It is an early and cold Thursday morning. People in snowmobile suits are gathering on the plain below The University Centre in Svalbard and making ready for a three-day trip into the field – to learn about the guide profession.
"We will make several stops along the way to talk about specific things, and share information about safety and regulations that are relevant to the individual place," says Sveinung Toppe, manager of package tours at Spitsbergen Travel.
Toppe is a key player in the Svalbard Guide Training Course and in this context is hired by Visit Svalbard to lead the workshop.
Guide training consists of four modules. The first two focus on Svalbard in general, legislation, the role of guides and – not least – safety. They rely on "rough and ready" local experts as teachers, including people working for The Governor of Svalbard.
Modules three and four are carried out in the field, and participants must have gone through the preceding modules to take part.
"In module three, moving about safely is the focus," says Ronny Brunvoll, director of Visit Svalbard. "It covers topics such as avalanches, glacier safety, polar bears and setting up camp."
There has been a surge in guide training participants after the course was revised.
"Never have so many been out in winter field course as this year," Toppe says, as on this Thursday he leads 17 course participants out into the field. Only a few years ago, he might have led the same course with only three or four participants.
Damaskus to Eskerdalen
Among the 17 in this field course is Mouawia Al Lababidi of Syria. He has worked for a long time at the restaurant in the Radisson Blu Polar Hotel, but now he wants to try something new.
"I've got restaurant experience from Svalbard, but now I am seeking new challenges. Guiding out in the field is exciting and new, and I would like to have professional experience with me," Al Lababidi says in fluent English. He also speaks French and Arabic, and therefore is something of a gem for the local tour guide industry.
Does he believe its important to take the course to work as a guide in Svalbard?
"Yes, absolutely," he says. "That is also the safest if you will be responsible for tour mates."
The contrasts are large in the life of Syrian. A week before he embarked on a course tour he was home in Damascus, where it was raining shells as a result of the civil war that's been fought in his homeland for the past four years.
"It was just to get away," Al Lababidi says about the matter, shaking his head.
The trip into the field is scheduled to last three days and there are many lessons to cover. The most interesting stop is already coming in Adventdalen, next to the road.
"It's a little crazy, but this stop, at the old airport, has everything," Toppe says. "Here you can see all of Longyearbyen's 'legs' at close range. The vehicles with coal driving past and showing the industry that founded the city. To the side of us stands the CO2 storage facility UNIS has in Adventdalen as an illustration of research leg we have. And the third leg, tourism, we're all part of as tour mates."
The first stop also serves as a checkpoint on how well the party is driving in succession on snowmobiles. Different methods of keeping the line of snowmobiles under control are discussed before proceeding.
Wanting to be prepared
At Eskerfossen, where the water looks like it has frozen in freefall, an obligatory stop has been added. Katja Baum, who came from the Ruhr area in Germany to Longyearbyen as a student, says she now has ambitions to begin working more as a guide.
"It is therefore important to take this course," she says. "Then you are as prepared as possible with regard to job opportunities and what you can actually do when you are out in the field."
After Eskerfossen, the procession moves on to Fredheim and Tempelfjorden, where the course participants will eventually find a place to set up camp for the three days they are in the field.
"The boat in the ice" is set deep inside the fjord and Villa Fredheim – the sanctuary of legendary trapper Hilmar Nøis – stands peacefully on the shore. The procession is taking a well-deserved lunch break before Toppe again takes the floor and talks about the next item on the program. Before setting up camp the course participants will drive into the inner fjord to Von Postbreen.
But there are many hazards that must be reviewed before that happens. What can happen at a glacier is one thing, safe travel in a frozen fjord is another and a third is what one needs to know if something unforeseen should happen.
"Your job as a guide is to save lives if something should occur," Toppe says, among many other things during the chat. "Through notification to the rescue agency you get other folks in to keep them alive, after you have saved lives."
Toppe has worked at Spitsbergen Travel in Svalbard for five to six years. Not too many years ago, guide training was down for the count with few signs of life. That has changed.
"Visit Svalbard has done much to get this up and going again," Toppe says. "Personally, I have been involved because I want us to have a great deal of guide training. It helps to make the trips as secure as possible, and not least to show outwardly that we have things under control. It shows seriousness."
Should there be a statutory requirement for formal qualification of guides?
"No, I think it is okay with a system today," Toppe says. "Statutory requirements are often accompanied by organizations and large expenses for players who are not so large. As long as the industry shows the authorities that they are serious, I think this works."
After receiving information about various hazards, and taking part in back-and-forth discussion, the group proceeds out onto the ice at Tempelfjorden. Just a few meters out, an initial check is made of the ice conditions. Having ascertained the ice is more than 30 centimeters thick, the ice axe is laid into place again. The same check performed several times on the way towards the glacier front.
Guides with real experience in the most demanding of conditions is something many tourists are about concerned about, the course leaders says.
"Many people ask us about what it takes to become a guide in Svalbard," he says. "Then I tell them about the background I have personally and about the system we have for providing courses for guides in Svalbard. I certainly have an impression that it is appreciated by the visitors."
A starting point
The procession of future guides is disappearing into the distance on the ice at Tempelfjorden. When the glacier front can be seen at a safe distance, it is time to set up camp. During the coming two days, knowledge will be obtained and digested in full during the evenings.
"At the beginning we have a lot of open dialogue about issues," Toppe says. "Eventually, when we get into subjects such as bear guard duty, tripwires, and the basics of glaciers and avalanches it becomes more solution-oriented."
He says he believes it is important to emphasize guide education offers only a starting point.
"It is intended as a basis for the participants so that they can continue to acquire knowledge on their own," Toppe says. "The idea is that the learning process will continue even after the course is finished."
Translated by Mark Sabbatini