Teenagers swap Edinburgh streets for Greenland trek
MILE after mile of frozen landscape, pulling heavy sledges behind them with just a tent and sleeping bag to look forward to.
For gadget-addicted teenagers who tend to struggle to get out of bed in the morning, it may well sound like torture.
But soon ten Edinburgh youngsters will be doing just that, on a life-changing expedition to the top of the world.
The pupils from five city schools are in the final stages of training for a gruelling trek that will push them to their limits, crossing 62 miles of sea ice while pulling their 45kg sledges behind them.
On the way they will camp on sea ice and eat basic rations, ski past mountains and valleys so rarely visited that no-one has even got round to giving them names, and sleep beneath the Northern Lights.
It’s intended to be an empowering expedition tough enough to change their outlook forever – injecting them with new confidence, physical power and a feeling that they can do and be whatever they want.
The ten pupils, drawn from Tynecastle, Liberton, Gracemount, Forrester and St Augustine’s high schools, will set off next month for Iceland and then on to Kulusuk, Greenland.
From there, the team flies by helicopter to Tasiilaq and the start of the start of an incredible journey to the tip of the world.
The trip is only the second of its kind organised by Bo’ness-based explorer Craig Mathieson, 46, a father-of-three and the Royal Scottish Geographical Society’s explorer in chief.
And it is inspired by his own experiences as a teenager, when he was told by a teacher that his dream of becoming an explorer was for other people. Disheartened, it was only years later and in his mid-30s that the former HMRC investigator decided he had to follow his dreams – and set up his first expedition, all the way to the South Pole.
With support from Edinburgh businessman Chris Tiso and equipment suppliers Bergans of Norway, he went on to launch the ground-breaking Polar Academy, designed to take “middle of the road” youngsters who often fly under the radar on a journey of self-discovery.
According to Craig, 46, the Capital teenagers have been warned what to expect.
“Whingeing is banned,” he says. “It’s not a school trip. It’s a real polar expedition.”
Taking part will be Chloe Hogg and Sara Michno, both 15, who are fourth-year pupils at Tynecastle High School.
They will be joined by Liberton High pupils Natasha Hoffmann and Ryan Hume, both 14; Iona Somerville, 14, and Julia Sanderson, 16, of Gracemount; Joanne Farley and Nathan Stewart, both 15, of St Augustine’s; and Forrester High pupils Gregor Whitlie, 16, and Alanna Laing, 15.
Tynecastle High School biology teacher Sam Clarke will also join the team.
The teenagers were chosen from hundreds of Edinburgh pupils after a tough process aimed at finding pupils not only best suited for the challenge but also most likely to pass on the benefits to other pupils on their return.
Craig says the key was finding pupils who are often drifting along in the education system, who might not otherwise have an opportunity to push their boundaries.
“There are three types of kids in a school,” he says. “The elite kids who go to university and the kids with chaos in their lives and lots of issues at home get a lot of attention.
“And in the middle there’s a great invisible group, not bad kids, maybe not the most academic, but they try hard. They can be quite shy, no-one notices them and they grow up thinking achievement is for other people.
“We give this middle group of kids something no-one else is doing. There’s not another project like this one.”
Tynecastle pupil Sarah, who lives with mum Beata and dad Mariusz in Wester Hailes, says she’s already seen changes in her character since being chosen for the challenge.
“Before, I was quite lazy. I’d probably just go home after school, watch movies and eat junk food,” she says.
“Now I go to the gym. I never imagined I’d be doing endurance training, pulling tyres behind me for 30 kilometres.
“The training has been harder than I thought but it’s been good, too. Now I can’t believe it’s about it happen.”
And fellow pupil Chloe, who lives in Wester Hailes with dad Darren and stepmum Laura, agrees that the challenge has already had an impact. “My fitness is improving all the time – I’ve even started gymnastics,” she says.
“I’m nervous about it all, but I wanted to go somewhere no-one else has been and see the Northern Lights.
“It’s going to be a challenge but I’ll have an amazing story to tell when I come back.”
The team will conduct a series of science experiments during the expedition. The information they gather will be shared with schools and even the European Space Agency.
And while they have been working on endurance training – pulling large tyres uphill for miles on end is just part of their training – one of their first challenges in the Arctic will be learning how to actually ski across the frozen landscape.
“I don’t think any of them have been on skis before and certainly not Nordic skis,” adds Craig. “They will spend the first couple of days just with their mouths hanging open trying to understand the scale of it.
“They will see hunting parties out on the ice, people out hunting seals to eat – there is no Tesco there.”
The pupils, supported by an expert team including a doctor, are due to set off on March 25.
• The Polar Academy expedition is supported by outdoor clothing and equipment specialists Tiso, Bergans of Norway, Edinburgh construction firm CBS Ltd and Edinburgh City Council. For more information, visit www.thepolaracademy.org.