THEY have endured ten days of freezing temperatures, strenuous treks and sledging.
For while ten Edinburgh school pupils could have been at home catching up with friends and eating Easter eggs over the holidays, they were in Greenland, undertaking a gruelling 100km Arctic expedition.
The plucky teenagers from St Augustine’s, Liberton, Gracemount, Forrester and Tynecastle high schools were welcomed back to Scotland last week by their proud families who stood in the airport arrivals hall eagerly awaiting them.
The group embarked on the “once in a lifetime opportunity” with the Polar Academy, a charity set up in 2013 by expedition leader Craig Mathieson, with the aim of inspiring Scotland’s youth through exploration.
Mr Mathieson, 47, from Bo’ness, was named in 2013 by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society as Scotland’s first explorer in residence, and is a veteran of several successful expeditions to both the North and South Pole.
Throughout their expedition, the teenagers experienced temperatures as low as minus 25C, saw the Northern Lights and tasted a traditional Inuit dish of raw narwhal skin.
It was amazing, breathtaking, challenging and hugely rewarding. Every day brought new experiences and challenges.Julia Sanderson
Nathan Stewart, 15, a pupil at St Augustine’s said: “I feel more confident now that I’ve done this. It’s a big deal as it was a big challenge out there – more mentally than physically.
“It’s strange that when you’re out there you kind of miss things, like technology.
“I felt a bit homesick and missed things like my phone and Facebook, but at the same time I didn’t want to leave.” He added: “The Inuit people we saw were so friendly – they were always smiling.”
The pupils, all aged between 15 and 17, underwent months of tough physical training before embarking on the trip.
They played an active role in navigating across sea ice, learned how to set up camps and how to track through remote mountain passes on cross-country skis.
Each pupil burned at least 3000 calories a day as they conducted scientific field research on ice samples as they trekked from Tasiilaq to Tiniteqilaaq before returning back to Tasiilaq.
Mr Mathieson said: “I’m so proud of the whole group. Throughout the expedition, all ten pupils have shown tremendous grit and determination and worked really well as a team.
“Over these ten days and during the months of hard physical training, they have all grown in confidence and I’m sure now know what can be achieved with determination and hard work.
“By taking that first step with the Polar Academy, each has broken the mould to realise that life really can get better.
“They are ordinary pupils who have achieved the extraordinary and the living, breathing proof that dreams are attainable. Huge thanks to all of the organisations which have contributed to helping give these pupils a truly life changing experience.”
The pupils will now be tasked with relating their personal experiences to peer groups in Edinburgh schools with the aim of inspiring thousands of other kids across Edinburgh and Scotland.
Julia Sanderson, from Gracemount High, celebrated her 17th birthday on the trip.
She said: “It was amazing, breathtaking, challenging and hugely rewarding. Every day brought new experiences and challenges.
“We had a huge day skiing over a glacier. At night it was minus 25C but during the day we were putting on factor 50 sunscreen.”
The Polar Academy needs to raise £170,000 for each of its annual expeditions, made possible by the input of a number of individuals and organisations, including Chris Tiso, chief executive of the outdoor retail specialist Tiso Group and a founding supporter of the charity. Bergans of Norway, Edinburgh City Council, Cornhill Building Services and private donors also support the charity.