Thousands of young people leave the UK every year for a few weeks to travel to remote parts of the world on school trekking and educational expeditions run by private companies and charities. In fact, the UK is probably the world leader in this field, maybe because we are an island nation and travelling and exploring the world is deeply rooted in our history. Taking a group of teenagers to expedition and camp in the Arctic in winter however is unique to The Polar Academy charity.
The Scottish based charity is the brainchild of Craig Mathieson it’s founder and CEO. Craig is also the Explorer in Residence at the Scottish Royal Geographical Society and led the first Scottish expedition to the South Pole in 2004 and a few years later led an expedition to the North pole which included a 16-year-old boy. That expedition laid the foundation for The Polar Academy, demonstrating the potential that young people can achieve if there are no financial barriers, they have family support, and appropriate training and equipment. The Charity was set up in 2013 and the first expedition with 10 young people from state schools in North Lanarkshire went to Greenland in the winter of 2015.
The small team that manages the charity work tirelessly with patrons and sponsors to raise the funds for the annual programme, often identifying with the experiences of the young people the charity aims to help.
The participants, usually more girls than boys are aged 14 -17 years come from the state school sector. Whilst they all have the potential, they are not generally the high achieving sporty pupils nor pupils at the other end of spectrum, for which other initiatives already exist to help them manage their behaviour. Nor is participation based on personal funding.
The programme specifically targets those invisible teenagers, often struggling through the rigours of school life as well as challenging life changing events; surviving without recognition, and without ever truly realising their full potential. Virtually all have experienced 24/7 bullying face to face and through the mobile phone which has often crushed their confidence, resilience and self-belief. Anti-bullying and supporting mental health are corner stones of the charity.
The current expeditions take 10 pupils and a teacher from each of two schools. The 2022 expedition took a total of 30 young people and staff to East Greenland, one of the largest winter Arctic expeditions to ever leave Scotland. The charity has an expedition base in Tasiilaq, the only town on the entire east coast of Greenland just a 2-hour flight from Iceland. The staff team are all used to working with young people and includes 2 doctors, along with female and male leaders with significant outdoor teaching back grounds as well as polar and other expedition experience.
The expedition is the culmination of a year’s, selection and training for the participants who on return are required to each inspire several thousand more young people by giving talks around other schools and organisations. The general principle is that the young often have a much greater impact inspiring their peers than seasoned old explorers. Public speaking in front of others is a huge ask for the young people at the start of the programme, but it is part of their training. Following the expedition, they have plenty of pictures and a personal story to tell and they do this eloquently and confidently. That is their obligation for the opportunity to be a part of The Polar Academy and involves parental support which is also a key part of the programme from the start.
The programme also has a strong educational theme beyond the obvious physical geography, environmental and cultural aspects. The Polar Academy has linked with the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge and Oxford Universities and is collecting a range of data annually, snow density mapping, water eDNA biodiversity detection and some 3D LiDAR mapping of lichens. The data collected is being fed directly into the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) data base, accessible for scientists around the world. There is also an opportunity for a few pupils to present their data to a panel at the institute and for one or two to join the Oxford University summer school scheme each year.
The whole programme from state school selection, participant selection, the expedition and post expedition presentations run for about 18 months with a 6 month overlap with the next schools.
Schools first approach The Polar Academy, Craig then gives a presentation to the pupils and staff which starts the selection process often with 200 – 300 pupils putting themselves forward. With the help of teaching and pupil support staff this is whittled down to around 15 pupils that the charity believes it could help the most. This group goes forward to a weekend residential selection process in May at Glenmore Lodge for each pupil plus a parent or guardian. This in itself can have quite a profound impact on both family members (and the selection panel). This family support is crucial, parents often attend the physical training sessions, help keep the children motivated, often the whole family is impacted positively by the programme as they see their child grow in confidence.
Following the selection those not initially selected for the “expedition team” become a “leadership team” and go onto participate in all the weekly training sessions and prepare as though they will go to Greenland in the winter. Inevitably, one or two drop out from either team during the year but if they stay the course the leadership team experience some UK based outdoor skills training and get to go to Greenland in the summer as a part of a Greenlandic pupil exchange programme. This programme is supported by the Greenland government and the local Greenlandic community and is a first for UK.
The training involves weekly physical training sessions during term time, a visit to the cold chamber at Napier University to learn about the impact of cold on the body and how to avoid cold injuries. In the autumn there is a 5-day training event at Glenmore Lodge in the Cairngorms. Many of the young people have not camped before so a key part of this week is a 3-day camping hiking expedition learning to use the cookers, camping routine and general outdoor resilience training.
In the winter there are a series of tyre hauling days and it all culminates with an arduous day of this on the beach at St Andrews, made famous by the Chariots of Fire film of British athletes training for the 1924 Olympics. A few weeks later everyone meets at Glasgow airport.
The expedition is an experience of a lifetime for the young people, they have never experienced a true winter environment, seen the northern lights or icebergs, cross country skied, pulled a sledge, camped in winter, and survived in an environment where all water must be melted. Nor have they been parted for so long from electricity, their phones, TVs showers, etc. The temperatures are consistently below zero, generally around minus 5 to minus 10 but can go much lower at night in a spell of fine weather. However, the equipment they are provided with sponsored by Bregans of Norway, Asnes skis also from Norway and many specialist camping items from TISO are the same as those used by major Polar expeditions.
The route of the expedition travels through the mountains rather than over them, the scenery is spectacular with huge cliffs, glaciers, pointed peaks and near the coast, ice bergs are visible out at sea.
Learning to cross country ski is one of the highlights, the skis are initially tricky to control, and all the skiing is off-piste. With only the toe of the boot attached there is much amusement as everyone fights for balance and takes a few tumbles. After several days they become proficient on the flat and by the end of the trip are seriously challenging the staff on down hill runs. It is a good metaphor for how their confidence and self-belief visibly grows throughout the programme and during the expedition.
Setting up camp is very much about routine, teamwork and disciplined processes, the day doesn’t end when your tent is pitched. There is a toilet area to dig and construct a wall of around 100 large snow blocks. Cutting good blocks is an art in itself and it takes a few days to get the hang of it. More blocks are required to be diced up to go into the cooking pots. Around 5 pots of snow make 1 pot of water, a tent of 3 people requires around 9 litres of water each evening for food drink and then hot water bottles which become water for breakfast in the morning.
A bear fence must be set up around the camp – a fiddly job involving about a dozen trip wires which generally need bare hands to arm them. Polar bears are in fact extremely rare in this area but we don’t take any chances, the expedition carries fire arms and all the staff have received training in the UK.
Getting up out of the sleeping bag in the morning with the inside of the tent covered in frost is a test of motivation and discipline especially if it has snowed during the night often covering the sledges and tents. It generally takes a couple of hours to get food and water for the day sorted and pack up all the camp.
On a normal day the teams will cover around 10 miles on their skis, small steep ascents and descents require skis off and walking the sledges. Some ascents require 2 or 3 people to each sledge so leadership and team work come to the fore. Descents require careful management of people and sledges. Some descents are perfect for sitting or lying on the sledges and letting gravity do its’ thing. Steeper slopes, walking down with the sledge in front can potentially be high risk, if someone slips and lets go of their sledge it can become a 30kg missile travelling at 30mph and could cause a serious injury to anyone in its path.
Occasionally there are bad weather days which can be the most challenging for the young people, simply having to spend the whole day in their tents except to get out from time to time to cook or clear snow. A pack of cards helps, and everyone keeps a diary so it is an opportunity to catch up with that, it also helps with presentations once back in the UK. If the weather clears just a little it’s an opportunity to do some science work, develop ski skills or have an igloo building competition.
Each day one of the young people takes charge of the team, keeps an eye on the navigation and makes the decisions of the day. As the expedition progresses, jobs that the staff lead at the beginning such as navigation, cutting blocks and building the toilet gets handed over to the pupils. By the end they are a self-sufficient team, every individual full of self-belief and pride in their incredible ability and achievement.
Back in UK there are emotional scenes as they reunite with family members at the airport. A couple of weeks later there is a celebratory event and medal ceremony and then they start on their lecture circuit to inspire others to strive to reach their full potential.
“Inspiration through exploration” … The Polar Academy truly meets its ambition and aims.