Bill Tilman, who ran his boat Mischief on the Sjuskjera rocks off the south-western tip of Jan Mayen in 1968 and later lost her while she was towed behind the sealer Brandal enroute to Norway once said „comfort must not be expected by folk that go a-pleasuring“. Actually he ran an advertisement in the Times before one of his trips: “Hand (man) wanted for long voyage in a small boat. No pay, no prospects, not much pleasure”. I can only hope that my group has the same stoic attitude towards exploring in the Arctic when I now listen to the howling wind and rain beating down on Aurora while she rolls violently on the anchorage in Kvalross bukta. I´m staying on anchor watch onboard but others are camped on land. An unseasonable system of depressions brought storm force winds over most of the sea areas around Iceland all last week and even if we managed to find a relatively „easy“ route we still had gale force headwinds for much of the sail from Ísafjörður to Jan Mayen. Some people stayed seasick in their bunks for most of the 77 hour journey.
But, when we arrived at the island the clouds suddenly parted to reveal the majestic beauty of Beerenberg. Lord Dufferin had a similar experience when in 1856 he arrived on his schooner Foam and perhaps “over-described” it: „At last, at about four in the morning, I fancied some change was going to take place; the heavy wreaths of vapour seemed to be imperceptively separating, and in a few minutes more the solid gray suddenly split asunder, and I beheld through the gap – thousands of feet overhead, as if suspended in the crystal sky – a cone of illuminated snow. You can imagine my delight. It was really that of an anchorite catching a glimpse of the seventh heaven. There at last was the long-sought-for mountain actually tumbling down upon our heads“. And yesterday the gods gave the crew of Aurora a fantastic break in the weather allowing us to ferry our gear ashore and set up basecamp in calm and sunny summer weather.
So why would anyone voluntarily decide to pay a lot of money for an intolerable journey through treacherous seas, just to spend time in a wet and cold tent while the wind tries to blow it out to sea?
Perhaps the isolation of this remote arctic island of Jan Mayen (70°59′N 8°32′W)—lying 600km north of Iceland, 500km east of Greenland and 1,000km west of the Norwegian mainland—calls like a siren from the heart of the far North Atlantic to all lovers and adventurers of the arctic. The history and untamed nature of the island are some of its greatest features and on a good day the 2277m high, world’s most northerly active volcano, the glaciated Beerenberg is certainly more than a “pennyworth of a mountain”.
This is the eight time Aurora has been here and every time Jan Mayen shows us something different. We have been here in cold, wintery conditions in early April and on clear sunny summer days in July and basically all variations in between. To get up here we have had fantastic sailing conditions, reaching for days on end on nice south-easterly winds. We have motored in calms and hove-to in storms with the Greenlandic pack ice nearby. We have brought bird watchers, radio amateurs but most often climbers willing to attempt a climb of Beerenberg. To stand on the Haakon VII´th peak of Beerenberg on a bright summer night after a long glacier climb is an unforgettable experience and one that will make you forget whatever trouble you may have had getting there.
Through the years we have landed and camped on various locations depending on weather and sea conditions. In a strong northerly wind in 2008 we landed in Jameson bukta on the south side. We have landed in Baatvika and Kvalross bukta but most often we have tried to land in Stasjonsbukta and establish a basecamp on Liberg sletta close to the old “Gamle Metten” weather station. This proved to be an ideal location from where to start Beerenberg ascents.
In 2010 the Norwegian government declared almost the entire island a nature reserve and now it is forbidden to land or camp anywhere in the reserve. Only two small areas are excluded; in Baatvika on the south coast and in Kvalrossbukta on the northwest coast. This has dramatically changed the way we can approach Beerenberg. We now have to hike around 12-18km to reach the foot of the mountain and then perhaps around 10-16km of glacier climb. So a total of 50-60km of travel and almost 2300m climb without any intermediate camp! But it is possible with short bivouac breaks and actually this skipper did just that in one of his ascents in 2011. Except then he had the not-so-brilliant idea to try to use a mountain bike to speed up his trip from Kvalross to the mountain which proved to be practically impossible in the soft sand. So Beerenberg is still possible for the most dedicated climbers and if that proves elusive there are many fantastic hikes and climbs to be done from a basecamp in Kvalross bukta.
Today is July 5th and despite the gloomy day today the outlook for the next few days isn´t bad. Hopefully we will have all or part of the group standing on the peak of Beerenberg but most certainly we will all have had a fantastic experience of exploring the high latitudes of the North.