It is freezing cold in the air. At the end of Isdammen, a group of students from The University Centre in Svalbard are standing. Their snowmobile suits are warm, but soon the students will be swimming in the brash ice.
One student has been in the water for a while. She calls for help as other students are preparing rescue equipment. After four minutes, she is picked up securely. She is soaked and in a moment the water will turn into ice. Some tear off her outer clothes while others ready a Jerven bag, a mattress pad, a sleeping bag and an aluminum bag that reflects body heat.
"If you can't do anything within a minute's time you begin to have problems with low body temperature. Had you been in there ten minutes you wouldn't be able to get yourself out," says Stein Simenstad, an instructor as he watches to ensure the student is attended to using a wrapping technique know as Hibler's method.
"Your snowsuit is full of water, you are heavy and the cold water makes your body no longer responsive to signals, so you have no physical strength anymore," he said.
All of the students will go into the icy water and experience what it is. That's the best way of learning, according to UNIS safety officials, who spent all of last week conducting safety courses for students and new employees. About 120 went for a dip in the water during the winter course.
"I think it is important that people get to know a little about it and get to experience how ruthless it is up here," said Simenstad, who has also worked as a tour guide and spent more than 20 years in the military. "If you end up in the sea and it is two to four degrees there is little time. It is one thing to tell people in the classroom that it is dangerous to fall into the sea, that can be understood academically, but they have no ability to understand what happens to them in the cold water."
More than 500
Some of the students are struggling and working fiercely to get out. That can't manage it and, as they try, their snowmobile suits get heavier with water and sap them of strength. It therefore helps to have an ice pick so it is possible to get themselves out of the water.
"Take the other one," Simenstad orders. "Come on! Up with your left foot!"
Fred Skancke Hansen is responsible for safety at UNIS, and therefore also responsible for ensuring all students and staff have safety training so they know how to get out of such situations. And, more importantly, how to avoid getting into them.
"All our students go through safety courses of varying lengths," he said. "We have in excess of 500 students this year. In addition, there are many workers associated with projects."
The winter course covers all risks in Svalbard during the season and is the longest safety course at UNIS. In addition, courses are tailored for different professional groups throughout the season.
Markus Richter from Germany participated in a safety course last fall. But because he is a student this semester he must take the entire winter course as well. Swimming in the brash ice is a new experience, and he closely follows his fellow students as one by one they struggle through the encounter and attempt to come up on dry land. Some are doing relatively well. Others need help.
"It is important to have been involved in this," he says before it is his turn. "Many people are lacking the experience."
During the course he has learned about glaciers and rescues on them, landslide and avalanche dangers, ice activity and conducting sea ice rescues. The latter in particular is becoming more relevant because the sea ice is thinning as the temperature rises. Safety margins are also considerably smaller during an emergency in Svalbard than on the mainland.
The students now in the water have been there for four to seven minutes and are not able to come up unassisted. They're soaked to skin and their snowmobile suits, which are normally two kilograms, now weigh 30. Simenstad has them firmly attached to a safety rope and, with the help of two other safety instructors, follows them closely.
But even with training and experience, things can can go wrong. Less than a year ago a student fell into a 25-meter-deep crevasse while trying to ascend Nordenskiöldtoppen. Rescuers said the student, who has studied glaciology extensively, was lucky to survive.
"Glacier safety has certainly been highlighted with somewhat more emphasis during this course," says Hansen, adding last year's incident has resulted in an increased focus on attitude.
"We are experiencing that from time to time that, although things are discussed in the safety course, people are still choosing to expose themselves to risk," he says. "That is about attitude and risk acceptance. We have a map showing exactly where to find crevasses and landslide areas surrounding the city, but there have been students who have been involved in similar incidents up there before."
"I feel that the people are more and more aware that this is potentially dangerous," he adds. "Considering the significant increase in volume we've had, we've had a negligible number of small accidents. The accidents happening are often happening with students in their spare time."
Colder than expected
In Isdammen, Richter has just brought himself out of the water. Wet and cold, he is quickly brought into an awaiting snowcat. An auxiliary heater inside the vehicle provides warmth.
"For someone who has never done it before, it was strange to swim in the brash ice," says Richter, who had difficulty finding the ice pick in his pocket and then using it with his mittens on to get out. "You don't sink that quickly, but I had to push the ice away to be able to swim through. It was difficult to come up on the other side, especially when my snowmobile suit got heavier after a few minutes."
"It was much colder than I had expected and I hope I never end up in trouble or, if that is the case, that at least I will get help," he says.
Simenstad said he is satisfied with how the students performed during the exercise.
"It is important that you have a quick plan in place and then start implementing it if you come into such a situation," he says. "We say that for one minute you have control over yourself, in ten minutes you must resolve the situation and after one hour you're dead of hypothermia."