Svalbard is a dangerous place. Here on the edge of civilisation even a relatively minor problem can become life threatening when combined with freezing temperatures, no ambulances and polar bears. Thankfully we aren’t shoved out onto the glaciers without preparation, we get a whole two days of safety training!
Monday morning they informed us of the dangers awaiting us outside the confines of Longyearbyen. In the instructors words they don’t bother with warning signs as “they’d be everywhere”. Great. He continued describing the ways we could die in a very matter of fact way. The sea ice can crack as you’re driving over it and you might fall into before you realise it (last year five tourists did but thankfully they all survived). The glaciers are full of crevasses you can fall into (a tourist died from doing that) and there is the risk of avalanche (no UNIS students have been caught in one, yet). Even the cute little Arctic foxes are full of rabies.
After successfully scaring us silly, they took us to a rifle range and stuck hunting rifles in our hands! This is not because we are being sent out to hunt reindeer, but in case a polar bear tries to hunt us. UNIS has to be one of the only universities in the world that has student welfare rifles and flare guns. The rules inform you that “students are not permitted to leave the settlement unarmed”. I have an ammunition safe in my room. While I am no fan of gun ownership, here it makes sense.
The instructors talked us through the process of half loading a rifle, taking aim and shooting. Then before we knew it we had to lie on the floor and start doing it. My fingers were cold, the floor was icy and guns make very loud noises. I tried to take aim, then I squeezed the trigger slowly. If the gun going off is a surprise, then you’re doing it right so the instructor told us. I must have been doing it right, it was such a surprise I nearly hit myself in the face! The recoil of the gun gave a real kick to my shoulder too. When we were all done shooting we could check the targets and I was pleased to have hit the target pretty much every shot. We also tried shooting from ‘half-standing’ or on our knees. This was equally uncomfortable. They checked our ability to hit relatively consistently and if we could we can be trusted with rifles out in the field, and borrow them from uni. I passed. But I hope I never have to try for real!
Next we were told the rules for dealing with a polar bear encounter. Scaring it off is much preferable to shooting. Polar bears are protected by law and we could only shoot one if our lives were threatened. How do you scare a polar bear? With a flare gun of course! These produce large flashes and bangs, so as long as you don’t shoot past the polar bear it should run away. We got to practice loading these, but not firing. The instructors demonstrated a flare to us. Think of a very close firework, it even smells of one.
The afternoon was taken up with demonstrations of the various safety equipment that we will have at our disposal. The big orange boxes we will take to the field with us include tents and stoves and a sleeping bag. Everything to keep a group warm and safe (ish) until rescue can come. We’ll have a satellite phone to keep in touch with base, a gps beacon so we can be found. Everyone wears an avalanche detection beacon, so if we get trapped under snow the people on the surface can find us (the device does not detect avalanches). The instructor showed us some diagrams of digging someone out of an avalanche. We got to try putting up tents and putting on beacons and wrapping an ‘injured’ person up warm. By the end I felt like I was much more prepared to deal with anything that might happen and crucially we were going to be very well equipped.
Then after an exhausting day and with aching backs we headed home to our barracks for dinner, comfy sofas and bed!