- DateJuly 2015
- LocationGrumantbyen, Svalbard
- TeamAlexander Pyka & Jonathan Danko Kielkowski
- Text & ImagesJonathan Danko Kielkowski
From Barentsburg to Longyearbyen 1/3
Svalbard | Expedition | July 2015
- Halfway between mainland Europe (600km south) and the North Pole (1000km north) lays a archipelago called Svalbard. Formed by over 400 islands, shaped by glaciers and surrounded by the Arctic Ocean which penetrates uncountable fjords is home for more polar bears then humans. And so the need to carry a rifle is necessary as soon as one leaves town into the wild where no streets nor trails, no cars or trees can to be found. In summer 2015 Alexander Pyka and myself went on an adventure to this remote place to document the remains of Svalbards once glory mining industry.
Out of the countless mines and mining-settlements on Svalbard there are only two active ones left. One is the Russian town of Barentsburg and the other one in the Norwegian town Longyearbyen. They are both located on the south side of the Isfjord and only 50km apart from each other. Along the coast between these two towns there are several abandoned Soviet settlements and mining sites that we wanted to visit and explore during our stay in Svalbard. Two of them, Grumantbyen and Colesabuka caught most of our lasting attention. They used to be the most inhabitant towns on svalbard back in the 50ties and had been already abandoned in 1965, besides, it’s hard to find any photographic record of the recent look of those sites. There are no roads or trails leading to these towns. You can travel from Longyearbyen to Barentsburg and back by boat, helicopter or a snowmobile if there is snow. But if you want to get to these abandoned sites, you have to do some extra homework, especially since this is polar bear territory.
After studying maps and satellite pictures, talking to locals and arranging some deals with the authorities we came up with a plan:
We booked a boat trip on the Bilefjord, a tourist cruise ship, from Barentsburg (A) to Longyearbyen (D). The ship would stop infront of Grumantbyen (B) and a small motorboat would drop us off at Grumatbyen beach. Colesbukta (C) was only 8 km south east from here and Longyearbyen a further 25 km hike up north. The challenges we would face would be the long hikes in unknown territory, our 35kg backpacks, lots of river crossings, steep mountains we would need to cross, moraines and of course trying not to end up as a polar bear snack. Also, since not many people have attempted to do what we were about to do, there were lots of question marks in our plan. Especially the last part of our route back to Longyearbyen was quite vague and depending on this year’s terrain and weather conditions.
We left the port of Barentsburg at midday and arrived about 2 hours later at our drop-off spot. The motorboat was hoisted to the water and we jumped in. The first ruins of Grumantbyen came in sight and only 15 minutes later we already arrived at the beach. From here on we would be on our own and without any connection the the outside world for the next couple of days. No phone connection, no internet. Equipped with food for several days, a large caliber rifle and enough ammo for polar bear protection, photo- and survival gear and a tent, we were ready to go. The guy who dropped us off at the beach wished us good luck and told us to drop him a message in case we would make it back to Longyearbyen alive…
- HistoryFounded 1913, connected to the port town Colesbutka by train in 1926, Inhabitants on its peak 1106 (including Colesbutka), 1951/52 the settlement with the most inhabitants on Svalbard, mine closed due to unprofitability in 1962, abandoned in 1965
There is not much left of the once proud mining town. When the Russians abandoned it in the mid 60s, all entrances to the mine as well as all bridges, tunnels and industrial buildings were burnt down or blown up. Snow, ice, extreme cold temperatures during the winters, rain and masses of melting water during the summer months, did the rest. The remains of Grumantbyen now disappear under the extreme conditions of the arctic climate, bit by bit. We stayed in the old mining town for a couple of hours and went for an exploring walk through the ruins. Since our initial plan to also explore the old mine from inside seemed impossible without heavy equipment (blown up entrances) we had more time to take a closer look on what was left on the surface. After years of decay that left all the remaining buildings in a devastated state, we could still find a few interesting objects the Russians had left behind: old trains, tools, lamps and even some personal belongings of the inhabitants of the town.
Old industrial equipment, bridge- and house-parts and even some mine-wagons are filling up the riverbed and the beach. The stuff is being washed away by melting water and slowly travels towards the ocean creating and almost surreal and apocalyptic picture.
At around midnight, we decided to set off towards Colesbutka. Our goal was to reach the Russian Rusanovodden Cabin next to the old railway tracks and right in front of Colesbutka (more about that in part 2) where we would set up our camp for the next day.
Gruamntbyen is located in a small bay, surrounded by steep mountain hills. All railway tunnels that lead to Colesbutka are destroyed, so getting out of there is not so easy. While preparing for this trip and after talking with locals in Svalbard we knew that there would be only two ways for us to get out of Grumantbyen and to Colesbutka. Either climbing up and crossing the hill west of the bay in order to get to flatter ground and to the railway tracks that would lead us to the cabin. Or waiting until the low tide would set in and try to walk on the beach along the cliffs heading to Colesbutka and then to the cabin. Both options had their risks. Option 1 would include climbing and walking with a 35kg backpack and a heavy 8kg rifle on a very steep and unstable mountainside with the danger of rock fall and hidden moraines. Option 2 would be a race against the tide with the risk that if we would take too long, the incoming tide would cut us off and we would get stuck on the cliff for at least 12 hours. After being awake for already 16 hours and still having a few hours of walking ahead of us, we decided to try the beach option. Low tide was setting in and the beach looked nice and smooth and so we thought this would be a no brainer. Nice and easy. We took off feeling comfortable and could not imagine what a shitty decision we had just taken….
Continue to Part 2
- Arcitc Coal Episode Index
- Intro Arctic Coal
- Longyearbyen Coal Crane
- Longyearbyen Gruve 2
- From Barentsburg to Longyearbyen Part 1 Grumantbyen
- From Barentsburg to Longyearbyen Part 2 Colesbutka
- From Barentsburg to Longyearbyen Part 3 Drill Rigs
- The Pyramid*
- *not published yet
Nice! Amazing pictures!
Thanks 🙂 Glad to hear that you like our work 🙂
Great to see your pictures as it brought back memories when we shipwrecked in 1964 just south of Colesbutka at the mouth of a small river ,coming back from a geological trip south of Barentsburg; were working as assistants for the Norwegian Polar institute covering among others the coal mines in Longyearbyen and fieldwork in the general area incl. Ny Alesund.
Thanks for your comment!
Sounds very interesting. Do you want to share more details about your wreck? Or do you even have some photos? Would be very cool to hear more from you.