Adventure! / Phd Life / Stress / Svalbard

A crash course in staying safe, the snøscooter edition.

After successfully shooting a rifle, I can manage anything right? I wasn’t so sure if snow mobile driving was included in that. I tried driving a quad bike about 10 years ago and was really not a fan, so with slight trepidation I sat in the classroom on Tuesday morning and learned about how to drive a snøscooter. It couldn’t be that bad if I can manage to drive a car, right?

Snøscooters are not hard to understand. There is an on button, a button to start the engine, a throttle to make it go and brakes to make it stop. If you’re being sensible when you get on and off it then you should be fine (they said). Just make sure it isn’t frozen to the ground before you start!
After our classroom lesson it was time for some instruction in maintenance. If you get stuck on the middle of a glacier because the belt that makes it go has broken, there is no AA to rescue you. Thankfully the tools and a spare are included.
I quite like fixing things so it was good to be allowed to get my hands dirty.

Next onto the correct stacking of a sledge. Seeing as we will be taking boxes full of meteorological instruments, big orange safety boxes, smaller silver scooter repair boxes and all our lunches and extra warm clothing, sledges are important. Rules included: keep the heavy things on the strongest bit, put the fuel at the back so it doesn’t get all over your safety equipment if it leaks and most importantly strap it all down really tight! The instructor got us to undo the sledge and strap it all back on, this is easier said than done, but we managed it eventually.

After a quick lunch we picked out our scooter suits, these are terribly fetching all-in-one insulated suits with a nice furry hood. They’ll keep us warm and dry on the long sitting down journeys and be useful during the fieldwork too. We get big boots, a balaclava, big gloves, a helmet and goggles. We also have to remember to put our avalanche detector on underneath the suit. The suit was certainly warm.

Then before I really had time to get scared I was sat on a snøscooter and about to leave! I started off ok, no kangaroo-ing for me! Though as I am the very opposite of a speed-freak I got a bit behind the rest of the group… The second instructor at the back of the group was there to keep me safe though, so it was fine! I was moved to the front of the group (so they all had to go at my pace) and off we went again. We went round corners, along slopes, up hills and down again, round windy narrow paths and back home. A snøscooter requires you to be active when you drive. You “dance” with it as you go forward. It follows the tracks of the person ahead of you and wiggles around a bit with the terrain. Turning corners requires you to pull against the snow, but not push extra against the throttle! Riding along a slope you need to lean upslope, to counterbalance the scooter. I ached before we even got home.

I’m sure the scenery was stunning, if only I’d had chance to look! I was concentrating too hard to really see much other than what was right in front of me. Then as the light began to fade the definition in the terrain went too. Everything was grey. I couldn’t tell where the mountains ended and the sky began, whether I was looking at a climb or a drop. This was flat light, and I could see why. It was quite disconcerting. All I could do was keep in sight of the red light on the back of the instructors scooter and follow his tracks. And follow I did. And I managed it!

Eventually we stopped. Then one of the instructors drove the scooter with a sledge straight into a hill and got it stuck. “This will happen”, he said “you need to learn what to do”. We successfully dug it out (each scooter has a shovel and other useful things in its back). Then finally we drove home. And I actually started to quite like it. Sure its a bit loud, but I managed to get myself up to 40km/h!
We removed our scooter suits, walked the half an hour up the hill to get home and relaxed!

The next morning everything ached and I still had to get out of bed to go to lectures.

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