In The Realm Of The Polar Bear: Arctic Guide Mirko Chiappini

arctic guide chiappini
Photo courtesy of Mirko Chiappini.

Our interview with the first Italian arctic nature guide

The first thing he told me when I got him on the phone was I’ll be out of calling range for a while, you know, I’ll be on a ship for ten days”. This already says a lot about Mirko Chiappini, born in Frosinone 31 years ago and professional arctic guide in the most remote islands of Europe, Svalbard, an iced Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean.

Nature lover and passionate about any kind of outdoor activities such as rock climbing, mountaineering, skiing, caving and paragliding, he discovers Norway during his Erasmus in Oslo, where he studied Physical Education and Sports Sciences. The High North quickly takes roots in his psyche, so he decides to keep exploring Scandinavia until he lands in Longyearbyen, in 2012.

Here, Mirko becomes the first Italian to major as Arctic Nature Guide and immediately starts work. It goes without saying that he falls in love with the winter weather of the island, enough to convince him to spend the cold season there for six years running. However, his heart is split in half, as he shares the passion for the mountains with his girlfriend Martina, with whom he explores the Arctic, but also the Appennines and the Alps when they get back to Italy.

Mirko, when we first talked you immediately told us that your life path is based on a passion dating back over fifteen years: how and why did you become an arctic guide?

It all began when I was fourteen, when I saw a rope for the first time. I knew straightaway that it was an instrument which could make me feel free. From that day many things have happened, all linked to nature and especially to the mountains. My current job as arctic guide is just an example. Rope, ski and paraglider affected and gave meaning to my choices. Thus, eight years ago I found myself on Erasmus in Oslo, where I finished school in Physical Education and wrote a thesis about Outdoor Education. Then, I was already halfway to the Arctic and, two years later, I went to Longyearbyen, in my intense desire to ski in wide-open spaces.

From Frosinone to Svalbard, there’s a whole world of difference. How did you take the final decision to move a stone’s throw from the North Pole?

It’s true. From Frosinone to Svalbard it’s a long road. However, there aren’t many differences for me, as what really matters is the mountains and I have them in both places. In addition, I juggle Svalbard, the Appenines and the Alps. These venues are not mutually exclusive, because I can always cultivate my passion for mountaineering and, in general, for outdoor life.

Norway and Italy are not mutually exclusive, because I can always cultivate my passion for outdoor life

Your work has definitely brought you to live memorable experiences and see unique places. Tell us about two moments that stuck with you.

It’s hard to say, as I had hundreds of memorable experiences. Certainly, the most beautiful moments are those relating to the joy of my clients and to the encounters with the King of the Arctic – i.e. the polar bear. Of course, the most excitement you get is when these two things occur at the same moment, a mix of joy, curiosity, fear, sense of responsibility for both me and my clients. During those moments you feel indispensable.

As an arctic guide, do you see any concrete effect of global warming?

It’s been six years since I started working in the Arctic and, to be honest, I wouldn’t say I’ve seen or perceived events directly linked to global warming. Though, I can safely say that I’ve noticed a distinct change in the weather. Everything seems to be more extreme: the rain, the snow, the wind, the hot and the cold days. The weather changes seem to be sharper and, sometimes, unpredictable.

A glance at your typical day in Longyearbyen: how are daily life and leisure time like in such a remote and icy land?

Life in Longyearbyen is not so different compared with other more ‘conventional’ places: here, you can lead a pretty normal life. The upside is that, if you wish, you can have a special and adventurous life, in complete symbyosis with nature. My typical day starts in the morning, one hour before meeting my clients, when I prepare everything I need for the expedition: I check the weather and the avalanche bulletin, plan the stuff out and control the weapon. After that, I meet the clients, so we go on trip to come back at night, when I clean and prepare everything for the next day. When there’s no work, I explore new places on my own. I can go skiing, on the snowmobile or with my paraglider to fly on the mountains around the town.

Skiing and kayaking expedition in the Svalbard

What do you love the most about Svalbard and why is it worth visiting?

For sure, end of winter/early spring is my favorite time of the year, as there are usually excellent conditions for skiing and snowmobiling. During those days, the most beautiful things are the wide-open spaces and a boundless white sea that touches your soul. The purity of those landscapes regenerates any part of your mind. The islands are worth visiting because it’s still real tourism, where emotions are not constructed, as there is still room for adventure and for a strong bond with nature.

Something unique and essential about your origins that you always carry with you? In what ways has Norway changed you forever, instead?

What I bring with me about my background is definitely the felxibility and the capacity to adapt, both very useful in several unplanned situations. The natural Italian friendliness is also crucial when you work in close contact with a lot of people. Norway changed me in the sense of a healtier and more aware contact with nature, a bond that they pass on to the next generation at an early age.

Too many Italians already found their place abroad

What do you think about Italy today? Do you feel more the physical or the cultural distance from your home country?

I see a lethargic, lazy country, where there’s no room for dreams. It looks like the kids, afraid of flopping, are too busy following a well-beaten path. A fear of failure that leaves no room for new projects and innovation. I’m hoping for a more meritocratic Italy, finally open to mistakes, especially for young people. Too many Italians already found their place abroad.

Finally, I ask you the usual question: what do you miss the most about Italy?

I spend a lot of time in Italy, so I don’t miss many things from home. However, when I find myself at minus twenty degrees eating freeze-dired food, I cannot hide that my mind goes to the table of my house and to those beautiful family meals. I couldn’t do without both things and, at the end, the passion for mountains is made of contrasts: the good and the bad weather, the bone-chilling cold of the glaciers and the warm sun on the flower meadows, the efforts on the way up and the joy on the way down, the strenuous labor and the long rests waiting for the fine weather.

So, would you move back in the future?

Of course! I love the Alps and the Appennines, so it would be a dream come true to acquaint people all over the world with our beautiful mountains.

The incredible Svalbard Islands, black and white