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BLOG | REPORTS | 04 August 2015

Svartisen: Crossing one of the largest glaciers in Norway with skis and packraft: by José Mijares & Hilo Moreno

We are delighted to be able to share with our readers this glacier crossing, by José Mijares, which took place near his home at North Cape, Norway.

Crossing the Svartisen glacier
We are delighted to be able to share with our readers this glacier crossing, by José Mijares, which took place near his home at North Cape, Norway. José runs the successful Artico Ice Bar and also offers courses on Arctic techniques, wilderness and photography of the aurora borealis. Many of our readers have enquired if José offers guided tours in Lapland; well, not yet, but these courses are a perfect stepping stone for learning the basic techniques of self-sufficiency in the Arctic as well as an incredible experience in themselves: http://www.josemijares.com/en/cursos/

José is normally accompanied on his travels by his Alaskan Malamute, Lonchas. But the long distance of this new crossing and the extensive use of their packraft on water, meant that he would have no choice but to leave Lonchas behind. He set off, instead with another good companion, Hilo Moreno, who had recently returned from working as a guide in the Antarctic.

This duo have crossed one of the largest glaciers in Norway, using their packrafts as the main means of transport: first by navigating on rivers and the sea; and later, by using them as pulkas on the glacier crossing.

Completed at the end of April, this new Svartisen route took place in a region which conjured up many different memories: “from the start of the journey, I've had the feeling of being somewhere else in the world, because the alpine scenery seemed more like Alaska. Using the packraft in this way was also something I'd seen in the tribe-packraft of Alaska, the wilderness...it all made me feel as if I were anywhere but Norway”.

Tracking points of Svartisen glacier route
Accomplishing old dreams; old friends
Crossing the Svartisen was one of my dreams, one of many. At this rate I'll be over 100 by the time I complete them all...

I didn't want to cross the Svartisen as if it were the Svartisen Express; hurrying there and back again. I wanted the Svartisen crossing to be part of another journey, as if it were one of those Russian dolls that hides another smaller, prettier one inside.

A complete journey, where the Svartisen would be the pearl, but reaching it would be another journey, just as interesting or even more so.

I know that's splitting hairs, but when you're free to go where you want, you also have the freedom to choose how to do things, without having to convince anyone else.

The Svartisen is the largest glacier in Lapland and the second largest in Norway; two massive blocks of ice covering over 350 km2. This place is so wild, so unexplored and high on my list of pending journeys, there were no doubts in my mind. I had to go. It became an obsession, as if my life was slipping through my fingers.

Inner Svartisen
The glacier starts at sea level, above the Arctic Circle, in a National Park of 2700km2. Its beauty is outstanding and it's particularly interesting, because it's divided into two glaciers; so crossing it means going up and down 1000m on each glacier. One night was spent in the valley that separates these two glaciers and it was a truly magical place.

But let's start from the beginning. To the north of Svartisen is a town called Bodo and to the south, another called Mo I Rana; Svartisen is more or less to the south of that map. To reach the glacier from the north there's a lot of sea and snowy valleys. To reach it from the south, you have to go through snowy forests and a deep river gorge.

Sea and glaciers

On the Svartisen glacier
After much time spent looking over maps, searching for a logical, appealing route that would include all the “toys” we had at home, the idea began to take shape.

My companion for this trip was one of my best friends and companions, Hilo Moreno. We've travelled so much together, that we no longer need words to communicate, one look is enough. At the end of a day's adventure, words are often spilled freely over a bowl of soup as we talk about the millions of journeys we'd like to go on, about books, about life...

Me and Hilo had texted while he was working in the Antarctic as a guide and I had kept him up to date while planning the route.

In the end, all the pieces of the puzzle came together. Now all we needed was to go and make them happen.

Setting off. Packrafts on the sea.
The idea was to reach the glacier by navigating from Bodo and leave it by navigating along a river which we knew nothing about, we knew little about what sort of river it was and as far as we knew, it was still frozen.

The date was crucial to the journey as we had to find enough snow to be able to move on skis from the coast and the rivers & seas had to be ice-free, although on this coast the sea doesn't freeze, but we wanted to camp on the coastal land, preferably on grass.

Camping on the edge of the sea
There's only one possible date for such a wish; this year, at least, it had to be during the last week of April.

I met Hilo in Bodo. I got there a few hours earlier and so I decided to have a look round the town. I had visited it years before and was pleasantly surprised. In the evening we went to the “Captain Larsen” for a beer – I can't imagine what it's like there on a Saturday night.

The next day, when we asked a taxi driver to drop us off outside the town, he couldn't understand why we were carrying skis and paddles on our packs, in fact, this strange combination caused many a strange look from passers-by. As they couldn't see the packraft, which packed was the size of a sleeping mat, most thought we were completely lost.

Sailing on the sea with a packraft was new for Hilo and me and we certainly weren't planning on starting off by crossing the 4km wide stretch across the Bodo fjord.

With a great deal of patience, we edged around the fjord until we reached the narrower end and finally decided to cross the 1km distance to the other side.

A small island half-way across with a beacon gave us courage; a psychological patch for landlubbers, such as ourselves.

On the sea in our packrafts

Rowing in the packraft

At sea, if the wind is against you or if there are a lot of waves or swell, you become a doll...that lesson we learnt pretty quickly.

It took us four days to reach the last valley, of the last fjord, where we would leave the packrafts and begin to ski to the glacier. I have to say, those days were sublime.

Hilo had packed his ultra-light tent, which weighed just half a kilo, and had room for 4 people. His backpack had enough room for a lorry and yet weighed 5 times less than mine. He also brought some other ultra-light gadgets. I'm not usually a gadget man, but this passion of his began to rub off as the days went on.

Hilo Moreno's ultra-light tent
Summer sleeping bags and a gas burner. Just enough warm clothing and very carefully weighed food; so much so, that we got to the end of the journey with little to spare and hoping to find a few provisions left behind in one of the huts on the route.

After reaching the end of the 4 maritime stages, we packed all the gear away, our backpacks felt so heavy we could barely move. Fifty metres on and we had to stop to lean on our poles for a rest. Hellish!

On with the backpacks

The glacier. Packrafts become pulkas
We carried on in this way for 13km and with a height gain of 500 metres until we reached a hut. Few times has exercise felt so brutal in my life. What was the weight of the pack? No idea. But we found a spring scale in a hut, which weighed up to 25kg max and it almost broke under the weight.

The next day, we knew we wouldn't get much further in that way and as Hilo put it; this wasn't at all fun! And we were there to enjoy it above all – if there's no enjoyment, there's no journey. So we put a plan we'd been thinking about, into action. It consisted of inflating the packrafts and using them as pulkas for transporting the aquatic gear: lifevest, paddles, repair kit. It doesn't sound much, but that took 5 to 6 kgs off our backs and I also added my rubbish and what food I had left, which took off a total of 10kgs. Now that felt much lighter!

Highly versatile:packrafts become pulkas

We left the hut on a sunny day feeling as if we could conquer the world. We conquered a bit less than that, but we knew there would be a hut on the route. It turned out to be more of a mini-hut, but with its 2 beds, electric lights, coffee pot and radio, it was more than perfect!

From there to Svartisen we had to cross a large lake, which was as frozen as marble. This tongue which led to the glacier was the normal access route. Our journey to the famous Takeheimen hut was long, with some pretty steep slopes and I had to use the last drop of strength to reach the hut.

Takeheimen is one of the most beautiful “eagle's nests” I've ever seen. The next day, the view over the Holandsfjorden was unbelievable. We set off along the flat glacier towards its tongue, hoping for an easy descent to the valley between the two glaciers. The descent of the tongue was perfect and we were even able to release the packrafts so they could slide down on their own and ski all the way down to the end.

Reaching the hut;he perfect eagle's nest
The spot we camped at that evening gave us an unbeatable view of where we'd been as well as the long slope we'd tackle the following day, and which looked only just possible with a pulka.

The eastern glacier receives much fewer visitors and is rockier and more alpine. After a whole day skiing on the eastern glacier of Svartisen we headed towards fingerbreen at the end of the day and skied 6km down the most idyllic slope, taken out of a ski resort - except for the crevasses & seracs at the end.

We found the perfect pass, just in the centre of the glacier and camped at the snow-covered moraine above a frozen lake, happy with how the day had gone.

The eastern glacier:much more abrupt

Back to the forests
We returned to the woods and slushy snow with just 2 days to go and headed towards a cabin on the way, praying to Odin that it would contain some food. We were out of food and hungry. Luckily our prayers were answered and we had a real feast in Blakadalashytta.

Svartisen Hut

Feast in Svartisen
The next day was 4th May and our plane would leave from Bodo on the 5th, so there was no time to lose getting back to civilisation. We knew little about what to expect on this last day, except that it would end in a car park, 27km from Mo I Rana.

The map suggested a detour with a 500m height gain to avoid a deep valley river, Why? Because of the avalanches? We did hear and see many and this was certainly a possibility. It was understandable wanting to avoid getting into a mousetrap, but after analysing the map and our surroundings, it just didn't seem quite right, so we decided to follow our instincts and try the river. If it was no longer frozen, the river would take us all the way to the road, which would be much less strenuous.

So we skied down through the forest in search of the river. The trees were so close together we had to choose our path carefully to avoid an accident. At the end of this descent was the open river, calling to us – a wild & most beautiful place! What a pleasant surprise, we set off down the river and it was perfect... until it started getting narrower and deeper! It soon became a gorge and even overturned my packraft a few times, until it became almost impassable.

Just 1km from the car park, we had to pull the boats from the water and climb up to a snowy path in the forest to put our skis on yet again and ski down to the road. Luckily for us, the snow took us right down to the road at just 25m above sea level. What a great ending!

The elation we felt at how the day had turned out quickly passed when we began to think about how we were going to reach Mo I Rana, 27km away. But our luck was in, and Hilo managed to convince a passer by to give us a lift in his pick-up, at least to the airport on the main road, and just 9km away from Mo I Rana. I couldn't believe it when the driver agreed. We sat in the rear cargo hold while his dog sat on the back seat. It made me think about my own dog Lonchas.

From the beginning of this trip, I've had the feeling that I was in a different country. Such alpine landscapes seemed more Alaskan to me and using a packraft in this way was something I'd only ever seen in the tribe-packrafts of Alaska. The wilderness...it all felt as if I could be anywhere but Norway. And to end up in a pick-up on the way to the airport, was certainly more American than Norwegian.

After picking us up from the airport and charging a fortune, the taxi took us to a hotel in the centre of Mo I Rana.

While eating a hamburger in a town bar, Hilo came out with one of his classics:

I say farewell again to Norway, at great cost.

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