Sunday morning started out with some excitement. JC, Sanja and I had done almost all the preparation for the trip, and our cargo was already distributed between four sleds, to be pulled by three heavy wide-track snowmachines. The only thing remaining was to wake up, eat breakfast and pack lunch, collect our food from the kitchens, strap everything down and blaze out of town. Of course, every one of those components cost a completely inordinate amount of time, and despite our best intentions we ended up blazing at the crack of 11am.
About 8km east of town, there is a small bay tucked up against the mountains. When the fjord is frozen, navigating the bay is as simple as finding a spot on the shore with a nice ramp down to the fjord ice, between the chunky broken blocks of sea ice that are lifted up onto the shore as the tides come in and out all winter long. Once you find your ramp, you just drive across the bay, find another ramp on the other side, and continue on your merry way towards the Kongsvegen glacier. If your destination of the day is the Gorillaheimen hut, turn north back onto the sea ice and drive cross the fjord. Once the fjord ice has broken up, however, getting past the bay becomes more involved. In this case, the snowmachine path leads across a steep slope, often with thin snow cover and dotted with patches of ice. The slope ends below the trail in a set of 25m limestone bluffs (the Bird Cliffs) which drop directly down into the bay (deep water solo, anyone?). The best way across the slope driving is to take at least one passenger on each trip, with both the driver and the passenger standing on the upslope running board and leaning their asses as far out as possible; if the passenger is up for it, standing on the uphill ski is even more effective, and kind of like a really crappy snowboarding simulator where you as the rider don’t have any choice in the rocks you hit on the way. It’s a little nervey, hanging off the uphill side of the snowmachine and looking down into the blue-green water of the bay, but the technique is basically flawless – with one or two hangers-on for ballast, there is no way even the heaviest snowmachine will roll down into the drink, especially if you keep your speed above zero.
The trouble comes, as in many situations, when you don’t play by the book. In many snow conditions, the crossing can be no problem at all, and taking turns walking back and forth to facilitate each separate crossing can seem like a waste of time after the eternity it took to get out of town in the morning. After having rolled my snowmachine on the way home from Gorillaheimen last week, we were all set to play it safe, but still one machine tipped at the steepest portion. Even here it wasn’t really in danger of rolling down to the bay; that particular piece of the scenery is pretty much psychological rather than an actual immediate danger. The snowmachine tipped over onto its side, and Sanja hopped off lightly then waited for us to come back and help her flip it upright. No go; those fuckers are HEAVY. Luckily reinforcements rolled up right behind us in the form of Ian and Mats, on their way to a one-day expedition up Kongsvegen. The five of us managed to right the fallen machine, and lo and behold! It miraculously started without any further ceremony, and we were able to carry on our way.
From here, the driving was spectacular and uneventful. Driving up to the mess of glacial terminii which make up the eastern head of Kongsfjorden, Kronebreen (Svalbard’s fastest flowing glacier) dominates the scene, galloping to the water with huge dramatic vivid blue ice cliffs towering and crumbling directly into the fjord. Kongsvegen, meanwhile, is certainly an extremely large glacier, but its terminus is a humble affair which forms a gentle and completely crevasse-free ramp all the way up to the ice cap where we were headed.
Our route led up Kongsvegen for a while before turning north off the glacier and out of this world. The pass leading from Kongsvegen behind the Tre Kroner and onto Holtedahlfonna are absolutely unreal. The closest I can come to a comparison is Canyonlands or Monument Valley, with limestone rather than sandstone and the desert floor with flash floods replaced by a wild, rolling ice cap with blasting katabatics. Also, the tops of the buttes, plateaus, peaks and ridges look like they are dripping with vanilla frosting.
I spent pretty much the whole ride looking from one side to the other, with my jaw held up only by my helmet strap. I was riding last in our little procession, so it was also my job to check behind myself every once in a while to see that nothing had fallen off any of the sleds. This turned out to be a pretty good position – when we were directly east of the first crown, and the other two had driven up ahead of me a ways, I saw an arctic fox! I was ecstatic. He was crouched low and waiting for the noisy cavalcade to pass by, then jumped up behind me and sprinted across our trail. I know they’re all dirty rabid carrion scavengers, but a pure white arctic fox running low across the high glacier is one of the most beautiful, elegant and rewarding sights I’ve been granted in Svalbard. I never saw a fox last time I was here, and seeing this one on such a spectacular and already exciting day was thrilling. Fluttery heart thrilling, not Michael Jackson thrilling.