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Ascent of Beerenberg on 2019-06-13

Climber: Greg Slayden

Others in Party:Petter Bjørstad
Richard Mclellan
Denise Mclellan
Tony Jenkins
Chris O.
Frederik B.
Arnt F. (Went on ahead)
Johannes N. (Went on ahead)
Jukka N. (Went on ahead)
----Only Party on Mountain
Date:Thursday, June 13, 2019
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Boat
Peak:Beerenberg
    Location:Jan Mayen
    Elevation:7470 ft / 2276 m

Ascent Trip Report

Introduction:

Beerenberg is the furthest north volcano on earth, incongruously rising 2277m/7570’ directly out of the stormy Atlantic Ocean between Norway, Iceland, Greenland, and Svalbard. After Etna, the Azores, and the Canaries, it is the 4th highest island high point in Europe, dominating the northern end of Jan Mayen Island. It makes for an alluring and challenging ascent. I had long been fascinated with remote Arctic and Antarctic peaks, so when my friend Petter Bjørstad invited me on a Jan Mayen expedition, I had little hesitation about saying yes.

The logistics of the trip are complicated. Jan Mayen is a Norwegian dependency but the only civilian access is by boat—the island’s only inhabitants are about 18 or so weather station personnel on 6-month postings, and supplying this base is done by a once-yearly freighter ship and rare military C-130 flights to the island’s fragile permafrost airstrip, which can’t be used in summer. All tourists must apply for special permission to visit the island and then charter a ship to make the often-stormy crossing from Iceland or Svalbard, which can take between 3 to 6 days each way.

Fortunately for our expedition, Petter did all of the legwork and organizing of the trip. He took care of the permits with the Norwegian government and arranged for a charter of the yacht “Valiente” from the “Seil Norge” company to take us from Svalbard. The cost of this charter required an expedition of ten people to make it affordable, and Petter worked to assemble a team of qualified mountaineers. The final roster was:
  • 4 from Norway: Petter, Arnt (veteran of other Petter-led expeditions), Frederik, and Johannes.
  • 4 from the UK: Denise and Richard, noted husband-and-wife ultra-baggers, plus Chris and Tony
  • 2 others: Jukka from Finland, and me as the lone American. Jukka and Johannes were interested in the Norway 2000m peak list, several of which lined the crater rim of Beerenberg.

After months of planning and organization, by early June we were all ready for this adventure of a lifetime.

Wednesday, June 5:

I left Seattle-Tacoma airport at 1:50 PM.

Thursday, June 6:

I arrived at Frankfurt Airport in Germany at 8:35 AM, went through Schengen immigration, and boarded a 10:15 flight to Oslo. This was delayed on the ground for 90 minutes while they fixed a spare part, so I arrived late in Oslo, at about 13:30. It was unusually hot and humid here, and after an inefficient wait for a rental car I finally procured a little Citroen for my brief layover in Norway.

I checked into my airport hotel and drove north about 30 km to do a short hike up the Fjellsjøkampen, the high point of the Norwegian province I was in. The trailhead was at a sheep pasture where the dirt road was gated, and a very eroded trail ran uphill for 2.3 km to a wooden tower offering views over the low forested hills nearby. I hiked down quickly as thunderstorms approached, and I got soaked for the final 5 minutes of road walk to the car.

(Later I found out that Norway is reorganizing its provinces in 2020 and this hill will no longer be a high point.)

After getting back to my hotel I cleaned up and walked across the street to another hotel and had a dinner with the 4 British participants in our trip—Richard, Denise, Chris, and Tony. It was good to meet this crew for the first time—Richard and Denise were 2 of the few people above me (#12) on the world Ultra front runner list I had not yet met, at places #3 and #4.

Friday, June 7:

I bought gas for my rental car and returned it at the airport, and at the gate for the morning Norwegian Airlines flight to Svalbard I met the UK crew again, plus Johannes (also on our flight) and Arnt (on the SAS flight an hour after ours). We flew north to Longyearbyen, Svalbard from 8:55 to 11:55, arriving at 78 degrees north, a record for most people (not me, though, due to a previous Canadian Arctic trip).

From the airport a taxi took us to the harbor, where we moved our mountains of baggage out to the dock and the waiting “Valiente”, a 70-foot single-mast yacht that would be our base of operations for the next 2 weeks. Petter (already in town taking care of logistics) met us there, and we threw our luggage onboard.

I was impressed by the boat—a bit more spacious and luxurious that I had perhaps expected. Petter and I shared a cabin with a large double bed, while others were similarly paired-off, some of the cabins with bunk beds. All had private baths with toilet and shower. A full-service kitchen and dining room table that seated 10 were upstairs, just below the wheelhouse.

After a couple hours of organizing and getting to know everyone (all 10 of us were soon present), we walked into the town of Longyearbyen to do last minute shopping and errands. Petter had arranged for a group dinner at 7:30 PM, and told us to stay away from the boat while the crew got it ready. So we wandered around town—I bought a ship-ready rain jacket, and we all spent time at the town’s only supermarket buying random expensive food.

I split off eventually and hiked around town for several hours—it was cold and windy with heavy snow flurries, and my adventures included hiking up a high gravel moraine outside town, finding most of the attractions closed in the evening, and accidentally getting locked in a closing-down shopping mall before a restaurant manager let me out.

The group dinner was a good introduction for all of us to the team—most of us ate pizza. Afterwards we trekked back to the harbor to spend the night on the boat in port, saving on expensive hotels. There was bright midnight sun all night long, and my boat cabin’s skylight hatch made sleeping a bit tough.

Saturday, June 8:

In the morning we all got to know the crew of the “Valiente” better: skipper Mats, co-skipper Kjell-Erik, and second officer Johannes. For several hours we continued to organize—we got our gear sorted, managed all the mountains of food we were taking, and helped the crew with tasks like getting diesel fuel and drinking water onboard, plus swabbing the deck. It was a bit hectic as we prepared to sail off.

About noon the Valiente finally set off, leaving the civilization of Svalbard behind for the next two weeks. The waters in the fjord near town were pretty calm, but after about 3 hours we entered the open ocean and set a course southwest toward Jan Mayen.

I have a long history of being susceptible to motion sickness, but I had applied a Scopalmine skin patch that likely spared me the worst symptoms. Still, as the sea roughened, I could only really find relief by lying horizontal in my bed with my eyes closed. I heard Tony and Chris getting sick in the hallway that first night, and I avoided that fate, but still felt generally bad when the seas were high. I believe I ate some dinner this evening, but I was otherwise down for the count as I adjusted to a world of constant rhythmic motion.

Sunday, June 9:

The routine aboard the Valiente while at sea was pretty low-key. The 10 of us on the expedition were expected to help out the crew during the trip, and most of us did to varying degrees.

Richard and Denise were veteran sailors with their own boat, so they were keen to spend time with whoever was on watch in the wheelhouse. Frederik and Denise did a lot of the cooking for us, helped by a crew member (usually Johannes). Arnt was the master of doing dishes, and he and Frederik where the preferred deckhands—I believe the crew wanted their important commands to be understood by Norwegian speakers. Chris got over his seasickness quickly and helped out a lot in the kitchen and outside. Tony and I were the most seasick and often suffering in our cabins alone. I felt bad about not helping out more.

I seem to recall that in the evening the wind got strong and pushed the ship southwards at a good clip. They even turned off the engines and were able to make 11 knots, but the bumping of the ship as it crashed through the swells did not help my seasickness.

Monday, June 10:

Today was another day out in the open ocean. It was a bit calmer and more regular and I was able to spend more time up in the dining area, eating our regular cooked meals or otherwise hanging out and socializing. I found the experience somewhat claustrophobic—there were not many places to be, really just one’s cabin or the dining area. Going outside was a bit of a chore, putting on special clothes, boots, and life jacket, and when not felling well I tended to not bother.

But overall it was OK—the bed in my cabin was a nice refuge when not feeling well, the 13 of us on the boat were a convivial crew and got along nicely, and we had a cornucopia of food, both elaborate meals to cook plus lots of good snacks.

Tuesday, June 11:

Another day out in the open ocean heading south towards Jan Mayen. Again, it was relatively calm, and I felt OK. But the lack of wind made it necessary to run the engines to make progress. I had thought our boat would mostly sail, but it had a big engine and big fuel tanks, and we would up using them more than the wind overall.

Our captain Mats went outside and climbed our mast as a dry run, and that was fun to watch. We occasionally saw whales, too, but usually once they had spouted they disappeared and it was hard to get photos.

By evening the seas got choppier and I was not feeling great, but my patches made it tolerable as long as I was lying down. Late in the day, after dinner, I made a point to go outside, and it was so choppy that Mats tethered me in while I sat out near the stern for a few minutes in the cold wind. Later we all went to bed as the boat sped south, excited knowing that we would soon be at our destination.

Wednesday, June 12:

At about 2 AM or so I started hearing lots of clunks and thumps as I dozed in the boat, and I started looking out the porthole in my cabin every now and then. Eventually I saw a nearby cliff face in the fog—Jan Mayen at last! I woke up Petter and we went upstairs. The Valiente was anchoring just offshore of a black sand beach. Our outbound boat journey had taken under 4 days, excellent time.

The next few hours were kind of like a miniature D-Day as we transferred 10 people and all of their mountaineering and expedition gear onshore, using the Valiente’s zodiac dinghies. As a landlubber I had never appreciated the concept of the dock before, so having to unload without one was an eye-opener. All of our packs and stuff had to be moved in dry-bags, and all passengers had to wear their orange survival suits (very much like astronaut space suits) and jump out of the zodiac in the surf and then walk ashore. I noted that I was starting my hike at 1 meter below sea level.

Once ashore we moved all of stuff to an area near some random buildings—this beach, knowns as Kvalrossbukta (“Walrus Bay”) was the main port for the island’s weather station. The station was on the other side of the island, 9 km away by dirt road, but this area had a hut, warehouses, garages, and machinery, all to facilitate the annual arrival of the supply ship (expected in a few days, it turned out). We set up camp near the various buildings—the UK crew had their own small tents, but rest of us planned to sleep in a huge pyramid tent called the “lavo”. We had tons of food in boxes, several huge water cannisters, and lots of mountaineering gear that we had to organize as well.

It was maybe 6 AM by the time we were set up, and we were tired from not much sleep, so we took a nap until about noon or 1 PM in our tents. When we arose we started getting ready for our expedition to Beerenberg, the island’s high peak.

The logistics were complicated by the rules for the island, which is a Norwegian nature reserve. The only place tents were allowed was at this beach and one near the weather station, also the only two places landings could be made. On the rest of the island, only bivouacs were allowed (no tents). We anticipated a 2 or 3 day trip to Beerenberg and back, so we all took bivvy bags, and Petter had brought an enormous tarp that we could use if the weather was really bad. All of this took time to organize, and we had to distribute group gear that included ropes, shovels, stoves, and pickets.

While we were doing all this a Land Rover came by with some weather station personnel, having driven from their station. The base commander talked to us, stamped our passports with a very hard-to-get stamp, and mainly chatted in Norwegian with Mats and Petter about our plans and the rules.

Finally, at 4:25 PM, all 10 of us started hiking, taking the dirt road up from the beach. It led over a few low hills to the other side of the island and a junction—we went left (north) towards Beerenberg, while the south fork led to the weather station. It was not the best hiking, mostly on a long, dusty, flat road, near a lagoon, and we hiked in various combinations and small groups. It was cool and overcast, but at least not raining.

After 15 km we finally came to a junction sign, where we turned left off the road and started heading uphill on faint paths and finally just snow and rock with no trail, ascending the giant volcano’s gentle lower slopes. Our plan had been to camp high, at maybe 1400m, but our late start and fatigue after a long haul with full packs made that plan unrealistic. Our spirits lifted when we broke through the marine layer of fog and into the bright sunshine of the late-day midnight sun, but we were still quite low on the peak.

We stopped for a rest at an area of relatively flat rocks where it looked like it was just all snow above, and once we were all there we realized it was 11:20 PM and the sun was about to move behind the bulk of the mountain for a while. We quickly decided this would be our bivouac spot, even though it was only 650m elevation. No one wanted to haul full packs any higher, and it was late. Most of us just found level areas of pebbles in the volcanic talus to spread out our bivvy sacks, but Petter, Johannes, and Jukka made a platform in the snow and used the huge tarp as a makeshift shelter. After making dinner we all tried to sleep in the twilight.

Thursday, June 13:

The 10 of us woke up from our individual bivouac sites around 7:30 AM or so (alpine starts are not really necessary when there is midnight sun) and started hiking at about 8:50. The way uphill was obvious and easy, a huge volcanic slope of soft snow. We all sunk in a bit, but not terribly. We were in gorgeous bright sunshine, still above a marine layer we could still see below.

At 10:35 AM we had gained 650 meters of elevation, to 1300m, and at our rest stop we all agreed it was time to rope up, since we could see crevasses ahead. Our plan was to form into two rope teams of five—the first team would include Johannes and Jukka, who wanted to do the crater rim traverse and therefore be as fast as possible getting up there. Arnt led this team, and Richard and Frederik also joined. The second, slower team was led by Petter, followed by me, Denise, Tony, and Chris.

Somehow, we took about an hour here resting and getting the ropes all set up, part of that the inevitable chaos of a large and essentially leaderless group. The first team was off, and then our team followed. We encountered the first small crevasses quite soon, actually, so were happy for our rope. A bit further on the “fast team” took a clothing break and we passed them, leading up to a rock area called Nunataken on the map, but after that Arnt and his team passed up and opened up a wider and wider lead.

Our team followed Arnt’s track as it zigzagged around crevasses and got steeper and steeper, and we had the usual rope management issues but did OK and made good progress. Our route was generally to the right side (facing uphill) when looking at the huge wall of the volcano. We took a few breaks, the longest at a steep spot not far uphill from a big slot, where I was a bit nervous about our team losing gear (or climbers) into the abyss. Fortunately, the only casualty was Tony’s water bottle, which didn’t fall far on the soft snow slope.

After more steep uphill plodding in the softening snow in the bright sunshine, we finally approached the crater rim and traversed clockwise—the actual summit knob was the furthest visible point to the left, over several intermediate bumps we mostly bypassed. Up here there was a bit of cold wind and the snow was icier. We wondered where the first rope team was—Johannes and Jukka should have been well along their traverse by now.

At 3:30 PM we came to flat spot on the ridge where the first team had made into a resting spot. Arnt was there, having already been on the short jaunt to the summit pinnacle, and Jukka and Johannes were on their way back. Richard and Frederick were resting, with Frederik wondering aloud if he would go further. Our team of 5 joined them and took a break, too. Petter and I felt most comfortable going on to the summit unroped, so we dropped our packs, put on crampons, and soon set off. Richard set up a short rope to take Denise, Tony, Chris, and Frederik (who changed his mind), and they left shortly after us.

The final climb was fun—Petter and I mistakenly tried to stay on the crest before a sheer icy drop off stopped us, forcing a snowy descent to bypass the area. Then we had a steep but easy climb up the final pinnacle of hard ice crystals to the rounded bump of King Haakon VII Toppen, the highest summit of Beerenberg, 2277m. We congratulated each other—Petter’s “Ultra” count was now 322, almost exactly three times my new total of 107. We had summited at 4:17 PM.

The weather was now superb, with the low-elevation marine layer now gone, and we could see the whole island at our feet and the blue ocean below surrounding us. The weather station staff later told us this happened maybe only every few years or so. As Richard’s rope team approached, we got awesome photos of them with the terrain below as a backdrop. With 7 of us on the summit now, we took lots of photos and hearty congratulations were exchanged. All 10 expedition members had now summited our main goal, a great achievement.

We were shortly back to the resting spot, where Johannes and Jukka were just getting ready to leave on their rim traverse. It was now after 5 PM, and the rest of us were all thinking that at this hour they needed to be much further along, but with the midnight sun they still had a chance. We told them to be safe (no margin for error and no possibility for rescue here) and they headed off towards the difficult-looking spires of the Mercantontoppen and Hakluyttoppen.

Arnt was not feeling well, possibly due to his susceptibility to altitude sickness, so he was eager to get going quickly downhill. Petter, Frederik, and I roped up with him and started down, leaving the 4 UK climbers to get down on the other rope behind us. Arnt set a fast pace as we left at 5:17 PM and, oddly, detoured to the summit of the minor Wordietoppen bump to bag it before plunge stepping down the steep slopes at a good clip. The snow was soft, but we kept our crampons on anyway due to some steep and somewhat treacherous spots near big crevasses.

We were all pretty used to fast travel downhill on snow and made good time, especially after removing our crampons and cutting off some of the zigzags of our uphill route. The snow was total mush in the hot sun, and we sank in quite a bit, but on the steep slopes we just plowed down easily. At 1300m we unroped and I volunteered to take the rope in my pack, so I was last after taking the time to stow it. More sloppy sliding in the deep glop eventually brought me to our bivvy site at 8:05 PM.

The 4 of use in camp had seen the 4 figures of the UK team behind us earlier, glad they had made it down safely, and at some point I think it became 6 people—Johannes and Jukka had bailed pretty quickly on their rim traverse plans, due to time and difficulty constraints (to pull that off they ideally needed a higher camp and an early start independent of a large group).

Once we were all in camp the mood was positive with our expedition’s main goal achieved. We made our dinners, socialized, and retreated to our individual bivvy sites (with, once again, Petter, Johannes, and Jukka under the tarp) for another night under the dimmed midnight sun behind the mountain.

Friday, June 14:

We broke camp and started hiking down from our bivouac site at 10 AM, our group of 10 in random clusters. We stopped to tank up on water at the rare area of flowing water, and meandered downhill. Petter and Jukka had left first, and the rest of us, without paying a lot of attention, took a different path than our uphill track before reconverging below in the volcanic sands.

(Petter, alone ahead, stayed on our upward path while going down, and he was surprised to encounter Kjell-Erik and Johannes from the Valiente crew. They wanted to climb the peak and had gotten rides from the weather station staff to the end of the road. With limited gear and experience, they were able to follow our footsteps in the snow to the crater rim and return to the boat the same day by hiking the road.)

All of us save Petter and Jukka made it to the junction on the main road together at 11:25 AM, and after a rest the 8 of us dropped our heavy packs and made a 90-minute detour/jaunt to climb the nearby low Eggøya peak, a sandy hill across a flat dusty plain. The steep slopes of dirt were not the easiest thing to climb, and a few rock strata higher up required some simple scrambling, but the summit overlooked the ocean with dramatic cliffs and the views of nearby Beerenberg above the marine layer were awesome. We had a nice summit rest and then easily plunge-stepped down the dirt and were soon back at the junction.

From there we had a 15km hike on the dusty road back to our basecamp. I was now carrying a heavy rope, a shovel, a stove, and all my overnight gear, so I was really feeling the weight on my back and not feeling super energetic after yesterday’s effort. I wound up hiking with Arnt, who was also a bit tired. Frederick and Chris stopped on the road to explore some caves, and then Richard, Denise, Tony, and Johannes wanted to go bag some easy 100m prominence peaks nearby, but Arnt and I were not interested so we left them behind and just plodded on to our basecamp at Kvalrossbukta.

It was a tiring but mostly flat hike along the huge south lagoon. We took a long rest at the Søyla (“Killer”) rock pillar formation and were surprised to note that the brackish water in the lagoon was quite warm, maybe 20 degrees C.

The final stretch of road climbed over the hills of the island’s isthmus, a heartbreaking gain and loss, and at 5:45 PM Arnt and I arrived at the beach at Kvalrossbukta, where Petter and Jukka were cooking in the pyramid “lavo” tent, where it was quite warm inside. While resting and reorganizing my gear, I heard that Mats, our boat captain, was about to “jump”, and indeed we all saw him leap from a nearby hilltop and use his paragliding wing to get a nice ride down to the beach.

Over the next few hours the other 6 team members arrived, and we spent a pleasant evening in the usual chaos of a large expedition group at their basecamp. Dinner that night was some excellent pasta carbonara made by Frederick in the lavo. The 4 British climbers retired to their individual tents, while the remaining 6 of us slept in the lavo—it had no floor so black sand was getting into all our stuff.

Go to next ascent in this expedition
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:8037 ft / 2448 m
    Total Elevation Loss:8001 ft / 2438 m
    Round-Trip Distance:28.2 mi / 45.4 km
    Quality:10 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Road Hike, Open Country, Snow on Ground, Snow Climb, Glacier Climb
    Gear Used:
Ice Axe, Crampons, Rope, Skis, Bivouac
    Weather:Cool, Windy, Clear
Ascent Statistics
    Gain on way in:7788 ft / 2373 m
        Gain Breakdown:Net: 7473 ft / 2276 m; Extra: 315 ft / 96m
    Loss on way in:315 ft / 96 m
    Distance:18.9 mi / 30.4 km
    Route:SW Slopes
    Start Trailhead:Kvalrossbukta  -3 ft / 0 m
Descent Statistics
    Loss on way out:7686 ft / 2342 m
        Loss Breakdown:Net: 7437 ft / 2266 m; Extra: 249 ft / 75m
    Gain on way out:249 ft / 75 m
    Distance:9.3 mi / 15 km
    Route:SW Slopes
    End Trailhead:Eggøya Jct.  33 ft / 10 m
Ascent Part of Trip: 2019 - Jan Mayen (3 nights total away from roads)

Complete Trip Sequence:
OrderPeak/PointDateGain
1Beerenberg2019-06-138037 ft / 2450 m
2Eggøya2019-06-14997 ft / 304 m
3Karl Stephantoppen2019-06-15 a2035 ft / 620 m
4Midtfjellet2019-06-15 b472 ft / 144 m
5Blinddalstoppane2019-06-15 c1030 ft / 314 m
6Rudolftoppen2019-06-15 d653 ft / 199 m
7Blinddalstoppane2019-06-15 e413 ft / 126 m
Total Trip Gain: 13637 ft / 4157 m    Total Trip Loss: 13637 ft / 4157 m
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip


 GPS Waypoints - Hover or click to see name and lat/long
Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by Greg Slayden
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Note: GPS Tracks may not be accurate, and may not show the best route. Do not follow this route blindly. Conditions change frequently. Use of a GPS unit in the outdoors, even with a pre-loaded track, is no substitute for experience and good judgment. Peakbagger.com accepts NO responsibility or liability from use of this data.

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