The day my life changed: South Pole

9th July 2010 at 01:00
A five-week research expedition in `the last wilderness' on Earth brought dangers and privations

I started training to be a geography teacher in 2006 and not long afterwards I was leafing through a magazine when I saw an advert for teachers interested in a research trip to Antarctica. I phoned straight away to ask for an application form.

I had done a bit of hill walking, skiing and travelling before, but nothing like this. Antarctica is on pretty much every geography syllabus: the driest continent, the windiest, the coldest, the highest. It is totally uninhabited - "the last wilderness".

The selection process was gruelling, but a few days after the last test I got a phone call telling me that I had been chosen as one of the four team members.

I had 18 months to prepare before we left and I needed to raise pound;10,000. The expedition would cost around pound;25,000 in total - the flight from Chile to base camp in Antarctica costs pound;10,000 alone - and the Fuchs Foundation, which was organising the trip, covered the rest. Besides the fundraising, I went on several training weekends and also spent a lot of time preparing my research project on the effects extreme cold has on human physiology and psychology.

I will always remember arriving in Antarctica. You fly on an Ilyushin bomber - a Russian jet with no sound proofing - so you can't hear the person next to you. There are no windows so you can't see where you are going to land. Then the door opens and you walk out on to a blue ice runway. It is an incredible first impression.

I experienced a range of emotions during the five weeks. There were some days that were incredibly boring. If you sit in a tent for 48 hours, regardless of where you are and who you are with, it gets dull.

Other days were exhausting. The maps we had were all a bit out. I think that when the US geological survey mapped the Ellsworth Mountains they must have given it to the work experience kid because everything was the wrong way round - uphill was downhill and downhill was up.

Bad weather meant that we got stuck at the base camp for an extra eight days because we couldn't fly out - we thought we would miss Christmas at home. We were knackered and fed up with bad food.

We eventually got back on December 22. I did my scientific tests the next day and was home for Christmas. I recorded definite physical changes, but scientifically speaking there was no psychological difference. We had all kept video diaries while we were away, though, and if you saw them you would definitely think, "Oh my god, that is slightly odd behaviour." When you spend five weeks with the same people in such an extreme climate, I think you start to go a bit mad.

My family were glad to have me back in one piece. There were real dangers out there. Crevasses were the main issue. We came across lots. We walked across some, and we went round others. Nobody fell down any, but I did put my foot down one.

The expedition has definitely affected how I teach. During teacher training you learn all these teaching techniques, but I have learnt that good stories are at the heart of good teaching. When I have told classes about Antarctica they sit, listen quietly and ask hundreds of questions.

The trip also taught me a lot about the power of the outdoors and how to motivate children. I am taking 26 children to Greenland next summer. We are trekking to a glacier where students will do scientific field work like we did, then turn it into teaching resources.

The Antarctica expedition energised me and changed how I teach, what I teach and my attitude towards teaching.

Phil Averies was talking to Rachel Smith. If you are interested in applying for a place on a research expedition in the polar regions, go to If you have an experience to share, email

  • Original headline: The day my life changed - Extremes of Antarctica trip made me a different teacher

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