Author, photographer, historian, tour leader, expedition guide and assistant expedition leader (AEL). Sandra Walser captures a huge range of experience and knowledge and brings it to her many roles in the expedition industry. Her calm and methodical approach (might be a Swiss thing) to all things guiding firmly cement her as a guest, staff and crew favourite.
Sandra takes sometime out of a Swiss state archive, where she's currently working, to tell us a little about her journey to living and working in the polar expedition industry. Thanks Sandra!
Tell us about yourself.
My name is Sandra Walser and I grew up in Switzerland, where I am still based today. My grandparents lived in the Alps, and it was there – on the Great Aletsch Glacier – where my passion for snow, ice and rugged mountain scenery was born.
What is your current role in the expedition industry?
I started working as an expedition guide in the 2008/09 Southern season. Now, I am a bit of an allrounder, the roles depend on the destination and the operator. In Antarctica, I work for Antarctica21, mainly as Cruise Manager/AEL as well as a consultant off-season. Up North, I am currently with G Adventures as lecturer and German translator. Furthermore, a polar travel agency regularly hires me as a tour guide – a role that many expedition guides smile at. However, it is actually quite a tough one! The expectations of your guests are high and your relationship with them is usually immediate. If the trip runs smoothly, it is a relatively easy job, but if things do not go as expected, you need to deal with pressure coming from both your guests and the ship side. Nevertheless, I find it extremely valuable to regularly work as a tour guide and to experience an operation through passengers eyes.
What's your background?
I hold a Master degree in History and Film Studies. I have been working in communication and event management, but since quite a while, expedition ships are my home for 4 to 6 months a year. Back in Switzerland, I freelance as project manager. I am also a keen photographer and writer, having published various articles, a polar photography companion as well as non-fiction book on a visionary cruise to Spitsbergen which took place more than 120 years ago.
How did you get your start in the industry?
Ever since childhood I dreamed about traveling to the polar regions, a picture book about two siblings living in the Arctic sparked this strong interest. After receiving my university degree, I cleared out my bank account for a trip to Iceland and Greenland. Of course, I caught the notorious polar bug immediately. But without a penny left, the only way to come back was in a working capacity. I persistently applied as an expedition photographer to various companies, got the chance to be an artist in residence for Hurtigruten, and one thing led to the other … Since 2019, I am a PTGA-certified Senior Polar Guide.
Describe a “normal” day for you at work?
As said, I work in multiple roles. They seem to differ a lot, but in the end, they come down to this: Once you leave your cabin, you are “on” to add another day to your guests trip of a lifetime. The position of Cruise Manager/AEL additionally involves quite some paperwork and coordination efforts, and if something goes wrong, you are among those having to deal with the complaints. Outdoors, the roles within the expedition team somewhat blend, it is all about guiding and interpreting. As Cruise Manager/AEL, I focus a bit more on observing, always having the big picture in mind. As lecturer, there is a stronger educational aspect to my interaction with guests. I very much appreciate the chance of being able to jump between roles.
What’s your favourite expedition destination?
That is a tricky question! If I was forced to choose one last trip, South Georgia would probably win. This place simply blows my mind every time. However, in regards to exploration history (and polar bears, of course), Svalbard is my runner up, and when it comes to landscapes, it is Northeast Greenland. Probably like most guides, I absolutely love exploring places I have never been before.
What aspect of guiding are you most passionate about?
It is the moments I manage to catch people’s genuine interest in something nerdy! For example, I am really into the historic remains of fox traps which can be found all over Spitsbergen. I have rebuilt the three sticks used for the trigger and people can actually try themselves to make the mechanism work. That is when history becomes hands-on and captivating. Another example would be the pieces of dark rock in Smeerenburg on Spitsbergen with a texture resembling asphalt. No-one really cares about them. But if you point them out and explain that they fell off from the 16th century blubber ovens in the area, as a conglomerate of sand, gravel and 400 year old whale oil, people start to ask questions and become fascinated by the barren place.
What aspect of polar photography do you enjoy most?
I very much enjoy focusing on one thing, to wait for a good visual “story” and to eventually capture some of the magic that I associate with the polar regions. “Stories” can be found in all kinds of shapes, colours, in light as well as in shadow, and the magic often lies in something totally ordinary.
What advice do you have for those heading to the polar regions to photograph?
You will be overwhelmed and will feel the urge to constantly push the shutter release. However, take your time to experience each location with your eyes and heart BEFORE doing so through the lens of your camera! Store the scenery, the animals, the noises, the smell on your very own “inner hard-drive”. The pictures you take afterwards will be much more emotional and rewarding, “interpreted by the camera”, so to speak.
Knowing what you know now, what would you tell yourself starting out?
Surprisingly enough, by being passionate, persistent (and yes, maybe a bit naïve as well) and by constantly educating myself, I seem to have done the right things.
What is the thing that surprised you most about guiding?
The people I meet, both guides and guests. And I am still surprised that I somehow managed to no longer excessively freak out when plan plans change from A to Z. (laughs)
What has guiding and working in the polar regions taught you about yourself?
I have realised the importance of always being myself and to manage my energies – which obviously made it necessary to first find out where my limits are.
How do you manage your energy levels on board?
It definitely starts with saying “no” to long contracts. The perception of “long” is different for each person. While some of my colleagues are perfectly capable of working for 3 months in a row without losing focus, my perfect slot is around 6 to 8 weeks. The fact that guides work full-on, 7 days a week with no time off, constantly in the front line and little privacy is probably the hardest thing about the job for me. I am a bit of a perfectionist, and I push myself to always be as fresh, approachable and vigilant as possible. Thus, my first contract, which lasted three months, was simply horrible in that respect! I felt tired as hell after only a couple of weeks. Today I can maintain my energy levels much better by managing rest and sleep according to my needs and by accepting “bad” days for what they are. However, It took me quite a while to learn to purposely skip a sociable evening at the bar or to miss the chance to witness a magic moonrise.
Can you recommend any tips for living and thriving on board?
Again, listen to yourself and your body. Cherish the friendships you find with Staff and Crew, they will make the ship your home far away from home. Last but not least: Bring neodymium hooks! There are never enough hooks around on a ship! (laughs)
What skills/ knowledge do you rate the most important for your fellow guides?
To me, my fellow guides’ soft skills and their modesty, combined with the ability to blend in a team count much more than their knowledge. “Teamwork makes the dream work” might be an oldie, but a goodie! Some of my biggest learning moments from my time in the industry did arise from teamwork and team building situations.
For those looking to join the industry, what advice would you give?
Try to gain as much guiding-related experience and destination knowledge as you can. Attend specific courses offered by providers such as the EGA. Work on yourself. Apply. And once you are in, do not be scared of the experience you will discover with many of your colleagues. Everyone has started small! Learn from them (and your mistakes) and do not try to compete just to be “cool”, you might end up somewhere far outside your comfort zone, putting yourself or others at risk.
For those looking to continue advancing their current expedition career, what advice would you give?
Never stop learning, do not take anything for granted, do not forget the moment you experienced either the Arctic or Antarctica for the first time.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years time?
To be honest, I do not know. I simply trust that whatever happens, will happen for a good reason. Yes, as a polar guide you work hard and you have to sacrifice certain things. But the job is also based on the privilege that your friends and family back home accept what you do and you can rely on their support. Those people will always be my priority. I definitely hope to still work in the field 10 years from now, maybe not as long as today, but combined with a remote consulting or training position throughout the year. I would love to make my experience useful to others.
What future trends do you think guides need to consider?
We work in an industry that is growing rapidly. This challenges conservation efforts, which I consider an important aspect of and motivation for our job. It will get more and more important choosing your employer not only for the money but also for the company’s efforts in regards to sustainability as well as Staff training and Staff development. Furthermore, there is a professionalisation happening within the expedition cruising industry, so we need to be proactive in regards to certifications and similar new requirements.
If you could bring anyone on an expedition to Antarctica with you, who would it be and why?
It would be Swiss painter Hans Beat Wieland. He died in 1945, so we obviously never met, but somehow, there is a deep connection. In 1896, at the age of 29, he managed to travel to Spitsbergen as one of the first polar tourists. My book I introduced earlier is about this particular trip, based on Wieland’s drawings and travel diary which is filled with precise observations and good humour. I would love to show him Antarctica and to see his artistic interpretation of it.
If you could have been on any expedition ever?
My favourite expedition is Salomon August Andrée’s ill-fated North Pole Expedition of 1897. For obvious reasons, I would not want to jump in the balloon that headed towards 90° N from Spitsbergen’s Danskøya. However, I would love to be part of the team that made this crazy expedition possible!