Monday, 20 January 2014

Back to the edge of the world

I (Ribanna) arrived back in Longyearbyen on the 8th after spending an entire night at Oslo airport so that the first day consisted of unpacking and sleeping only. All the new students arrived within the next 4 days as of 13th of January there was the mandatory safety course we had to attend for being allowed to stay the spring semester.
Before the course started, I joined an exciting scooter trip to Cole's Bay which is only about one hour away from here (by scooters). Cole's Bay is an old Russian settlement which is abandoned since the 1960's. In the dark, a very creepy place, but quite cool and interesting at the same time. I have never sat on a scooter before and midway between here and Cole's Bay, I was allowed to take over. Such great fun to drive these scooters. The trip itself was also amazing, we had 1-2 quite tense situation when the scooters came very close to the cliff and/or a scooter got stuck in deeper snow, but after getting out of these situation, there was just happiness running through your body ;) We spent the night in an old Russian cabin which was really cozy.
Figure 1: Russian cabin in Cole's Bay (Credits: Maxi Claussen)
                                           Figure 2: Inside the cabin

                                        Figure 3,4,5: Inside some of the abandoned, Russian buildings

The safety course was pretty exhausting but good fun at the same time. We learned what the risks are being up here in the winter and spring season. This included first aid, glacier rescue, rifle handling, navigation and communication, HSE and administration stuff, emergency camp, sea ice properties and rescue and avalanche rescue.
The first aid course consisted of basic first aid plus what to do in the cold and how to wrap up victims properly to save them from hypothermia. The most entertaining part was probably when we learned how to treat deep, open wounds: For this reason, the lecturers supplied some big pieces of pork in which they injected fake blood und kept it pumping so that we could learn how to detect the open blood vessels and how to stop the bleeding (by stuffing with bandage material).
                                                                Figure 6: Stuffing real pork's fake blood

In the glacier rescue we learned the dangers of glaciers (e.g. moulins and crevasses especially in the dark season with new snow as they might be covered) and how to abseil and rescue victims that might have fallen deep into a crevasse. During the emergency camp lessons, we had to set up an emergeny tent, trip wires and emergency stoves which is necessary if there are severe accidents and you would have to persevere hours or even days until a helicopter would be able to get to you. During the Sea Ice Properties session we learned how to access unknown areas of sea ice and also - probably the part most people might have heard about - how to get out of the freezing water in scooter suits which we actually practised in an ice hole near Longyearbyen. I did both parts, rescue another victim in a survival suit and getting out by myself. The suits suck the water up pretty quickly so that they get really heavy. The only aid you have to pull yourself out of the water are small ice picks. The water was icecold but luckily, the air temperatures were pretty high that day so that we didn't freeze too much.
                                                               Figure 7: The ice blocks cut out for our wee ice hole
                                                    Figure 8: Getting suited up for the rescue
                                                     Figure 9: In the water to rescue a victim
                                                    Figure 10: How to set up a "snow angle" for abseiling into a crevasse

For me, the tensest session, however, was the avalanche rescue. After we learned theoretically how avalanches form and when and where to be most careful, we went outside to practise using beacons and probes to find potential victims in an avalanche and how to dig them out most efficiently. It was the most interesting and exciting thing to do but at the same time, you are aware of the real dangerousness of the situation: Basically you have 10 minutes to find and dig out the victims. We really became aware of how important it is carry a beacon with you all the time.

On saturday we had the final practical exercise which meant that we were sent out to Longyearbreen, a glacier right behind Nybyen, where 4 stations were set up. At each station, we had to run through different scenarios, i.e. scooter mobile or crevasse accidents, emergency camp set-up and avalanche rescue. As it was pretty stormy and windy that day, conditions were very realistic, even though it wasn't too cold. Students that have stayed here last semester were appointed to lead the groups through all week and also this day, leadership was most important.
We managed to have different leaders for each situation, depending on who feels most comfortable about it. I have to admit that it is a hard job to control a group of people in stormy and very stressful conditions. It is hard to keep a clear head and track of what is going on. However, a lot of us were put into these situations so that a lot of people got to know how hard this job is even if you are not necessarily physically working. It is pretty much like keeping young children in check....just add a huge portion of seriousness, yelling and stress.
But still, it is great to learn these things as they make you aware of where you are and even more give you the chance to have enjoyable trips being on the safe side.
After the practical exercise, we were driven back to university to write an exam about the safety course week which was then rewarded with chili con carne and beer for all of us. Today we have had the first day of lectures. I am taking the Biology module "Arctic Environmental Management" which is all about the Svalbard Treaty, politics, environmental issues, pollution etc. The other module I have chosen for this semester is Geophysics "Sea-Ice-Air Interactions" covering all about sea-ice, its formation, its structure, its distribution etc. I already enjoyed the first lectures and can't wait for this semester to start properly.
We will have a cruise and several daytrips, but also privately, I am planning on having another amazing, incredible and unforgettable semester up in the Arctic!

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