Each year, Hurtigruten Svalbard organises a seminar for our guides, and this year the final segment was a simulated rescue operation, which included the assistance of the Governor's helicopter, police and local rescuers, who helped to create a very real-life scenario.
Marte Agneberg Dahl (31) from Tromsø tells the persistent "journalist" from Svalbardposten to move out of the way, as she tries to get a response from one of the injured guests.
-I can't answer your questions! You need to contact the Governor’s office, she says in a strict tone, before turning back to the injured woman sitting in front of her.
-Hi! Hi! What's your name? she yells. Listen to me, my name is Marte, and you’re going to be fine!
We are at Brentskaret, some 30 kilometres from Longyearbyen out in the Advent Valley, and are facing a challenging rescue operation. Five people have tipped over their snowmobiles in a steep river valley, and another person has fallen into a crevasse.
-The rescue exercise was excellent and provided valuable lessons for everyone. The scenario was very complex, so both the chosen leaders and those assisting were challenged. The rescue helicopter participated, and the governor's policemen observed, reporting that this was a valuable exercise for them as well, Marte says.
-My friends are dyyyyying! – A voice resounds through the narrow river valley.
-Why are you not doing anything? howls an injured person.
Fortunately, it is only an exercise this time around, but when accidents happen, the guides need to be prepared. Every year, Hurtigruten Svalbard organises a gathering for the guides who will be responsible for their guests for the season. Here they have the chance to reflect on the guide role, exchange experiences, meet the management, refresh their first aid knowledge, brush up on snowmobile repair skills, crevasse rescuing and avalanche knowledge, as well as taking a trip to the shooting range for practice.
Thor Elvebakk is Operations Manager Expeditions, and was behind the team organising the rescue exercise. He is pleased with the guides' efforts and highlights several "natural" challenges as well as those staged.
-It was 26 degrees below zero during the exercise, and it was a challenge for the participants to keep warm, in addition to avoiding actual hypothermia among the injured.
Thor tells that many of the guides are involved in Longyearbyen's local Red Cross and the various special groups there, and generally possess a lot of knowledge about how to travel safely in the Arctic.
-However, it is important to test their knowledge! We always strive for a season without injuries, but even if we manage to avoid accidents on our trips, the guides must know how to react if something happens to others.
He explains that using resources on these type of exercises is absolutely essential for companies who wish to bring tourists on tour in the Arctic.
Marte has been a guide for Hurtigruten Svalbard since 2014, and this is the third seminar she has participated in.
-The guide seminar was - like the two previous ones I've been to - great. We thoroughly reviewed many topics that help make us even better at our job. It's about giving the guests a magical and safe experience, she says.
Hurtigruten Svalbard has over 40 permanent guides with different backgrounds and knowledge in the different areas. Whatever the individual guide’s previous experience, the guide seminar is an important forum where the guides can exchange knowledge and practice life-saving measures for emergency situations.
-Hurtigruten Svalbard is a large company, and we set the bar high for what is expected of guides in this region, and therefore also set aside funds to increase the expertise among the guides. I believe that we are very professional when it comes to every aspect in regards to safety on tour. Our management are experienced and open for questions if we’re in doubt and there are good routines in place. The open and informal tone is also important for safety. If you admit that you need advice, you never get told off, and always get support. Our managers also see when more training is needed. Last year at the guide seminar, in light of the Tempelfjord accident, we practiced rescue on sea ice with a specialised instructor, she says.
Marte says that one of the most challenging things is to meet others who care less about safety than Hurtigruten Svalbard.
-Last winter, I had to constantly explain to our guests why we would not approach the surging glacier front of the Tuna glacier, even though private groups were dangerously close, right underneath the wall of unstable ice. In such situations, you fear you’ll be witness to an accident.
Thor emphasises that many of our guests are visiting Svalbard and the Arctic for the first time, and do not have a thorough knowledge of the elements.
-As a tourist you should do research in advance, and not go out on a trip with just anyone! Many will shop for the cheapest available tours, low price is not always high quality. Security and training are not free!
The complexity of risk elements combined with the distance from help makes trips on Svalbard quite different from trips in the Alps or Scottish Highlands. Here there are large areas of glaciated terrain and mountains with avalanche risk. Routes often go over sea ice, and there is a lot of wind-transported snow which can lead to avalanches or large wind holes. In addition, the maps are less detailed than in other areas, and extreme cold is often combined with strong winds. On top of it all, you have the polar bear risk - although that is actually quite small – statistically speaking. The fact that Svalbard is a meeting place for the Gulf Stream's heat and the Arctic Ocean's cold weather systems can also provide such extreme weather that help cannot come to you - and perhaps no reinforcements can come to Svalbard from the mainland. When all this is taken into consideration, visitors generally quickly understand that it is not the best idea to just rent a snowmobile and a rifle and go on a trip alone in the wilderness.
-Every single day of the year we have guests on tour. There are great distances between settlements, and it is much more difficult to get help quickly than on the mainland. With weather, wind, polar bears, sea ice and glaciers, it is more complex to be with guests in Svalbard than on the mainland, and the guides must be prepared to cope with all kinds of challenges, Thor says.
But being a guide on Svalbard is not just an endless challenge, filled with fear of wind holes, white-outs and polar bears. It is a wonderful part of the job to witness people experiencing the incredible Polar wilderness for the first time.
-I love to see people being touched by the magic of the landscape and the stories. Sometimes I find that people are crying with joy - it is such an amazing experience. It is also very rewarding to be able to tell visitors about the vulnerability of the ecosystem, of the animals, the plants and cultural heritage of the region. I hope that the guests will go home with more knowledge about Svalbard, but also an awareness about the climate changes that are occurring here - and that it is up to the people to slow down these changes and save many species from dying. I am sincerely fond of Svalbard and my workplace. With that in mind I also do a better job as a guide, says Marte.