Spitsbergen 2013, Winter swimming and polar travel

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For the last few years I had been thinking more about making a trip to the arctic, combining winter swimming with traditional polar travel. This went from fanciful idea to reality, mainly as I realized that I had a lot of the necessary skills for such a trip, namely tolerance to cold, endurance and a general indifference to hardship both emotional and physical. (after dealing with a murder the former becomes easier)….

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Well, I was something of an expert in tolerance to cold water so combining this with my abilities on cross country skis which I had been developing for the last 3 years I was looking forward to the trip with relish. I had visited arctic Alaska in 2011 and on that occasion I had recieved a wake up in the form of the powerful nature and therefore I prepared well and constantly compelled my club colleague and team mate for the trip Matej to do the same. An incredibly strong man but he was yet to taste the arctic so I had to reassure him that although western Spitzbergen might not be completely extreme it would certainly be no walk in the park as we flew into 78° north roughly halfway between the Norweigian mainland and the north pole.

I prepared well and with hindsight the only mistake was with the small amount of snacks packed to be eaten each day during the short breaks from skiing, (and even that was something I suspected). I was right that I had just enough snacks for 6 hours but after that it was a problem and so was the single 0.75l thermos. I was also right that the 50g of  “hunters” salami would prove to be the tastiest of all the snacks. However, I was wrong about the  soya bars – normally I don’t really like these so I decided on 1 every 2 days but I was already cursing after I ate the first one as these things took on a wonderfully strong taste in the arctic. Unfortunately my favourite muesli bars that have worked well in temperate latitudes all year were nothing more than a taste at around 78° north. Luckily I had counted and bagged the breakfasts and evening meals perfectly even if I do say so myself although the porridge did need a little more enriching which I will correct next time by taking more semolina and an extra slab of lard. Being probably the poorest polar travellers on Spitzbergen we of course shunned the instant meals in favour of rice and red lentil based dinners, combined with various other things including salami, lard, bacon, and flavoured with herbs and spices and large amounts of garlic. A soup with extra added noodles or spaghetti ensured that we were satisfied come time to stop moving and get into the sleeping bags. A lot about food there but the body needs huge amounts of energy in the harsh cold of the polar desert.

As for the trip itself we prepared and checked all equipment including firearms. We started with full sledges at 2pm and within an hour we were out of town and into what would turn out to be a 4 hour ascent that took us from sea level to  a mountain pass that was over 700m higher.  Tricky, but we were never at our maximum, all those hours of skiing and trekking and climbing and swimming can prepare the body quite well.  A few hours later and it was more difficult, my thermos was empty and it was bothering me. We should have been making a camp but there was a general concensus to push on and make it to Rusanovs hut. I had seen Matej furiously chopping wood in the morning and I had heard him mention the hut so I already knew his intentions. Ever the optimist he was sure we would be there in an hour and of course I disagreed and I was backed up by both our maps and the GPS.

At around 10pm we reached the large valley and turned right heading for the sea, a few moments of unceratainty as light coloured animals were spotted in the dark just 50m away. However, they were reindeer and not polar bears – drama over. Finally at 1am we made it to the hut, the final 50m involved much cursing in both Czech and English language as we had to drag the sledges over an old broken bridge which in the past was used for the transport of coal. After this, it was all downhill as we never needed to put another marathon day in although we twice more racked up near 10 hour skiing days. Our average time on the skis was 7.5 hours and we covered some 140km.

Seeing as this is a blog about swimming I must mention that we made a short swim in the frozen sea, some 4 minutes and the odd seconds, so by our standards nothing more than a bath but even so it took some doing given the -18c air temperature and strong wind which sometimes took temperatures to -37c. The water itself was about -1.7c, clear with that lovely soft ice that salt water produces, less of a danger than the freshwater ice regarding cuts. However a few metres from the shore and already the ice was thicker. This was no time for heroics and the short swim was quite enough given conditions

The trip was a success and Spitbergen 2013 was the first in series of trips to combine winter swimming with polar travel. (a short movie about the trip is currently in post production) The next trip will be in winter 2014. We will build on the success of this first trip with the aim of furthering our own and others knowledge of the places we travel to and what we encounter.