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It's a long way to Ayia Napa

Reva Klein meets the teenagers who want to spend their gap year in the extreme cold and endless nights of Arctic wilderness

Ask any teenager planning a gap year what they'd like to do and it's a pretty safe bet it won't involve being plunged into round-the-clock darkness in temperatures of - 40C, staying indoors for days at a time and being visited by the occasional peckish polar bear.

But then the dozen 17 to 19-year-olds who will be taking part in the British Schools Expedition Society's year-long expedition to the North Pole next August aren't your usual Ayia Napa barmaid or Bondi beachcomber types. They are, by their own admission, looking for something challenging, and proved as much in an arduous selection weekend in the Lake District last month. There, such group activities as putting up a tent blindfold in order to simulate white-out conditions helped give them a flavour of what's to come.

This is not only the BSES's 100th expedition, but also the first year-long Arctic venture it has undertaken that will involve young people. The society hasn't heard of anyone else doing it either; with good reason, you might think. Apart from the polar bears and the extreme cold, there are the days of inactivity due to the weather, coupled with going months without a wash. If that's your sort of thing, there are still three or four places left.

For 19-year-old recruit Rachel White, it's the unusual nature of the venture that is so compelling. Rachel left Queen Mary's College in Basingstoke last year with A-levels in biology, chemistry, mathematics and German and is working in a bookshop to fund her trip. She'll share her home for the five-month trip with 11 others, 30 miles north of Spitsbergen, Norway. For a few days they'll experience 24-hour daylight. Then, it's a gradual descent into 24-hour night before returning home in time for Christmas.

During the next phase of the project, there will be a skeleton team in the base camp made up of adult BSES members; the winter conditions will stop them from venturing far outside their tents. Another 24 young people will arrive in April 2002 and stay until the end of the project in July.

Rachel, like the others who have made it through the selection process, is an inveterate optimist. When asked how she'll manage under such harsh conditions, she focuses on the positive. "I'm a night person anyway and I really hate the heat, so the darkness and cold shouldn't be a problem. As for being stuck together with everyone else all the time, I think we'll be like a big family. If anyone has irritating habits, we'll have to learn to put up with them. And when you need privacy, you'll have to capture some quiet, private moments in your mind."

Ian Bartholomew, 17, will have finished his A-levels at Berkhamsted Collegiate School just two months before setting off. He is taking physics, mathematics and geography (plus music at AS level) and is planning to study geography at university. Like achel, he is fired up by the prospect of seeing the Northern Lights.

He's looking forward, too, to getting away from everything, although he admits that "some of my friends think I'm absolutely barking mad". A keen sportsman and lover of the great outdoors, he knows that being indoors for so long will be a bit of a challenge. "But I'm fairly easy-going," he says. "We'll all just have to adapt."

Mark Evans, one of three expedition leaders, is currently teaching geography in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and will leave his job to take part. This will be his third expedition as leader for BSES and his seventh in all. The first was in 1979 when he was still at school. "It had a profound impact on my life. It's good to be able to give something back."

Of 16 applicants, he has sofar chosen eight, with one on standby. He's looking for youngsters who will be compatible with each other and who will benefit from the Arctic experience, as well as giving something to it. They will also have to raise pound;3,500 each.

The expedition is being sponsored by IBM, and it will be featured on IBM's Learning Village website, with the focus on environmental education. As the Arctic lakes now contain the highest mercury levels in the world and are home to hermaphrodite polar bears, the expedition should yield some information on the impact of env ironmental pollution on Europe's last wilderness. The collected research and data will be integrated into lesson plans for the website, which are being developed in consultation with primary and secondary teachers.

But as well as the scientific and geographical phenomena outside the tents, there are rich research pickings inside, ranging from the psychological and medical effects of enduring two to three months of darkness, to ingenious ways of providing the mammoth 5,500 daily calories each team member needs to stay alive in such cold temperatures.

The Norwegian cultural attache in Britain is planning to focus on the expedition in order to develop educational resources about Norway for key stages 3 and 4 geography. In addition, the universities of Plymouth and Bradford have asked the team to carry out studies for them on, among other things, ice floes and glaciers.

While BSES and IBM are hoping to attract some media interest in the project, the young people are determined that this will not be Big Brother on Ice. They will answer teachers' and pupils' questions via the website but will not focus on their personal experiences.

Mark Evans says that the participants will decide what kind of exposure they want. But at the moment, he has more pressing concerns: he's in the process of buying two dogs to guard the base camp against marauding bears. He's also having to arrange the dogs' food supplies. Pedigree Chum won't do; only seal meat can give the dogs the high fat content they need to keep them going.

For more information about theexpedition, visit the BSES websiteat

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