Spitsbergen retraced

Spitsbergen retraced

One of the 2016 Wallace Watson Award winners takes us on a journey across the Artic, following in the footsteps of the 1923 Oxford Arctic Expedition.

“Can you take the GPS coordinates please?”

I take the GPS out of my front pocket, I see that we are just sixty-two metres shy of the summit. Now isn’t the time to stop. The wind is howling and operating the GPS without gloves is taking its toll on my fingers.

We’re climbing on the south east ridge of Mt Irvine in Svalbard at seventy-nine degrees north. It has taken nine months of planning, two planes, a twenty hour boat journey and fourteen days skiing across the ice cap to get here. We’re the second people to ever climb the ridge. The first were Noel Odell and Merton College undergraduate chemist Andrew Irvine, in 1923. The following year Odell was the last person to see Irvine alive as he set out with George Mallory from Camp 6, to climb Everest.

“Seventy-nine degrees, six minutes and fifty-seven point nine zero seconds north. Seventeen degrees, three minutes and nineteen point seven three seconds east.”

Endre has finished taking his rock sample, it will later go for exposure dating in Tromsø. We carefully scramble the remaining ridge to the summit. The cloud is setting in and there isn’t any time for repeat photography. We call it a day and begin our descent back to camp.

I think it is fair to say that it hasn’t been a normal year at University. One night, over a year ago, my friends and I found ourselves in the Lamb and Flag making plans to retrace the 1923 Oxford University Arctic Expedition. Several emails, hours of training and our Finals over, we found ourselves on the east coast of the Arctic island of Spitsbergen. We had 32 days in which to cover 184 miles of challenging terrain, and 465 freeze-dried meals ahead of us.

This same route had been taken 93 years ago by a team of four from Oxford University. They became the first to cross this island and, in doing so, they made several ascents, created a geological map and photographed the region. We unearthed the records of the original expedition in the Royal Geographical Society, Scott Polar Research Institute, Merton College Library and private archives. Inspired by these records we developed our own plans. Firstly to retrace their crossing and retake their photographs. Secondly to undertake drone mapping, take DNA plant samples, repeat their first ascents and put up our own new mountaineering routes. Alongside this, the whole expedition would be recorded in film.

We are happy to report that we all returned safely. Working as a team, we retraced the original expedition 93 years to the day and took over 20 repeat photographs. Additionally we created three digital elevation transects of the Bear Bay Glacier, undertook the second plant survey of the area, climbed seven mountains, including repeating all the 1923 ascents, and putting up one new route on the west ridge of Svalbard’s highest mountain, Newtontoppen. On two occasions, quite unexpectedly whilst undertaking some repeat photography, we chanced upon some original artefacts from the 1923 expedition, including a note left by the party at a beacon. Here we added our own message.

One of the things I enjoyed the most was using their records, including diaries, to navigate the landscape through their eyes and provide us with an intimate insight into the 1923 expedition. Using this tool, we could return to the original sites where they took their photographs. Here we would then take our own. The repeat photography offered an engaging way to tell a story of how the landscape had changed, and a glimpse into the hardship of the 1923 expedition.

Despite, of course, more sophisticated clothing and equipment, life wasn’t always straight forward. Ski boots got wet, batteries froze, and we constantly had to be alert in case the largest land predator turned up – the polar bear. One night we encountered a force 11 storm that meant we couldn’t erect the tent, despite digging in for six hours. We had to sleep in the survival shelter that night.

None of this would have been possible without the passionate and motivated team I had the pleasure of working with, both on the ice and back in the UK. An expedition like this needs to overcome great logistical and financial challenges, and we are grateful to everyone who helped us achieve the aims of the expedition. Chancing on a scrap of phone signal as I stood on Svalbard’s highest mountain, I left the Watson family a voicemail to update them on our progress. Having their help and support in the lead up to this summer was of huge importance and for which I am very grateful. n