Svalbard Part 4: To the icy core

A glacier is more than an ice cube. Rather than being solid, uniform blocks, glaciers can have incredible variations throughout in terms of structure, temperature, and movement. The surface and the base of a glacier can communicate with each other, and the language of this communication is water.

When ice and snow on the surface of a glacier melts, it can produce a lot of water. Streams of this meltwater flow over the surface of a glacier during the warmer months of the year. These streams can cut or ‘erode’ into the glacier, creating paths or channels which the water flows through. Over time, these channels can cut deeper and deeper into the glacier, their roofs closing over to create tunnels through the ice which can bring the meltwater from the surface all the way down to the bottom of the glacier. This is important because increasing the amount of water underneath a glacier can encourage it to slide faster.

During the cold winter months, melt channels are generally dry. We had explored one of these channels previously on Scott Turnerbreen (see Svalbard Part 2: Balancing Act), and decided that some more time under the ice was needed. There had been reports of an excellent ice cave on Larsbreen, a glacier within an hour’s hike of Longyearbyen. So one Tuesday evening, with duties at UNIS finished for the day, Tom, Ellie, Jelte, and myself met on the outskirts of the village, and began the trek to the glacier. Our plan was to explore the cave for a few hours, and then being a bunch of idiots, to stay overnight inside the ice.

(A note on the images: the caves in the glacier were entirely dark, with our headlamps being the only source of light. Therefore, for me, much of the photography was experimental; playing around with shutter speeds, iso settings, and flashes, while avoiding damaging my camera too much when climbing and crawling. As always, click on images to see them in full resolution)

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Nighttime in the mountains above Longyearbyen.

 

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At the cave entrance, on Larsbreen.

 

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The walls of the channel were lined with a huge variety of beautiful and delicate ice structures.

 

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Glaciologist: defrosting.

 

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By the light of the moon, we found the entrance to the cave; first squeezing into a tunnel down through the overlying snow to get into the glacier itself. The passage through the ice twisted, widened, and narrowed, like a desert rock canyon; in sections coated in fragile crystal structures, then changing  to smooth, swirled patterned walls like polished marble. We followed the channel as far as we could go, descending through a series of levels and passages until we were forced to stop at a major drop; the location of what would have been a waterfall during the melt season. We picked a spot where we could roll out our bags for a few hours, and returned to the surface for some frigid air before sleep. On the way to the surface, I had a ‘how did I get here’ moment; crawling out of a glacier through a snow tunnel in the middle of the night, with a rifle on my back to watch out for polar bears, and being greeted by the northern lights.

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Our home for the night: a cosy ice chamber inside the glacier.

 

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Student accommodation in the Arctic can be grim

 

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My choice of sleeping spot, or as it became know as, the ‘MRI machine’.

 

Our night in the glacier was a memorable experience, but it felt like the caves had a lot more to show us had we been willing to push a little further. A few days later, we returned to Larsbreen.  Armed with ice climbing gear, Tom, Andi, and myself  would attempt to work our way down some of the larger drops that had stalled us on the previous visit, and see how deep we could get.

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Descent was carried out through the use of ladders, fixed ropes, and rappels for the longer drops.

 

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Climbing up

 

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Climbing down

 

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Climbing my way up through an ice chimney.

 

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Tom, about to drop over the edge of the first rappel section, which was extremely narrow.

 

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Close to the base of the glacier, looking upwards through the section we had just rappelled down. The dark bands in the ice are layers of debris and sediment (rock and soil) that has been picked up by the glacier as it moved along the valley floor.

 

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Getting narrow…

 

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Narrower…

 

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Wide. We reached the base of the glacier to find a cathedral of ice.

 

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Crawling through an R channel (a tunnel cut into the bottom of the ice by a stream running along the bed), with the entire glacier above our heads.

 

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(photo: Andi Alex)

 

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End of the line. The channel eventually became too narrow for us to proceed further.

 

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Belaying Tom up the last pitch of ice climbing (photo: Andi Alex).

 

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Back on the surface, and being watched by a distant reindeer (photo: Andi Alex).

 

We found the bed of the glacier, and it was an awe inspiring experience to have this entire mass of ice lying above us. My thanks to my like-minded companions on both trips for their company; the highlight of being in such incredible places is to share it with great people.

10 thoughts on “Svalbard Part 4: To the icy core”

  1. Hi Noel,
    We really enjoyed reading about your descent into the Larsbreen caves, together with those photos from the heart of the glacier. Well done on making your way as far as the “cathedral of ice”! Just one question: how come the rest of the party were sleeping in “grim student accommodation” while you were reclining in the “MRI Machine” ?
    The folks.

  2. Wonderful images. Well done. Shall let R&A know what you up to 🙂 … may see if we can make your desk here into an MRI machine too …

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