In winter, you can get into the caves and grottoes of the Longyear Glacier, within walking distance of Longyearbyen. One of the few places in the world where it's possible to get underneath a glacier, this unique experience is within the capabilities of most people.
The entrance to the cave is tight — so tight that you have to take off your rucksack, sit down and slide down a steep 3–4 metres to drop into a large grotto and wait for the group to gather before moving on.
Snow crystals and icicles
Inside the grottoes, the ceilings are covered with icicles and lacy snow crystals. Look closer, and you'll see that the crystals look like tiny upside-down spruce trees, glittering in the light of the head torches. The floor is scoured rock, gravel or hard blue ice. There are no straight lines to be seen, only arching, twisting undulations.
Exploring the caves
The group moves inwards from the outer cave along narrow corridors, ducking under low ceilings, leaning to the side when the cave slopes obliquely and using ropes to scale steep inclines that can be a couple of metres high. It's unfamiliar, but never uncomfortable or very physically strenuous. There are also large caverns where there is enough room for the steam from your breath to drift sinuously about under the roof.
In the short Arctic summer, the ice thaws and the glacier trundles slowly forwards. Meltwater, mixed with the sand and gravel dragged along by the glacier, carves channels through the ice. It's not safe to be there then — while water flows through the grottoes, ceilings collapse and new routes are carved out. But when winter has Longyearbyen in its grip, the glacier becomes frozen through and almost static, and it's safe to enter again. Old caves have collapsed and new ones formed, so every year you can walk into a new grotto landscape.
Can I go on an ice cave tour?
Ice caving is not an extreme sport; it's something that most of us can do. You need to be reasonably mobile since you will have to slide down into the cave, crouch right over and occasionally crawl. However, none of this is too difficult for most people. If you are very claustrophobic, ice caving is not for you. When www.nordnorge.com went on a cave tour, several members of the group said they didn't like confined spaces — but they felt surprisingly fine, so a few jitters shouldn't stop you.
Various companies in Longyearbyen organise different ice caving tours, using tracked vehicles, snowmobiles or teams of dogs. www.nordnorge.com chose to walk up on snowshoes, and had a lovely trip from Nybyen in upper Longyearbyen to the glacier.
The guides on all the tours are authorised glacier guides, and glaciologists from the University Centre on Svalbard monitor the Longyear Glacier. If they notice movement in the glacier, the caves are closed. The ice caves are closed throughout the summer. You must not go in alone if you don't know the way; it is easy to get lost or fall from ledges.