Spitsbergen Retraced | 1923 Expedition
Researching, mountaineering and skiing in the High Arctic, following in the footsteps of the groundbreaking 1923 Oxford University Arctic Expedition.
svalbard, expedition, arctic, oxford, university
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1923 Expedition

‘the journey in 1921…had been regarded… as merely introductory and preliminary to a bigger attack on the unexplored parts of the region’


– Noel Odell, Alpine Journal, 1923

In 1921, a precocious undergraduate at Merton College, Oxford – George Binney – succeeded in leading an expedition to reach the remote archipelago of Svalbard. Anchoring in Klaas Billen Bay, the expedition’s foray into the interior of the island failed to make significant improvements on the territory explored by the famous nineteenth century adventurers Sir Martin Conway and Professor Garwood. Severe blizzards and under-provisioning forced an emergency, twenty-five hour march to safety.

‘very rough…very sick – took opium’

– Irvine, Diaries

Two years later, Binney prepared another expedition, this time with the dual aims of circumnavigating the island and sledging across the unexplored interior of Eastern Spitsbergen. Remaining on the ship himself, Binney chose Noel Odell, a respected mountaineer as the leader of his four-man sledging party. The overall expedition of fourteen men left Newcastle on the 14th July, arriving in Tromsø on 21st July after a less than sedate crossing. Here they acquired a Norwegian crew and boarded the Ternigen, a propeller-driven sealing-yacht equipped with a reinforced-hull to break through the Arctic pack-ice.

‘Reindeer steak was marvellous and eider duck almost as good.’

– Irvine, Diaries

Ten days later the Ternigen arrived at Duym Point on the north-east coast of Spitsbergen and waved goodbye to Odell and his team of Geoffrey Milling, Robert Frazer and Andrew Irvine. What followed was an epic, thirty day crossing of the East Spitsbergen ice cap. Dragging two wooden sledges, each weighing in excess of 500lbs, the party’s only contact with the outside world was a temperamental wireless connection which petered out for days at a time.

‘woke at 8am to see the most delightful view from the tent door…the sun had come out…the air still sharp…this was the first time I had had my clothes off since Duym Point!’

– Irvine, Diary

Their route took them up through the difficult ice falls and waist-deep morass of the Lomme Glacier onto the ice cap proper. Diverting only to summit outlying peaks, including the highest in Spitsbergen,  the team proceeded to map the topography and geology of the lands lying between the Chydenius and Stubendorff ranges.

‘We descended from our peak… by the light of the midnight sun, rich golden rays mingled with the deep purple shadows [and] blended with the delicate opalescent tints from the glacier surfaces… an ineffably beautiful scene not to be experienced in lower latitudes…’

Odell, Alpine Journal

Their journey was beset with difficulties, not least on account of primitive ski and camping equipment prone to break. The need to ferry the sledges one-by-one, in effect trebled their 184-mile journey. With temperatures hovering between -8°C  and 0 °C, poor visibility and high winds, the ultimate sting in Svalbard’s tail hit the team a mere twelve miles from the west coast and safety. A protracted blizzard swept in from the ocean and pinned the expedition to their tents for three days and three nights. Despite the partial collapse of one shelter on the 30th of August, all four members emerged unscathed to complete the final twelve miles to Klaass Billen Bay and the safety of the Ternigen.

‘We then struggled down toward yesterday’s tracks, our skis clogging and the sledge continually sinking…Frazer arrived very exhausted at 01:00 and Geoffrey with broken ski straps at 01:30. We were all very wet and tired and thankful to get a rock camp.’

Irvine, Diaries