Sunday, 6 September 2015

Kvitøya This last Arctic trip in Svalbard I was lucky and...


This last Arctic trip in Svalbard I was lucky and privileged enough to land on the hallowed ground of what is considered by many to be THE most remote and inhospitable island in Svalbard; Kvitøya. If you want to know how hallowed this island is, I saw many people fall to their knees and kiss the ground.

Some years the ice never releases its grip on the island, and even when it does there are always several bears on the tiny scrap of beach that lies on the edge of the ice cap which makes up the vast majority of the island. Visiting at all is a rare and exciting event, but a landing is exceptionally rare.

In addition to the rarity of landings, the island has a harrowing history with mysterious gaps that don’t bear thinking about.

In 1897 Andrée’s Arctic Balloon Expedition set off from Danskøya to the North Pole. In doing so, Strindberg, Frænkel and Andrèe vanished from history and nothing more was heard for 33 years.

Doomed from the start by a badly leaking balloon and the loss of their steering apparatus on takeoff, they crashed on the ice after just two days. Ill prepared for travel on the ice, they spent months aiming for first Franz Josef Land and then Sjuøyane in Svalbard. Defeated by the drift, they settled for the winter on the ice, but their floe very soon broke up on the rocks surrounding the ice covered Kvitøya. Coming ashore, their diaries record only a few days of survival before entries cease.

In 1930 a chance landing on the rarely visited island soon uncovered mysterious remains of sleds and bodies. The identity of the party was an international sensation. The photos, deep frozen, were thawed and developed, giving a glimpse into the nightmare into which they descended.

But the discovery raised as many questions as it answered. Strindberg was buried in a shallow grave, Frænkel lay in the remains of the tent and Andrée was sat on a a ledge above the tent, his rifle at his side. How did they die? How did they survive for months on the ice but succumb after just a few days on the island? Why do their diaries, previously so detailed, tell us so little?

Was Strindberg killed by a bear? Did Frænkel, weakened by trichinosis or lead poisoning, succumb to exhaustion and exposure? Did Andrèe, faced with a winter alone with two dead men, doomed to months of watching for bears alone in the dark, knowing he could never get back to civilisation without the help of his companions, take an overdose of morphine and fall asleep forever on that ledge, sitting there on solitary bear watch for 33 years?

Even on a sunny, calm day like the one we experienced for a few hours this summer, Kvitøya is a cold, barren and inhospitable place. There is no shelter from the swell, fog rolls down off the ice cap and numerous bears stalk the immense Walrus haul out.

Think of a lonely man, his expedition a failure and his companions dead, sitting on a rocky ledge on a barren beach, overlooking the grave he helped to build and contemplating the utter hopelessness of his situation. Death is a certainty…should it be violent, at the jaws of a bear, or prolonged, gripped by hunger and cold? Or should it be quick and painless? I don’t think anyone today could begrudge that choice.

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