Thursday, 14 July 2011

The summer school comes to an end – 8th July 2011

As you can probably tell, I have skipped a few days with the blog. I know I originally said I would blog every day, but sometimes life just gets in the way; in this case, life is the summer school and the resulting very little time off. I’m sure my ramblings aren’t interesting to most people, but to those who were excited about my antics, I apologise.

Following a speedy recovery from the previous days near death experiences, the last week of the summer school began with a pleasant boat trip up Isfjorden to Nordensjoldbreen (the Nordensjold glacier) and the abandoned Russian mining settlement of Pyramidden. The glacier, as one would expect, was amazing, especially for a geography geek like me...what made it even better was the whisky on the rocks that we were served, the “rocks” being glacial ice! The whale that was served for dinner, however, was not so pleasant. Needless to say, I didn’t eat it. Pyramidden, by contrast, was an extremely eerie sort of place which gave me the definite heeby jeebies, just like its counterpart, Barentsburg, which I visited last year. I don’t know what it was, but I did not get a good feeling from the place; our “tour guide”, however, thought it was the greatest place on Earth! Saw a fair amount of wildlife whilst on the ship: many puffins, other Arctic birds, and even an Arctic Fox. Unfortunately no polar bears or whales.

The rest of the week flew by so quickly, but a few highlights included:
- Being attacked by yet another Arctic bird...I was casually walking across the tundra to a tent where some evening activities were being held, and all of a sudden some massive bird swooped by and hit my head with its feet! Scared me half to death...
- Watching people complete the “Arctic beer challenge” – drinking a can of beer whilst shoulder deep in Arctic water. People’s facial expressions were priceless!
- A trip to the dog yard to visit the huskies
- On the way to the above, running frantically down the road in order to avoid being attacked by the Arctic Terns. I have no idea why so many birds were attacking me this trip...
- Baking skillingsboller, my favourite traditional Norwegian delight!
- The final farewell party – details not needed here...
- The fact that the weather was so crappy for most of the two weeks, but cleared on the final evening: typical
- And many, many more...!

Before I knew it, the summer school had come and gone. It was great being back on Svalbard, and I learnt a hell of a lot. More importantly, however, I made some good friends and laughed A LOT! Next stop, Oslo!

Thursday, 7 July 2011

“This is the worst place in the world” – 1st/2nd July 2011

Friday on Svalbard means “Friday gathering”, essentially a party for all staff and students of UNIS, which, of course, includes the sea ice summer school participants. This couldn’t have come at a better time after some particularly gruelling lectures which left many feeling really stupid. The evening was complete with slack-lining, dancing, and general fun and banter, which all made for a very entertaining night. Before you ask Dad, no I wasn’t drunk! After getting back to the barracks at 2am, I was up at 7.30 to get to lectures. For those that know me, you will all realise that 5 and half hours sleep usually doesn’t make for a happy Graham – somehow this wasn’t the case and I felt particularly awake, well until the lectures began anyway...

Following some particularly tedious lectures, the summer schools one and only free afternoon began. In traditional Svalbard style, this meant a hike, and a long hike at that! Four of us head out with the aim to reach the abandoned mining settlement of Grunzzz, a pretty challenging target according to many of those experienced in these matters. Let’s just say the hike started badly (we couldn’t figure out how to use the preparation of course), and got worse and worse with every passing minute! This time I am not exaggerating. The hike began with a river crossing; not wanting to get soaking wet feet before the hike had started, off came our boots, and into the river we went. As you would expect, the water was bloody freezing (it is glacial melt-water after all), which was made worse by the fact that slippery rocks meant carful footing was necessary at all times. River crossed, boots donned, we continued up a seemingly never-ending steep slope. Now uphill walking really is not my forte, resulting in heavy breathing and profuse sweating. My thankfulness having reached the plateau was short-lived – we soon realised our path for the next 7km or so was bog, bog, and more bog. The going was very, very hard, and when coupled with the frequent crossing of knee deep snow drifts, and numerous streams, you can understand my fatigue when reaching our target....

...only that we didn’t really reach the target. Upon reaching that valley that would take us to the abandoned settlement, it became obvious that it was just too far, and would add another 4 hours or so to our journey. Instead of traipsing back through the bog, we thought it would be clever to evolve our route so that we walked straight down a different valley which would lead us to the starting point. Sounds wasn’t! With hindsight, this was a very stupid decision. I would go into details here, but let’s just say that in order to complete the hike, scrambling on loose scree slopes, clambering on precarious and often unsafe snow drifts, and crossing raging river torrents became commonplace. I don’t think I have never been so concerned for my safety! Emotionally and physically drained, after 8 hours, ~20km, 500m elevation gain and loss, the hike in “the worst place in the world” as it was named, was finally (and thankfully) over. Despite the trials and tribulations of the hike itself, we all had a really good time – I know I haven’t laughed that much for a long time.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Arctic Terns - 30th June 2011

A trip to the mine – 29th June 2011

Longyearbyen remains overcast, but temperatures have risen somewhat due to a drop in the wind. I remain hopeful that blue sky WILL return before I leave again...optimistically, this will be by Saturday in time for our “free afternoon”. The monotony of daily lectures was broken up today by the beginning of the student poster presentations; these are not normal posters, but A0-sized scientific posters summarizing ones work...just wanted to make that clear. When coupled with free alcohol, these poster sessions make for good discussion starters, and a nice way to find out what everyone is presently working on. Fortunately I didn’t get asked too many horrible questions...

Presentations over, a few of us students decided to go on an impromptu trip to the local mine up in Nybyen, mine 2a I believe. The abandoned mine (probably better to describe it as the mine buildings – I don’t think you can actually go underground) is located a couple hundred metres away from the student barracks, half way up the valley side, within easy reach for an evening wander and photo session. The mine is a pretty strange place, slightly dilapidated, but everywhere you see objects reminding you of the fairly recent mining activities that took place there, albeit rusty and/or ice covered. When I first visited Svalbard, I also visited this mine, and was made to walk on an unstable plank of wood with no hand-rail supports for probably 10m or so; needless to say I was pretty petrified, especially considering that if I fell, I would probably roll all the way down the slope back to the student barracks. This year, I conquered my fears and walked these planks of doom without thinking twice; in fact, I even stopped half way to snap some photos – photography is clearly a good incentive to conquer fears. It was nice to get out and about, I hope these evening activities continue!

Friday, 1 July 2011

“Wilderness Evening” - 28th June 2011

Much to my disappointment, yesterday’s prediction for improved weather was completely wrong. Cloud remains an ever present eye-sore over the Svalbard landscape, producing the odd spot of rain, and in doing so, shattering my illusions of escaping the rain from both Australia and England! The wind has also picked up considerably, bringing the temperature down with it – what temperature it is I don’t know...but I do know that it is cold enough and windy enough for me to cry and shiver constantly whilst outside. I could easily resolve this problem by staying inside, but then I couldn’t take any outdoorsy photos could I? Needless to say, I endured the Arctic weather to snap some shots; my subject, the Arctic Terns that attacked me a few days previously. These birds are so quick that it proved rather difficult to get a good shot, but my patience eventually paid off. Well worth the threat of frost-bite (I exaggerate) to snap these birds fishing on the shores of Longyearfjord.

This evening we had a scheduled social event, which our programme simply described as a “wilderness evening”. I was hoping that this would somehow involve being outdoors, enjoying the Arctic wilderness, despite the wind and threat of rain. Boy was I wrong! Instead, we travelled 5 minutes by bus down the one of very few roads in Longyearbyen, into Adventdalen, towards a place with a dog yard and a few huts. Our “guide” tells us that this is on the edge of the wilderness...I don’t consider being 5m from a road, with views of a mine, wilderness. Nevertheless, a pleasant evening was had enjoying a lecture on Svalbards history in a wooden hut, complete with fire and lanterns; very cosy.

The summer school begins – 27th June 2011

Today marked the start of the summer school, and with it, the start of all-day lectures which I have not experienced since my Master days, almost 2 years previously. Luckily the cloud has returned to Longyearbyen, making it much easier being stuck indoors all day - nevertheless I would still like to be out and about exploring the Arctic wilderness and taking photos (no photos taking today :( ). I won’t bore you all with the details of my lectures because frankly, I know you all couldn’t care less, but I will just say thus far, they have been intellectually stimulating, very interesting and pretty intense! Apparently jumping in the deep end, so to speak, is the Norwegian way. The weather seems to be clearing slightly now (10pm), so hopefully tomorrow will bring brighter skies in preparation for our “Wilderness Evening”, whatever the hell that is – hopefully it will involve some photography...

The Return to Svalbard – 25th-26th June 2011

After a 4am start, and over 13 hours in transit, I finally made it back to Svalbard, and boy is it good to be back. The flight in over Spitsbergen itself was absolutely amazing; clear skies afforded fantastic views of snow covered peaks, glaciers and glacier tongues, sea ice and fjords as far as the eye could see, it was truly amazing. This fantastic greeting to the Arctic made me forget my extreme fatigue (I should mention that I forgot to pick up my boarding pass from the self-service machine and had to harass a helpful staff member in my panic – it was all fine...) so that I could head down to the annual beach party in celebration of midsummer with a few fellow sea-ice summer school people. In addition to enjoying the midnight sun and watching foolish people swim in the Arctic waters, I was lucky (if that’s the right word) to receive a free half burger-bap and some crazy potato flat bread thingies from the BBQ due to the lack of vegetarian or chicken options – GET IN! Eventually, however, the tiredness greeted me once more (and with a vengeance) and so we promptly walked back up the Nybyen (the barracks where we are staying – about half hour walk from Longyearbyen), but not before being attacked by Arctic Terns!

Despite extreme fatigue, the midnight sun made sleep rather difficult and therefore getting out of bed even harder....but a hike had been planned, so out of bed I got! The IPY summer school (which I attended the two years previously) is going on concurrently with the sea-ice school I am attending , and so a few of the sea-ice people joined the IPY crew to go on a hike to Nordensj√∂ldtoppen. It seems that despite losing some weight and doing a fair amount of walking in Australia, I am still pretty unfit, at least by Norwegian standards anyway. The hike took probably 6 hours in total, but what killed me was the 1080m climb from sea-level to the peak! The bloody, sweat and tears were totally worth it though – the view from the peak was amazing and just difficult to describe in words, so I will let my photos do the talking in that respect. Luckily the walk down was much easier, mostly because I just leaped down the snow-covered slopes and hoped for the best...luckily it worked out fine and I didn’t injure myself. All in all, it was an amazing hike (I will probably take that statement back tomorrow – I’m already finding it difficult to move), and definitely an amazing start to my time in Svalbard. Great people, great views, great weather – let’s hope it continues!