautiful wall and wonder aloud if that is not an option. But the guide is conservative that day. The wind was strong and so we decide to make a less steep descent again. Now on an almost northern slope, but almost full in the sun. Because that too is Spitsbergen. If the sun never sets, then northern slopes also get sun.

Not much later somebody shouts "avalanche" sounds. A windslab has started to slide on a west slope. Fortunately no victims but it makes you realize again what a shaky balance you sometimes walk on. A good guide definitely pays off.

During this trip I was constantly on the road with [Tristan Kennedy][ ]) and Jurgen Groenwals. Thanks Tristan for the nice pictures above you shot and thanks Jurgen for the beautiful story that can be read in his magazine 100% snow.

Jurgen en Tristan
Jurgen en Tristan

Spitsbergen was an amazing experience. During the trip I had the opportunity to test the new FUTURELIGHT textile from The North Face of which you can read my test here. It was also a unique moment to do the final fine tuning tests for the Powfinder Split 157.

My thanks go out to The North Face for the invitation. Last but not least, I want to thank the guide team of Svalbard Ski and Sail for the wonderful adventure.

If you have any questions, don't hesitate to ask them below. Just shoot... ;)


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