Between the Arctic and Scandinavia, this island beckons climbers with vast, untrodden terrain.
By Michael Brady
Svalbard is an Arctic archipelago about halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. It has the world’s northernmost permanent population, mostly in two settlements, the administrative center of Longyearbyen and Ny-Ålesund, a research station. It recent history has an American connection: Longyearbyen was established by and named for John Munro Longyear (1850-1922), a developer from Michigan and the principal founder of the Arctic Coal Company that developed and started mining coal fields on Spitzbergen Island in 1905 to 1916.
Today Longyearbyen is a thriving town with a population of more than 2,000. Research and tourism have become key business sectors. The University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS), the Global Seed Vault, and SvalSat, the world’s largest ground station serving polar-orbiting meteorological and earth observation satellites are located there. Ships call at Longyearbyen, and there’s scheduled airline service between its airport and the Norwegian mainland. Longyearbyen may be the world’s most wired community, as it’s connected to the mainland by broadband submarine cables. Everyday life there is much that of towns on the mainland. Outside town, there are few signs of civilization, as Svalbard is a vast Arctic wilderness, 60% covered by glaciers. Mountains and fjords abound, and there are seven national parks and 23 nature reserves. The climate definitely is Arctic, though considerably milder than other land areas at the same latitude. Understandably, outdoor sports are popular, particularly hiking, mountaineering, and ice caving.
In mountaineering, Svalbard arguably is unique in having more untrodden terrain than comparable mountain areas elsewhere. In April 2007, a mixed Slovenian, Swiss and German climbing team made first ascents in seven climbing areas of the Atomfjella chain on Spitzbergen Island (further reading), yet there remain many yet-to-be-done first ascents of routes and summits.
The name Atomfjella (“Atom Mountain”) reflects a penchant for naming the mountains in the archipelago after the terms of the natural sciences. There are mountains named after the Electron, the Neutron and the element Radium. The second highest peak in the archipelago, Perriertoppen (“Perrier Peak”) is named after French zoologist Edmund Perrier (1844-1921), and the highest, Newtontoppen (“Newton Peak”) is named after English mathematician Isaac Newton (1642-1726).
Newtontopen on the northeast coast of Spitzbergen island not only has the loftiest summit. It is the largest massif, with its base is at sea level. So its prominence, the minimum height of climb to the summit is the same as the summit elevation, 1,717 meters (5,633 ft.). That makes it an ultra prominent peak, or “Ultra”, designating a prominence of at least 1500 meters (4920 ft.). There are more than 1500 Ultras in the world, but some famed peaks, including the Eiger and the Matterhorn in the Alps, are not Ultras because they rise from high-elevation cols.
In contrast, McDonald Peak in the Mission Mountains of Montana is an Ultra, because it has a prominence of 1722 meters (5650 ft.), about the same as that of Newtontoppen. In that topographical statistic lies a clue to an advantage of climbing in the archipelago. Climbs in the USA start from high elevation plateaus or cols; the key col for McDonald peak is at an elevation of 4180 ft. But summit climbs in Svalbard start from sea level or at elevations of a few hundred feet. So you don’t need altitude acclimatization to climb.
There’s one challenge in Svalbard that’s not found in comparable mountaineering areas elsewhere. Polar bears, of which there are some 3000 in the archipelago, more than the human population. The polar bear is the world’s largest land carnivore, and humans are intruders in its traditional habitat. A polar bear will attack without warning. Accordingly, people who go on extended trips outside town are required to register and are advised to take precautions including carrying and knowing how to use a big-game rifle.
Climbs are best in summer, when there’s daylight round the clock, and least practical in midwinter during the polar night that lasts from mid November to early February. This year it may be wise to avoid the week of Friday, March 20, when Svalbard will be one of two places (the other is the Faroe Islands) where you can stand on land to watch the total solar eclipse (further reading) that day. But if you want to watch the eclipse, book travel and lodging early, as crowds are expected.
Further reading and viewing:
Svalbard Guide by Pål Hermansen, 288 page paperback, German edition 2008 by Travel Media GmbH, ISBN 978-3930232598 (listed by Amazon.com), English edition 2013 by Gaidaros Forlag, ISBN 978-8280771551.
Svalbard Atomfjella new routes in Spitzbergen climbing expedition, by Gregor Kresal, on Planet Mountain website , selectable in Italian or English.
Svalbard Governor’s website , selectable in Norwegian, English, or Russian.
Visit Svalbard, information of interest to visitors, including lodgings, tours and the like, selectable in Norwegian or English.
Total Solar Eclipse of 2015 Mar 20, NASA Eclipse Website
Dateline: Europe, Svalbard: High Arctic Habitable, by MM Brady, Mountain Gazette, issue 179, June 2011, page13.