The snow mobile season has started a few weeks ago in Spitsbergen. Some locals start already during the polar night, while most others and most tourists start their snow mobile excursions when the light comes back around mid February. The season lasts as long as snow and ice make it possible to be out, usually into the first days of May or until mid-May if it works well.
Snow mobile excursions make it possible to see amazing places which are otherwise hard to reach, if not impossible for most, but they bear their specific risks. If you don’t know the local terrain and you do not have experience with snow mobiles, then it is definitely a good idea to join a guided group. This is also the official recommendation by the Sysselmannen (governor).
Some incidents of the last couple of weeks:
In early March, tourists had to be evacuated with helicopters in two cases after having suffered fractures while falling with their snow mobiles or, rather, turning them over in uneven terrain. Both incidents happened near Sassendalen, one in the moraine of Rabotbreen and one in Brattlidalen. Both persons were members of guided groups.
On Tuesday (March 18), a man had to be airlifted with chest injuries after he had driven his snow mobile over a steep slope, falling down 6 metres. Other members of his group called the rescue forces with mobile phones, but could not provide a position as they did not exactly know where they were. The group was not guided and did not have GPS or local knowledge. The incident happened on the coast between Colesbukta and Barentsburg, a frequently used route, but with several steep slopes which are hard to see and seriously dangerous at inadequate speed.
In another case, a person went unconscious and fell from his snow mobile at low speed in Grønfjord, south of Grøndalen. First aid was given, but his life could not be saved. The information available seems to indicate a heart attack or similar medical emergency.
The first two cases indicate that accidents can naturally also happen while on tour with guided groups. But at least locally knowledgeable guides will make sure adequate speed is being used, which is especially important in case of terrain obstacles such as steep slopes which can be very difficult to see. Adequate speed is of vital importance. Guided groups also have emergency equipment including satellite phones. The mobile phone cover in Spitsbergen is unreliable or, rather, inexistent over wide areas.
For safe tours with snow mobile and ski, the following are recommended or should be considered:
Avalanche equipment (snow shovel, avalanche probe), unless you stay in clearly avalanche-safe terrain.
Local knowledge or good advice from people with local experience. GPS with digital map, spare batteries (!), and printed map and compass as a backup.
Emergency equipment. Prepare for a prolonged stay in the field in case of sudden bad weather or snow mobile breakdown. Communication equipment independent of mobile phone grid such as satellite phone and PLB. Tent, sleeping bag, isolation mattress, camping stove and fuel, extra warm clothes. Be ready to stay out for at least 24 hours in bad weather.
Rifle and other polar bear safety equipment.
Stay with an experienced person or join a guided group if you don’t have experience with snow mobiles.
Make sure you know how to deal with minor, common repairs such as exchanging the v-belt.
Snow mobiles like to break down, especially when it is most unwelcome. Consider this for any trip further away than you can walk back.
If you don’t really know the terrain: expect terrain obstacles that are difficult to see.
Observe regulations: you need helmet and driving license, zero alcohol and, for large parts of Spitsbergen, insurance cover and notification to the administration in advance. There are scooter-free areas. If you don’t know the regulations and boundaries, you have to join someone who does, such as a guided group.
This list is not complete, but it includes some important points.
Rental snow mobiles in Longyearbyen ready to go.
Source: Sysselmannen, Svalbardposten, my own experience.