An abandoned Russian town and the summer bird residence.
During my solo trip to Svalbard in June 2019 I booked a boat trip to Barentsburg and Pyramiden, two Russian coal mining towns deep in the Arctic wilderness. However, we passed so many interesting spots on the way, that I just had to make another separate post to share them with you.
The first notable place we passed on the way from Barentsburg was Grumant. Much like Pyramiden, Grumant is an old abandoned Soviet coal mining town, located at the shores of Cole’s bay in Isfjorden, not far from the main Norwegian town Longyearbyn. Although it now lies in ruins, Grumant used to be the largest settlement on Svalbard in 1951-1952 with about 1000 people and was one the earlier coal mines on Svalbard, dating back to pre-World War I.
The town owes its name to the Russian Pomori, who used to call the entire Svalbard archipelago Grumant, which was likely a corrupted form of the word Greenland, because the two Arctic lands were often confused with each other. Pomori or Pomors were early Arctic explorers, hunters, fishermen and traders from the shores of White Sea in Russia, who established small hunting outposts allover Svalbard and were one of the first people to discover it. They came for the whales and stayed for the coal, which is why Russia still owns land on Svalbard today (Barentsburg, Pyramiden and Grumant).
Impressions of Grumant from afar
Grumant was established in 1912 as part of the first Russian coal mining expedition to Svalbard. That summer 25 men started extracting coal in Cole’s bay and the town continued to grow slowly until 1931, when it was bought by Arktikugol, a newly founded Russian company, which now handles all Russian Arctic interests and owns the mining towns. They significantly increased the production of coal and Grumant’s population grew accordingly. Although the coal mining efforts were briefly interrupted by the Second World War, when everything but a water tower was destroyed, Grumant continued to produce coal until 1961. However, the coal quality was steadily diminishing, so the Russians decided to pull out of Grumant and focus their efforts on the freshly established Pyramiden mine, which started to produce coal in 1955. By 1967, Grumant was completely evacuated and abandoned.
It is located at a rather inaccessible location, which must have made the coal mining logistics quite painful, and today you can only visit it by boat, with a snowmobile or if you hike there. As far as I know boats don’t go ashore at Grumant, but they do take you to another abandoned coal mine instead, the Norwegian Hiorthhamn. My boat trip didn’t include that one, so you’ll have to check it out on your own. Also, Grumant has a graveyard, which contains some of the last graves on Svalbard. It is now illegal to die (be buried) on Svalbard, because the bodies don’t decompose in the cold, which is why the graveyard at Grumant has apparently been severely disturbed, both by animals and humans.
After we got a good look at Grumant we continued our journey towards Pyramiden. You can see some of the photos I took on the way in the gallery below, because Svalbard is one of those destinations where everything just looks amazing.
On the way from Grumant
The next sight we encountered after Grumant was Svenskhuset, i.e. the Swedish house, which is the oldest building on Spitsbergen. It was established by Swedes as a safe haven for hunters and explorers during the harsh Arctic winters, but has since been tainted by a 19th century tragedy. In 1872 some Norwegian seal hunters got stuck on the island and sought help from baron Nordenskiöld, the Arctic explorer after whom the Nordenskiöldbreen glacier next to Pyramiden was named (you can see it in the Pyramiden blog post – coming soon).
His group didn’t have enough provisions for everyone, so 17 men without families were selected to go and spend the winter in the Swedish house. When a Norwegian ship set out to find them in the summer of 1873, they found only the dead. The house was locked from the inside with a warning not to enter and the bodies of all 17 men were found either outside wrapped in cloth or inside, still lying in beds or sitting on the chairs. At first it was believed that they’d died of scurvy, which is caused by lack of vitamin C and was a frequent disease of sailors and explorers, so the men were accused of being careless and negligent. However, in 2008 the bodies were examined by a doctor and his team found that they had actually died of lead poisoning. Lead was a commonly used in tin can sealants back in those days, in quantities as high as 50%, and since all they had to eat were cans the men must have ingested a huge amount.
The Swedish house is located somewhere next to the dark, flat mountain that you can see in the photos below, but my phone’s zoom was not up to capturing it, so you can see a better photo here.
Svenskhuset (kind of)
Our final stop of the boat trip were Fuglefjellet – the bird cliffs/the bird mountains. We actually saw them after coming back from Pyramiden, but I had to divide my boat trip blog posts somehow, otherwise it would’ve been one long novel of a post. This spot is known as bird cliffs, because it is the nesting place of thousands of birds, which stay there during the Arctic summer. It is literally packed with birds and the cliff sides are unusually green for Svalbard, as the abundance of plants, moss and lichen is facilitated by all the bird poop. The birds also make plenty of noise, so it feels like coming next to a whirlwind or a very overcrowded Middle Eastern market and I was pretty glad I was on a boat at a safe distance.
Fuglefjellet bird cliffs
I’m not much of a bird person, but I was told there are lots of different species living at the bird cliffs, such as little auks, geese, common guillemots, black guillemots, gulls, fulmars and sometimes even the Svalbard ptarmigan.
Bird travel tips: If you’re a bird lover, I’d really recommend one of the bird watching trips (like this), because the birds were so distinctive and interesting that even I could tell there was more than one species (trust me, that’s a success). Fuglefjellet is the most easily accessible bird watching destination, because you can even hike there from Longyearbyen, but if you want to really go for the whole bird experience, then the Alkefjellet bird clifs located further north are the way to go.