High-risk pursuits

Andreas Umbreit recounts the story of how one expedition took a turn for the worst in this icy wilderness.

Written by Andreas Umbreit


Trekking in Svalbard by Don Landwehrle Shutterstock© Don Landwehrle, Shutterstock

Again and again there are those who set out on ‘macho-projects’ (climbing, canoeing, skiing, etc) with great ambition and little local knowledge. One example concerns four young climbers who, without any serious Svalbard experience and against all warnings, set out from Longyearbyen intending to cross to the north point of the main island and return in four to five weeks.

Despite advice to the contrary, they had arrived with insufficient insurance cover, and consequently lost precious time while sorting things out. Finally, they set out, full of themselves and restricted by the Sysselmann’s permission to attempt only half of their originally planned route. After a few days, the rigours of their daily schedule and the weights of their packs started to affect two of the party so much that they turned back.

The remaining two managed to get to Newtontoppen and started to climb the peak. As one set off over the snow flank and reached the top, the other chose a route up an icy rock face without safety gear and didn’t make it. The first took 11 days to search for him, get back to Longyearbyen and raise the alarm. The search and rescue operation itself put others at risk. And what were they left with? One dead, two slightly more sensible ‘failures’ and one rather miserable ‘winner’. Proof – as if proof were needed – that a mixture of overconfidence, ambition, lack of local knowledge and a failure to heed advice invites catastrophe. 

Learn more in our guide to Svalbard:

Svalbard, the Bradt guide by Roger Norum and James Proctor

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