I ♥ mittens, + my Adelboden-to-Kandersteg OD.

Atop Bunderchrinde Pass.

Atop Bunderchrinde Pass.

If you’re advertising something, you usually ask the best people in the world at using or doing that thing to endorse your product.

Therese Johaug is a famous Norwegian skier who started a glove company. She has used that platform to sponsor some of her competitors, which is pretty cool. There are some fantastic ads featuring Sophie Caldwell, Jessie Diggins, and Liz Stephen – some of the best skiers in the world, who happen to be from Vermont and Minnesota.

I am not one of the best skiers in the world. Yet, I would like to endorse Therese Johaug’s mittens. I consider myself to be a high-use mitten wearer. I have rigorously the product in a variety of punishing conditions. You don’t have to be an international star athlete to value good gloves – they are useful for lots of different jobs. And luckily, I have, like, a bunch of different jobs.

And so I present: how a pair of colorful mittens saved my bacon a whole bunch of times.

I acquired the bright blue, wool mittens in Norway in 2014. I was in the midst of my masters degree and took a whirlwind trip to race in the Birkebeiner and then cover biathlon World Cups in Oslo. As could describe most of the year spanning from October 2013 to October 2014, I was a shitshow. I got to Lillehammer and realized that I had only brought racing gloves, which would be totally inappropriate for covering World Cups in Oslo. Thin gloves are good for exercising, not so much for standing around.

The Birkebeiner was canceled on the morning of the race (maybe actually an okay development considering how horrifically out of shape I was), but the day before I had perused the famous expo when I picked up my bib. Besides buying some panic-wax, I picked up these mittens. I think they are actually a size too small for me, but I was smitten. It was mostly the color called out to me, but I was happy they were wool, too. I have little brand loyalty, in general, and most of my gloves (a) have holes in them and (b) are what I was given for free, are what were on sale, or are what people left at my house (looking at you, neon yellow Roeckl gloves).

In the end, even though I didn’t race I came away with something important. The mittens.

A few days later I arrived at Holmenkollen. Oslo can be lovely in March. Exhibit A:

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One morning early in the week I went for a ski with Susan, and it was fantastic. Sunny, warm, spring in Scandinavia. Heaven. Race gloves, not mittens.

However, Oslo in spring can also be terrible. Here’s a photo I took on my first FasterSkier reporting trip ever, in 2011 for World Championships. Exhibit B:

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Do you see the sky? It’s not blue. Oslo can get socked in with fog like you wouldn’t believe. At least it wasn’t actually raining that day.

The last two days of the 2013-2014 biathlon World Cup season, mostly, were like that, only it was raining. It was totally miserable. I didn’t take a single photo of the races because I don’t have a fancy cover to keep my camera, which costs as much as a month of (Zürich) rent and was a gift from my grandparents which I couldn’t replace, out of the wet.

Here’s the thing about reporting at a ski race: much like coaching, you’re mostly just standing there, possibly with intense bouts of sprinting from one part of the course to another in between. When you want to take notes or hit the “record” button on your phone or voice recorder, you have to take your gloves off. It’s unavoidable. And like most skiers, I have terrible circulation after years of exposing my hands to the cold.

One of the most embarrassing things that has happened to me while interviewing an athlete was when someone in Falun, after just finishing a race probably also in the sleet, offered me her jacket because I looked so cold and my hands were visibly shaking. When an exhausted athlete offers you the only things that are keeping them warm, you know you look pretty pathetic. (note to FasterSkier advertisers: who wants to sponsor us for hardshell jackets? please?)

So mittens are much better than gloves, because when you slide your hand back into your mitten all your fingers are together, warming each other up, in this case encased in wool and fleece. You warm back up faster.

Thank God for mittens.

Especially mittens which you can also fit handwarmers inside.

I went about the spring of 2014 working on writing science papers and preparing for my summer of fieldwork, which was to be done on Svalbard, an Arctic archipelago belonging to Norway.

Just how far north is Svalbard? Think of some northern cities. Fairbanks, Alaska, is at 64.8ºN. Östersund, which Sweden bills as its “northern sports city”, is at 63.2ºN. Trondheim, the northernmost Norwegian city you are likely to have heard of, sits at 63.4ºN, while Tromsø, the northernmost city you’ve probably heard of if you’ve actually spent time in Scandinavia, is at 69.7ºN.

Longyearbyen, the administrative center of Svalbard, is at 78.2ºN.

Think about that for a minute.

Much like Oslo, Svalbard can be strikingly beautiful when it is sunny out (and reminder, the sun never comes out in winter, so I’m talking summer here). Again, Exhibit A:

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More of the time, Svalbard looks like Exhibit B:

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Working in the valleys is freezing, even in July. The daily mean temperature is 5°C (about 40°F), just above freezing. You have to wear rubber boots to walk out to the field sites because the ground is completely saturated and marshy, as a result of the permafrost. You wear double layers of wool socks to try to counter the fact that rubber boots usually make your feet colder, not warmer. Worse, the wind rips its way up the valleys from the water. That water is, in case you missed it, the Arctic ocean. You wear five layers underneath your raincoat, and then pull the hood over your head.

In July.

I was happy to be in such a cool place, but my field assistant Helen and I realized that basically, we just weren’t going to have summer that year.

Surveying tundra plants means sitting as still as possible. The tundra is fragile and trampling can do major damage to plants, so you can’t step on the tundra in the plots you’re studying in. Instead, we would hang off of elaborate ladder-and-sawhorse contraptions and count the plants we saw at each point. The blood would rush to your head as you hang upside down. And up on the ladder you were even more exposed to the wind.

Helen at work.

Helen at work.

If you weren’t counting, then you were sitting there recording data on a clipboard. Also cold. And if you had a hat and your raincoat hood pulled up, sometimes you couldn’t hear the other person telling you numbers.

We’d switch back and forth on the tasks so we could warm up whatever parts of our body were coldest in a given job.

Did I mention, thank God for mittens?

Cerastium arcticum flower on a sunnier day.

Cerastium arcticum flower on a sunnier day.

Now that I’m doing fieldwork for my PhD in Switzerland, I still love mittens. I work in streams and this time of year, plunging your hands into the water to collect some dead leaves or live invertebrates is pretty chilly. Sometimes I let out a little shriek. I like putting my hands back somewhere warm afterwards.

Recently I took a hike from Adelboden to Kandersteg in the Bernese Alps. All summer I have been sticking to places more accessible from Zürich: cantons Glarus, Schwyz, the northern tip of Graubunden. I decided that before winter came, I would take one day where I sucked it up and spent the extra time on the train to get to somewhere new.

I picked this hike because it was in a super scenic region, and the bus and train connections weren’t so bad (about 3 hours from Zürich). The national hiking route Via Alpina leads through the area. There are so many places to possibly hike in Switzerland, sometimes you have to just put your finger on the map and pick something. I knew it would be beautiful.

This feeling was intensified when I got on the bus to Adelboden and saw that I was the only one under the age of 65. If Switzerland’s retired were headed here for a day trip with their rucksacks and hiking poles, it was probably pretty scenic.

A farmer shouted at me as I walked up through the outskirts of Adelboden. Hindsight is 20/20, so I’m pretty sure he was probably shouting that the pass was snowy and I looked totally unprepared. At the time I thought, “thick-accent-Swiss-German”, smiled, and waved.

After hiking up about 1,000 meters, or 3,000 feet, I crested a rise and saw this:

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It has been, shall we say, temperate in Zürich. But this was the north-facing side of a 3,000-meter (nearly 10,000 feet) mountain. Even though it was only early November, there’s snow to be had.

I had arrived in my trail running shoes, some ski spandex, and with a small backpack. I looked at the final climb to the pass – which is even steeper than the section I had just came up, nearly 60º, and covered in snow. I pictured slipping as I dug my foot into the snow, and sliding down the scree field. In classic idiot fashion, I had not told anyone where I was hiking, and I was alone. I had seen only one other man on the trail, and he had turned around long before.

But I had come this far! I estimated that the sketchy section would only take me 15 minutes of careful way finding, and pulled on Therese Johaug’s mittens.

That allowed me to use my hands as well as my feet to crawl my way through the white stuff. Sticking my hands in the snow would have sucked; I would have been way more likely to fall if  I hadn’t been confident that using my hands wouldn’t lead to several hours of frozen misery. Things were dicey at the top but I made it.

I was rewarded with incredible views from the top of Bunderchrinde pass. I sat and ate my lunch looking at Eiger, Jungfrau, and Mönch in the distance. My only company were the Swiss fighter jets training overhead.

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Click the panorama to enlarge.

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Days like these are when I’m thrilled to live in Switzerland.

And have a good pair of mittens.

People badmouth mittens, saying they look silly and don’t have functionality. I beg to differ. Mittens are da bomb.

And yes, it’s more or less a coincidence that I picked up those mittens. Would I have been happy with some other pair? Certainly. But thanks for the wool mittens, Therese. Keep making things in bright colors.

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boat trip!

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I was lucky – really really lucky – that my parents love me a lot, and for my birthday they bought me a boat trip. Starting from Longyearbyen, there are several fjord cruises that go to different outposts. Helen and I really wanted to see some more of Spitzbergen besides just our little valley. So I was very very thrilled that my parents got me the best birthday present ever! It was an all-day affair, heading up to the former Russian mining outpost of Pyramiden by way of a few other places of interest.

I’m crunched for time and about to head to the airport so I’m not sure how much I can write, but I’ll at least post some pictures.

It started off with fog, clouds, and bad weather in Longyearbyen. What else is new. As we headed out, the coast was cloaked in fog.

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But look over there! It’s sunny on the other side of the fjord! And as it happens, the other side of the fjord is where we are heading, lucky us.

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First though, a stop at some bird cliffs. Hundreds and hundreds of birds perching and nesting on the rocks, although my zoom wasn’t big enough to give you a clear shot of them. The white stuff is bird shit.

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From there we headed out a long way, past some beautiful mountains and low islands, to a glacier.

Now: we have seen local glaciers. We have seen them from above, from the side, from below where they melt out into a moraine and a messy expanse of soil and sediment and boulders. Land-bound glaciers are impressive. But we hadn’t seen, yet, a glacier that goes down to the sea. It’s a whole different animal when you can see how tall and thick and just generally massive a glacier is.

We were wowed.

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While we were approaching, the boat slowed and our guide and the crew fished a piece of floating ice out of the water. It was quite the operation. Then he smashed it into smaller pieces with a mallet and served us all some whiskey on the rocks: the rocks being 3500-year-old glacier ice. That was something unexpected.

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(Photo credit: Helen. As usual, I’m blinking.)

It was… not very good whiskey. But we gamely drank it down anyway, you know, take a hit for the team. And it’s true that whiskey really does warm you up, so no complaints there.

And then we had drawn closer to the glacier. We’re really still quite far away, which makes it insane when you realize the scale of the ice chunks and fissures in this crazy blue-white texture.

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We had a grilled lunch on the deck. Yum. And then we headed over to Pyramiden, finally.

The history is interesting and I’ll try to summarize it briefly: although Svalbard is technically part of Norway, it’s also an international archipelago governed by a special treaty. The Russians have/had several mining communities, including one, Barentsburg, which is still running. Pyramiden was originally Swedish, then sold to the Russians, who then had to dismantle it at the outset of World War II so it wouldn’t be captured by the Nazis and used as a base. They began rebuilding after the war and production started up in 1956. It was going, going, going – with a population of 1200 at its peak – until the fall of the Soviet Union. Then it gradually tailed off and was closed in 1998. For ten years nobody was there. Now, 15 people summer there running a hotel in one of the old buildings and giving guided tours.

It was fascinating.

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Seriously. Wow.

There are major questions about what will happen to Pyramiden. The site has, unsurprisingly, horrible contamination and environmental damage issues. The governor of Svalbard reportedly wants Russia to scrub the site. But Russia doesn’t want to do much of anything (the site is still owned by the state mining company), and Norway is very sensitive to putting pressure on Russia.

Another suggestion is to turn it into a scientific research station. But, of course, scientists are the people who would care the most about the environmental issues, so there’s a bit of an issue there.

It’s pretty sad to see all the buildings abandoned: many still with furniture and empty beer bottles inside. The longer it stays not cleaned up, the less likely they will ever be suitable for use again.

Two more things of note: first, we had an awesome guide. Besides these awesome clothes, he was pretty funny and very interesting. He has lived in Pyramiden for three summers and spends his winters traveling. Last winter he hitchhiked around Iran and this year he wants to go to Argentina “so I can see some green trees for the first time in a long time.”

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And secondly, we saw an arctic fox pup playing!! (These photos are Helen’s: spot the fox!)

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Well: I’ve gotta run, but that’s the news for now. We’re off to Latnjajaure Field Station in northern Sweden, where we will have communication only by satellite phone. Check in a little later for updates when we get back!

dreary.

Tio Chris recently wrote in an e-mail:

“You do have to include some rainy miserable day pictures too.  Svalbard looks like England does in movies–always sunny and beautiful and the perfect place to be!”

So, without further ado:

Oh? You wanted to hike up to that ridge and see over the other side, out over the glacier and onto the rows and rows and rows of mountains?

Hahahahahahahahaha

It’s raining.

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(and yes, that is a huge icy glacier below Helen.)

sunny days & reindeer friends.

The past few days of fieldwork have been pretty great. Perhaps mostly because today we finished off the point-framing, which was the major work task we had to accomplish while we’re here. After spending the day entering data tomorrow, we’ll be able to head back to the field and collect some other data on particular species of interest, but basically anything we do now is like icing on the cake in terms of research and publishing potential.

The weekend days were brutally cold and windy, although not as cloudy as the last week and not rainy like Thursday and Friday. So we considered that a win. And yesterday we had reindeer visitors!

and more:

That was fun! Reindeer are super cute and super weird-looking. Like many of the animals which are year-round residents here, Svalbard reindeer are a subspecies of a species with circumpolar distribution (this includes both reindeer in Scandinavia and caribou in North America). They are smaller than you’d expect reindeer to be – the smaller ones are the size of a large goat. Definitely not what I remember from my trip to Finland! They are actually the smallest of all the subspecies. Their short little legs only make them look funnier when they run, with their noses up in the air and their eyes bugging out of the black fur around their faces.

Today was special for another reason, mainly, it was sunny and amazingly beautiful! Still a bit windy but simply the nicest day we’ve had. To be able to look down the valley and have it be perfectly clear… the colors were completely different than anything we’d ever seen since arriving here and overall, it was just a remarkable day. After we finished our own work we walked down to a site where they had run the same experiment in a “wet” environment. It was very picturesque but while gingerly making our way over the crumbling boardwalks, built in 2003 with usually just one nail at each end of each board, we were very happy that we work up on the “mesic” meadow site instead.

Here are some pictures from today! Click any photo to enlarge.

 

birthdays & holidays.

Happy fourth of July from the very cold Arctic!

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Friday was one of the colder days we’ve had…. 5 degrees C, which isn’t that cold, but it was very windy. And doing plant surveys (which I’ll post more about some other time) means you’re not moving. If we had been hiking, I would have been in tights and a long sleeve shirt and probably sweating. But sitting there counting plants or taking data…. not so much. I was wearing four jackets, two shirts, tights under work pants, double socks. And I was freezing. Luckily we borrowed a thermos and have been having instant hot cocoa on our breaks, which improves things considerably.

When the sun comes out, the temperature rises several degrees and it’s pleasant. But in our week of working, I think we had a total of maybe two hours where the sun poked through the clouds.

So that was the fourth of July.

The next day was my birthday! We slept late and then wanted to go hiking. There is a series of hikes around Longyearbyen called “Topptrimmen“: each has a box with a logbook, and if you complete all of them in a summer I think you get a little badge or something (I’m not sure, honestly). That is what we wanted to do. So we picked out two places over near the Isfjorden coast which we could do in one fell swoop, and got excited about seeing across the fjord to the big mountains and glaciers on the other side.

However, as we drove, and then started to hike, it became clear that we definitely weren’t going to see anything from the top of the mountain. The cloud ceiling was 100 or more meters below the summit.

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Also, that river that we would have had to cross… Helen and I had strapped our rubber boots to the outside of our backpacks in preparation. My rubber boots, as you can see from the top picture, are all. We crossed all the channels of the braided river quite carefully, gingerly because the rocks are slippery and the last thing you want is to fall into a freezing cold river. But the last channel of the braid was something else. It was brown and angry and fast. It was probably deeper than my boots were tall, although we didn’t try too hard to find out. Mainly, between the slippery rocks on the bottom and the strength of the current, we wussed out. It wasn’t worth getting wet to go up a mountain where we probably wouldn’t see anything anyway. So we crossed back to the original side of the river and continued walking up the valley – named Bjørndalen, Bear Valley. I got a big kick out of this because I work in biathlon where the most successful athlete ever is Ole Einar Bjørndalen of Norway, one of the most amazing competitors I’ve seen in any sport. Every time I put a Norwegian news article about him through Google Translate, it says, “Bear Valley said…” And here I was in Bjørndalen! Hiking Ole Einar’s namesake valley. (I’m sure it was actually named after polar bears, but whatever.)

Despite not being an epic or difficult hike and having practically no elevation gain, it was beautiful and nice to see around the corner from town for the first time. Cecilie, a friend of my supervisor’s who is actually our age and studying to be a pilot in Tromsø, came with us. It was a good girls-only adventure.

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Side note: hiking with a rifle is a pain in the ass, but a total necessity here. We still haven’t seen any polar bears, which is just fine, thank you.

Other notes from the hike: we saw some Svalbard ptarmigan, or grouse, which were really cool. They were by the exit of an old abandoned mine and at first looked exactly like a chicken. We were convinced that it was a chicken and began wondering, “what are they doing here? they would freeze in the winter!”

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But actually… they are Svalbard ptarmigan, closely related to rock ptarmigan on mainland Norway. They are the only birds that live here year-round! Badass birds.

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The birthday finished up by roasting a chicken for dinner, and then having some raspberry cheesecake pieces from the grocery store. Not too fancy of a birthday, not too exciting, but pretty happy. When you’re on Svalbard, expectations change a little bit. Also, I’m turning one of those random numbers that nobody cares about.

“Do you feel older?” Helen asked last night before we went to bed.

“No,” I said.

 

Svalbard day 1.

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On Friday morning Helen and I woke up very early (separately: her at her aunt’s house in Södermalm, Stockholm; me at my hotel by the train station) and went to the airport. We checked our bags and the giant styrofoam box of soil coring equipment that I was bringing as a favor to a researcher in Uppsala instead of them having to ship it. And then we were off! First to Oslo, then to Longyearbyen.

There were some adventures immediately. When we checked in, we were told we’d have to collect our bags in Oslo and bring them through customs, since we were continuing on a domestic flight from there. Makes sense: I have to do that every time I go to the U.S. (and Norway is not part of the E.U., so it wouldn’t be surprising that things flown from other parts of Europe would need to be examined). So we got to Oslo, followed the signs for “domestic connections” which took us to the baggage claim, and found…. our bags never showed up.

I eventually went to the SAS help counter.

“Hi, we’re flying to Longyearbyen, and our bags never came off the belt?”

“Oh, they’ve been checked all the way through! You didn’t need to collect them here!”

Okay then. Back out – to the departures hall – and back through security. Then, we checked out gate assignment and found that it was in the international hall. So, moral of the story: Svalbard may be a Norwegian territory, but it still counts as international!

I was surprised when we boarded the plane that it was actually a bigger plane than the one we had on our Stockholm-Oslo leg. And it was almost full. I’d imagined the Longyearbyen airport being a tiny thing – maybe like Visby – but that was not the case at all. So we arrived with a lot of other tourists and locals, our bags never had to go through customs, etc. Standard travel, only we ended up in a faraway and crazy place!

We got our rented car – a big black jeep – and went to the university, where we checked into our room in the Guest House. It’s really nice. More space than most places I’ve seen elsewhere in Scandinavia and they’ll even clean it for us once a week! Very cushy, not like I was expecting for Arctic research.

Since we don’t have our polar bear training or our rifle yet (we get all that on Monday), we couldn’t get up to much trouble this weekend. We mostly walked around the town, which is protected from polar bears. You’re not allowed to leave the town limits without a rifle. It was pretty cool though. First of all, we saw reindeer just hanging out…

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But also, that first evening, a lot of lovely scenery.

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And a lot of snowmobiles. More snowmobiles than people here!

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Today, we slept very late (we were both exhausted) and then went to the Svalbard Museum. It’s a pretty cool museum about the history and nature on Svalbard.

Something I learned from Helen’s research that cleared up longstanding confusion: Svalbard is the name for the whole archipelago of islands here. Spitzbergen is the name of the island we are on, which is the biggest one. So there. I guess I should be more specific with my words in the future.

After that we went for a walk along one of the roads out of town. The first challenge: it is nesting season for Arctic terns, and they nest right along the edges of the road. Thus, when you walk by, they believe you are attacking their nests. They fly at you and apparently will peck your head. We didn’t believe this, but began walking and were quickly attacked by birds (no injuries were sustained, but it was scary). We felt like idiots and went back and grabbed a pair of the long red plastic poles which are provided. You can’t use them to fend the birds off – they are a protected species – but if you carry them vertically in the air, the birds can’t fly as close to you and won’t attack your head. They will, of course, still fly pretty close and make a lot of squawking.

I still think Arctic terns are among the most beautiful birds.

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After walking a bit, we came across a sled dog kennel. OMG, so cute.

dogsRight after this, we saw a packed nesting ground for common Eiders. As we were marveling at how many there were – literally, they blend in so you don’t notice them at first but all of a sudden we saw what must have been at least 100 of the birds, hunkered down in the dirt/vegetation – a huge seagull came along. One of the eiders must have gotten up from her nest, because the next thing I knew, before I could even process what was happening, the seagull was flying to the edge of the group, and it had a fluffy thing in its beak, and then I saw it land and gulp down a duckling.

Yes. I saw a seagull eat a duckling. That just happened.

Carry on.

The rest of the walk wasn’t so eventful, just beautiful. We reached the end of the polar bear protection zone and headed back.

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There’s not much to do in Longyearbyen that doesn’t cost an excessive amount of money, so I’m not sure how we are going to occupy ourselves tomorrow. The mountains look amazing, but without our rifle we can’t go hiking. So, we can’t wait until Monday when everything gets straightened out. footer