Arctic Adventures in Svalbard with BSES

by Lucy Dickinson

Large male polar bear

Large male polar bear

I have just returned from a ten week trip providing medical support to a BSES (British Schools Exploring Society) Expedition to Svalbard. BSES is a youth development charity that aims to provide young people with inspirational, challenging scientific expeditions to remote, wild environments and so develop their confidence, teamwork, leadership and spirit of adventure and exploration. It was founded in 1932 by George Murray Levick who was a member of Captain Scott’s last expedition. The name, “BSES”, is a bit of a misnomer as they don’t just work with school children. There were 15 young people aged 18 to 23 on this trip from varying backgrounds. Most had worked for many months to raise the funds necessary for the trip and a few received charitable grants. As well as the 15 young people there were 7 leaders including myself. Most of the leader team worked on a voluntary basis and paid a small amount towards their expenses. The aims of the expedition were to learn how to survive in the extreme cold, to complete scientific research in the fields of Geography and Biology, to develop mountaineering skills and to simply adventure in this beautiful wilderness.


Svalbard is an Archipelago in the Arctic Ocean around midway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. We arrived there at the beginning of April to find a pristeen white wilderness with temperatures around –20 C. The sun dipped down a little in the first few weeks but for most of our time there we had bright sunshine right through the night. Our first task on arrival was to learn how to shoot a rifle in order to protect ourselves from possible attack by one of the three thousand polar bears living on these islands. We also learned how to construct a flare fence around our tents to ward off bears while we slept. And then, after careful packing, we set off from civilisation not to see a toilet, shower or bed, amongst other creature comforts, for the next 10 weeks. We travelled on skis pulling sledges called pulks that were to carry all our gear and, in my case, a comprehensive medical kit. Some of the young people had barely slept in a tent before let alone put one up and survive in it at –25 C so the first few days were a real challenge. There was a high risk of cold injuries at this time but, despite a few cases of frost nip, we managed to avoid any frostbite.

So after learning to survive in the arctic environment we went on to complete some scientific research in the fields of glaciology and biology and to do some mountaineering and adventuring. Highlights for me included ice climbing, building an igloo, sleeping in a snow hole, exploring an ice cave, summiting arctic peaks, crossing the frozen sea and then watching it break up as the temperature rose, visiting the impressive cliffs of a carving glacier and learning some winter mountaineering skills. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to fulfil one of my lifetime ambitions to see a polar bear in the wild but we were regularly reminded of their presence by their huge footprints. In the early stages of the trip the only wildlife we saw were reindeer and ptarmigan but as the winter turned to spring it was a treat to see huge numbers of birds returning to this rich feeding ground as well as seals, walrus, Beluga whales and arctic foxes.

I was fortunate not to have to deal with any major medical problems on this trip. The majority of expedition members experienced chilblains to varying degrees. Some had a large number of ulcerated sores that required regular dressings. Other medical problems consisted mainly of musculoskeletal injuries and simple infections. It was interesting to learn more about prevention and management of cold injuries as well as the difficulties of keeping the medical kit functioning in the extreme cold.

BSES run expeditions of varying lengths and with different age groups to the Arctic, the Amazon and the Himalayas and are always looking for staff who can offer their time and skills to provide young people with the opportunity for personal development as well as a fantastic experience and adventure. As a leader it is also a great opportunity to visit an exciting location, learn new skills, practice medicine in a challenging environment and have the rewarding experience of working with young people.

To find out more about BSES visit their website www.bses.org.uk

Find out more about the Polar Medicine Course in northern Norway

Expedition and Wilderness Medicine

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