Teens chill out in Europe’s toughest polar training regime

Bathgate pupils on the Polar Academy expedition to Greenland
Bathgate pupils on the Polar Academy expedition to Greenland
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A former special forces soldier is teaching school pupils life-changing Polar Academy survival skills in what has been described as Europe’s toughest youth training programme.

Scott Graham, who lectures in exercise and physiology, prepared teenagers from Bathgate Academy who currently feature in a BBC Scotland documentary about their exploits in the Arctic.

Pupils from Bell Baxter High School in Cupar undergo extreme climate training for their Polar Academy trip to Greenland in April 2020. Picture Scott Louden

Pupils from Bell Baxter High School in Cupar undergo extreme climate training for their Polar Academy trip to Greenland in April 2020. Picture Scott Louden

Graham, who spent over ten years with the Royal Marines then the Special Forces, runs cold weather preparation packages which teach pupils how to survive in sub-zero temperatures, what clothing and equipment to use and how to recognise the symptoms and effects of hypothermia.

He is currently putting a group of teenagers aged between 13 and 16 from Bell Baxter High School in Cupar, Fife, who are the latest recruits to the Polar Academy, through their paces.

The charity aims to help young people in Scotland combat chronic anxiety and lack of self-esteem by becoming role models to their peers.

Graham said: “We have an environmental chamber which in effect is a large fridge.

“Last week I had 20 kids and parents in the chamber on separate sessions for the Polar Academy preparing them to go to Greenland.

“I’ve just started the cold weather preparation with them. I teach them about hypothermia and how to combat it with all the skills and drills needed to stay safe.

“Each group spends about 18 minutes in the chamber which is long enough for them to be cold and it does give them a limited exposure to cold weather.

“The theory behind it is we teach them what happens to their bodies so they recognise it and then we give them an introduction into what it’s like to be cold – so they can match the theoretical and the practical.”

Graham said the teenagers at the Polar Academy go through a “life-changing” experience that is “not just a slogan”.

He added: “They’re doing something that young people from those areas will never get to do but it’s not about just taking them there and giving them a holiday.

“To get to Greenland they have to go through a whole selection process, they have to give presentations to other kids and they have to grow and mature.

“They also have to show teamwork and that’s the big one in the modern world –you’re actually seeing young people grow significantly.

“They come back and they change within a couple of months and people realise the experience they’ve been on is something special.”

The Polar Academy was set up in 2013 by Craig Mathieson, who has worked closely with teachers over the last six years to identify what he calls “invisible” youths. To date, more than 70,000 teenagers have been “engaged and inspired” by the charity.

Mathieson said: “The Arctic is a stunning yet also unforgiving environment. For any expedition to operate safely and successfully in the cold of Greenland, it’s very important for all of the Polar Academy participants to understand how the fierce winds and piercing cold can affect an individual’s physical and mental performance.

“This is where Scott Graham’s practical research, including the use of a cold chamber at Edinburgh Napier University to simulate Arctic conditions, is invaluable.

“Within the cold chamber and subsequent talks from Scott, the expedition team – and their parents – learn the importance of teamwork and looking after your buddy in extremely cold environments.

“Scott’s involvement with the Polar Academy is hugely beneficial to the charity and our young expedition teams. I am confident that the ongoing study by Scott at Edinburgh Napier University will provide a solid body of evidence that demonstrates how the Polar Academy’s approach helps young people to overcome challenges to become physically and mentally stronger.”