One of the activities I splurged on during my trip to the Arctic wilderness of Svalbard was a tour to visit a glacier ice cave and it was among the more incredible things I’ve done during my travels. I don’t normally book tours when I travel, but obviously you need proper equipment and a guide if you want to go inside an ice cave, so a guided tour it was. Additionally, Svalbard has the added problem that you are required to carry a rifle or be with a person who has one for polar bear safety if you venture outside the town, which is why I more than broke my tour-booking record on this trip.
The ice cave I visited was located inside the Lars glacier or Larsbreen as it is known in Norwegian. Since glaciers don’t exactly stick around in the lowlands, we first had to hike up the mountain above the main Svalbard town of Longyearbyn. The hike in general is not particularly difficult as it is about 500 m of height difference altogether, but I was there in early June at the start of the polar summer season, which meant heavy, wet melting snow and the trail was a bit nastier than usual.
We started out relatively early in the day and it was a beautiful sunny one. The snow was still solid and crisp, so we used snowshoes a part of the way up, which helped a lot with the first slippery sloped section. The next section was fully covered in snow and rather uphill, so we left the snowshoes behind and walked up to the glacier. I don’t remember exactly how long it took us to reach the top, but I’d say the hike shouldn’t take more than 2 hours and the views on the way were spectacular, even more so because the weather was so nice.
It was actually my first time hiking in the snow as I’m not much of a hiker – in fact I used to completely detest hiking and was a true believer in the Slovenian expression gora ni nora, nor je tisti, ki gre gor, which roughly translates into “the mountain is not crazy, the crazy person is the one who goes mountaineering”, but that has changed a bit in the recent years. I soon got the hang of walking in the heavy snow and the whole thing wasn’t horribly strenuous. Apparently we made good time and there were only 3 of us and the guide, all female. Our guide was a super fit, friendly young French woman, who carried the rifle and a huge backpack with probably just about everything possible inside it.
Hiking up to the cave
We had to carry up our headlamps and helmets along with the snowshoes and when we reached the top it was time to go into the ice cave. The entrance was marked by two signal poles and covered with a makeshift door to prevent the cave from getting snowed in again after they’d dug out the access point. We left our backpacks outside, put on our helmets and crawled into the entrance corridor of the ice cave on our hands and knees, which soon turned into a couple of meters of crawling on our bellies and then we were inside.
The ice cave turned out to be a rather narrow passageway with a surprisingly high ceiling in most parts, spiralling into the heart of the glacier. We were literally inside the glacier and everything, the walls, the ceiling and the ground, was either made of or covered by thick, glittering ice and fluttering shadows cast by the light from our headlamps. The ice cave felt ancient and sombre in some way, like stepping into a pocket of a long forgotten world. The ice walls were so thick and solid that they were no longer transparent, but rather a sort of deep light grey colour, which gave off the impression of timelessness and immense weight. The cave also blocked off any noise from the outside and gave everything we said a faint echo, which made me feel truly cut off from the world.
As we progressed deeper into the cave we encountered amazing ice formations and even larger, wider caverns full of clear icy chandeliers and flowstone icicles. Occasionally there were rocks and pebbles caught inside the ice, adding shape and splashes of colour to an otherwise grey space. It was possible to normally walk upright for the most part, but the helmets were quite welcome as there were plenty of hanging icicles and overhangs to bump into.
The ice cave
The further in we went, the colder it got and the harder it was to remain upright. We had to crawl a bit to get through some of the more narrow parts, so we eventually gave up and went back outside. The guide told us it was pretty much impossible to persevere until the end of the cave, because it stretched for more than 10 km into the glacier and got increasingly hard to navigate.
Glacier ice caves like this one are formed at the bottom of the glacier when meltwater flows through the glacier and melts a path along the way. The water usually gets in through a hole on the surface ice called a moulin and comes out at the glacier’s terminus, i.e. the end, which can be an ocean or any other body of water. There are also cases when the ice caves were formed due to hot air and geothermal activity, but glacier ice caves should not be confused with regular bedrock caves covered in ice the whole year around, where the basis of the cave is in fact rock and not ice.
By the time we crawled out of the ice cave the sun was shining in full force and it was actually quite warm out, which helped a lot after the cave freezer. We had a small picnic with chocolate chip cookies and some kind of drink made with hot water and berry syrup while sitting on the cave door and catching the sun rays. It was actually so pleasant that we must have been sitting there for at least half an hour and it was great. The sun was not so great for the skiers we encountered though, as well as for future ice cave visits, as we had apparently caught the very last tour of the season. The tour company had been checking up on the state of the ice cave for a few days by then and it was starting to melt too much. The temperatures were climbing too high during the days to risk continuing with more tours, so the cave was to close for the summer.
The guide told us that there are several different ice caves around Longyearbyn, maintained by different tour operators. This one was the closest, cheapest and the most easily accessible one, which was more than fine by me, as some of them can only be reached by snowmobiles or much longer hikes. The ice caves in general are temporary in geological terms; they change and move every year, depending on the melting and formation of the ice and the stream of the meltwater, so the experience is never the same and they have find and dig out each ice cave at the start of every season. Sometimes an ice cave that was well-developed for many years can fill in and disappear by the next season, so they have to find a similar one elsewhere.
Eventually we had to get off our butts and hike down into the valley, which turned out to be extra annoying, because the snow was melting quite fast and there was lots of running water under it. We also run into some Arctic birds on the way back and our guide told us a couple of interesting facts about them; it’s safe to say that these little guys are pretty resilient.
By the time we got back to where we had left the snowshoes it was quite clear that they wouldn’t help us much on the way down, so we each tried to navigate the newly melted streams and puddles as best as we could. Naturally, my clumsy self stepped right into every single hole deep enough to soak me up to my knees and I was practically swimming by the end of the hike. Here’s the good news though: my new hiking boots really are as waterproof as the label says, because once the water splashed in from above it wouldn’t come out again, hence the video of me draining my shoes below. 🙂
Since the hike to the ice cave was on my last day at Svalbard and I had to fly back home to Luleå later in the evening, I had to find a reasonable solution for my now soaking wet shoes. I usually try to travel light so I’d only brought one pair of shoes with me and obviously they had to be proper hiking boots. They weren’t going to dry out very fast and I had a whole day layover left in Oslo before going home too. So, I bought a fresh pair of thick socks and asked for double small plastic bags to put into my shoes to keep my feet dry over night (it actually worked like a charm, if you don’t count my feet sweating a bit). Although I tried to hide it, I had to take off my shoes to get through the airport security and I can tell you that I got some very funny looks from the personnel there along the way, but I guess they understood what was going on and they’d probably seen all sorts of weird stuff before, so eh?
Travel tip: As magical as it was, I wouldn’t recommend this tour to anyone with claustrophobia: not only due to the initial tight fit at the entrance, but also because I was incredibly aware of the fact that there were tons of ice above and around me at all times. The ground was quite slippery and the cave itself was bone-chillingly cold, growing more so with every further step we took, so make sure you come well-prepared for both the cave and the hike if you decide to go for it. The ice cave tours in Svalbard are possible between October and early June, depending on the weather and the environmental conditions. The one I booked with Svalbard Outdoor Activities can be found here and it was about 75 eur at the time.