MARATHON MAYHEM: Svalbard Skimaraton hastily relocates due to awful snow conditions; airline strike may keep many from participating


This year’s Svalbard Skimaraton, the archipelago’s largest single-day event of the year, is guaranteed to be one of the most adventurous ever as organizers are hastily relocating the course for Saturday’s race to a never-before-used path along the shoreline and into the mountains across the channel from Longyearbyen, due to above-freezing temperatures making the normal course into a glacial valley non-navigable.

But the adventure aspect may also involve misery for some hopeful racers as a threatened strike by Scandinavian Airlines pilots starting at midnight Friday may keep a sizeable percentage of participants from reaching Svalbard on the day most non-locals travel to the event.


A work crew relocates and packs down snow in Hiorthamn where Saturday’s Svalbard Skimaraton is being relocated. Photo courtesy of Svalbard Turn.

The race that in recent years has attracted about 1,000 participants for full- and half-marathon events traditionally begins several kilometers outside Longyearbyen’s city limits at the base of the Mine 6 mountain and winds gradually uphill into Todalen. But this year’s race will begin near the dog kennels at the edge of town next to Svalbard Snøscooterutleie, cross the channel to Hiorthamn, proceed along the shoreline to Advent City and then into the mountains in Hanaskogdalen.

Organizers of the Svalbard Skimaraton (yes, it’s spelled with the missing “h”), now in its 27th year, said unseasonably warm and rainy weather that wrecked havoc with many people’s Easter week plans is making a mess of the traditional race course as well.

“Due to mild weather and a lot of rain during Easter, it is unfortunately impossible to complete the Svalbard Skimaraton 2019 on the advertised trail,” the event’s official website notes. “There is a minimum of snow on some places of the trail, and many soft spots and open areas of water.”


Slush and open water along the traditional ski marathon course in Toden, along with a heightened risk of avalanches, means it is unacceptable for this year’s race, according to organizers. Photo courtesy of Svalbard Turn.

Furthermore, “the climate has changed in Svalbard in recent years, which means that the danger of landslides is greater than it used to be. Therefore, the Svalbard Skimaraton wants to switch to a trail that we consider safer in terms of the avalanche problem.”

While that’s meant a lot of extra work for those preparing the course – first trying to make the traditional path viable, then plotting and grooming a new course with the help of relocated snow – officials are saying there’s a sunny side for racers and those who gather to watch.

“We have to replace the glacier with a wonderful tour along the sea at Hiorthamn,” the website notes. “For those who want to experience the full marathon, one will also experience high mountains and wild Arctic nature when entering Hanaskogdalen.”

“By drawing the Svalbard Skimaraton closer to the city, we hope to make it an even larger party than before.”

As for an actually sunny race, the odds appear unlikely since the forecast calls for cloudy skies, temperatures of about zero degrees Celsius, virtually no wind and possibly light snow/rain.

The starting times for the race are unchanged. They are 9 a.m. for full marathon participants in the untimed and age 71+ timed categories, 9:15 a.m. for timed full-course participants expecting to take more than four hours, 9:30 a.m. for other timed-course full marathoners, and 9:45 a.m. for half-marathon participants. Shuttle buses to the race depart starting at 8 a.m. from Longyearbyen (stopping at, in order, Coal Miners Cabins/Gjestehuset 102, Spitsbergen Hotel (Funken), Svalbardbutikken and Mary Ann’s Polarrigg).


An elevation map shows racers participating in this year’s full ski marathon will experience plenty of challenging mountain terrain. Map courtesy of Svalbard Turn.

Pre-registration for this year’s race was 782 at midweek, a bit below previous years, which may be due to a combination of the event occurring a week after an unusually late Easter and higher accommodation prices, Nina Lines, general manager of Svalbard Turn, told Svalbardposten. Signups by locals and arriving visitors are common during the two days before event, which may boost total participation closer to the 1,000-person limit.

But participation may take a serious hit if a threatened strike by Scandinavian airlines pilots goes into effect at midnight Friday, since two flights by the airline are scheduled to arrive in Longyearbyen that day. The pilots are seeking better pay and more weekends off, but airline management has declared the demands unreasonable given current market conditions.

The uncertainty and possible large-scale non-participation in this year’s race is capping off tumultuous month that saw hundreds of people hoping to reach the North Pole thwarted by the first-ever cancellation of expedition season due to political and weather issues, followed by the miserably mushy Easter holiday.