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Svalbard 1993, 29 Years of Impact

By British Exploring Society,
charity update

Aran Jess (who also Lead for us in Greenland 2006) re-connected recently and mentioned that he’d been speaking with several members of his 1993 Fire during lockdown.

We asked if they’d like to share their memories of Svalbard and its impact on them – and here’s what they kindly shared with us.

Aran Jess

“When I think back to our 1993 Svalbard expedition, I always smile. It was a great time in a wonderful place with a Fire of top quality people. But, what I remember most was the craic. Content amongst kindred spirits and with no other entertainment for 1000s of miles, the long days of reindeer spotting passed very pleasantly indeed – thanks to generous helpings of eye-watering comedy. From stinking fleeces and rancid socks, to each others’ inept attempts at river crossings and camp cookery, we were a merry band of buffoons who found a bright side in almost everything we encountered. Even with one of our Leaders upside down in a crevasse during a whiteout, I still remember the almost immediate, good natured ribbing that ensued once the danger had passed. I now know that being able to find humour in the face of hardship is a hallmark of a strongly bonded team, and I feel really fortunate to have been part of one at such a young and formative age.

This bond has kept most of the Fire, loosely, in touch over the last 29 years. Indeed, the oddness of recent times (plus WhatsApp) has burnished our links and there’s now routine communication which I really value. Why? Well, they are friends I hold dear for reasons that are hard to explain, but which are rooted in a shared discovery of a hard but magnificent wilderness. But maybe more tellingly, these friends have been (and are still) a calming touchstone that transports me back to a simpler, more mindful time when life was stripped back to toil, food and laughter; to the joy of community and a shared meal; to little wins like triumphantly finding your lost spoon or an uneaten dextrose tablet.

Our expedition in 1993 was full of adventure, friendship and laughter, but probably the most valuable thing I brought home was a personal realisation that life near the bone really is where it is sweetest.”

Louise Savic

“Svalbard had an impact that was completely disproportionate to the amount of time we actually spent out there. It was one of the most profound experiences I have ever had – and is something by which all other big life events have been measured ever since. There are specific moments I remember, like having a peaceful moment on the side of a mountain and just feeling completely at one with nature (for moment, read poo, obviously), or sitting in a tent with a swarm of mosquitoes hitting the sides sounding like hail, or flumping across ice fields in zero visibility carrying a pulk and wondering how long it takes for frost nip to turn into frost bite. But I remember more the general feeling of hugely intense emotions and being truly part of something in a way I hadn’t before. I was completely desolate when we got back to the UK and I have never really got over that wrench of leaving everyone. Getting back in touch during the pandemic was amazing. It feels like those bonds are always there, no matter what, and we just have to remember to get up and do something about making things happen.

I think I always thought that after Svalbard I would go on to do other big outdoor adventures and super cool stuff like that – but in fact life has taken me in a different direction and brisk walk in the Yorkshire dales are about as far as it gets. But I realised recently that actually what Svalbard did was to make me braver, in ways other than necessarily the purely physical. It made me less afraid to be myself, and a bit better at not feeling restricted by self-imposed limits on what I think I can or can’t do. Also, I realised that impeccable personal hygiene is sometimes overrated, and that in difficult situations, a biscuit brown is all you need to feel cheered up. Also, that boiling a gerry can of meths on a naked flame inside a tent is a super bad idea. And that if you don’t wash your hair for weeks on end it doesn’t ‘self-clean’ – it just smells really bad.

I hold onto a few possessions from that trip – a bit of poo stick, my dungarees, and a kit bag – and when I look at them it reminds me of what we all did, and what we meant to each other, and how totally awesome it was. It always makes me smile.”

Tom Shaw

“1993 is a lifetime away – since then: career (sort of), marriage, house-buying, children and many adventures. But Svalbard 93 has left its mark on me, a big slash of before/after. Sometimes, when there is a low winter sun in a clear blue sky, and I’m whizzing along on my bike…its quite easy to recall some of the sensations of skiing on an ice-cap, completely happy and alive with the adventure, danger, fun – the pure cold air, all of that. My mother once remarked that my personal hygiene was never quite the same after that trip to the arctic and I think what she meant, what I hope she meant, is that I came back a little bit wilder than I left – and all that freedom and excitement has stayed after the 7 week stench was removed.

People got bored of the stories quite quickly. My children can’t believe the scrawny grinning beast on skis is me. I don’t have much of the original kit left – a few bits though. I lost all my pictures through drunken stupidity and disorganisation as I left university.

So what is left? It has taken time to realise all that happened, and to feel the effects, but it is there – I’m still a bit wild, or at least I’m willing to listen to that – I’m more adventurous, more willing than ever to try physical challenges. I’ve become more aware of the good bits of my character, and I’ve worked on the less good – and all of that began over the summer of 1993.

Svalbard 1993 is part of me I suppose – soul – character….ehhhh! The most important thing that remains are the incredible bonds and friendships that were hammered out – something fairly unique I think. When messages appear or emails, or talk of reunions or the odd picture, I pretty much drop everything. It terrifies me that we may never meet up again, it’s a beautiful painful feeling, vivid. The last time we all met already feels like a long long time ago – seeing Mark last spring was a joyful moment in the midst of a very sad day.

So here’s to the Reindeer Fire! The Poo Stick! The mosquitoes! The Polar Bear/Seagull! The crevasse falls! The tents! The dirt! The enormous dumps! The constant constant laughter! Hoorah! And for goodness sake, Phil owns a pub…..why aren’t we there?”

Edward Curtis

“So, on reflection, 30 years later, what do I think about when I hear ‘Svalbard, BSES, Reindeer, Tromso… etc etc.’ Well, that my smelly friends, is a very interesting question.

This is like a counselling session!

I think I am right in saying that I was the only member of our Fire that was not in full time education at the time of the expedition? I had dropped out of school aged 17 as I could quite honestly, not see the point in continuing with an education that didn’t seem to fulfil my needs or expectations. For the record, I had no idea what those needs were! Having left school, I needed to do something and the expedition offered an opportunity to fill seven weeks with something active and different. I must admit, from memory, I had no real desire to go camping, skiing, climbing or counting Reindeer! To this day, I work pretty hard to avoid those activities….sorry guys!

I think for me, the fondest memories are the people and the banter. There was generally something amusing going on with bog roll consumption or Guy trying to boil meths to make a cuppa. Many happy hours were spent sharing a pair of headphones with Phil. This meant having to walk no more than 6 inches apart so the earphone stayed in! From memory, we listened to a lot of Tom Petty? The memories, on the whole, are all positive and I certainly enjoyed the “Fire” experience.

I spend my working days coaching and instructing people who work or want to be trained to work in the Watersports Industry, so I do work in the outdoors and I love every minute of it. The expedition helped me have me some breathing space to decide that going back to education was probably a good idea. Two years after the exped I gained my BTEC National Diploma in Sport and Exercise Science, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I tried Uni a few times but it just didn’t suit me and felt like a slightly pointless exercise. By this stage I really had Watersports under my skin and had pretty much decided to make a career of it.

Interestingly (or not) my ‘A star’ 16 year old son has decided that A levels are not for him. I firmly believe that my experience aged 17/18 has helped me better understand and feel comfortable with his decision to make “different” choices. My folks really struggled with this.

So, the exped was the break I needed to stop and think. It has left me with plenty of fond memories and a bunch of mates that I never see! Do you all still smell terrible by the way?”

Crispin Angood

“Most people I know well have long since lost interest in my long, meandering ‘when I went to Svalbard’ anecdotes. I can’t blame them – it’s been 30 years since I graced the arctic tundra with a group of adolescent ne’er-do-wells and the memories and stories don’t change much, aside perhaps for the ever increasing drama with which they are told. The re-kindling of our friendship group during the pandemic provided a reassuring haven of understanding. We haven’t met up much over the years or even sent Christmas cards, but even still our WhatsApp chats ring a calm bell of nostalgia that takes me back to a time when character was formed. We are social animals and shared experiences bring us together. In fact, the act of sharing an experience is said to intensify the experience. Perhaps therefore the act of sharing such an intense experience intensified the bond.
My 7 weeks in Svalbard changed me for the better. I came away a more confident, assured person, happier to face uncertainty without knowing everything will necessarily be alright on the other side. Immediately when we got back from the expedition I found out I didn’t get the grades in my A-levels to go to medical school as planned. Still flying on the high of my recent experience I somehow confidently changed track – one I am happily still on now running my own engineering consultancy in mid-Wales. It is a beautiful part of the country and I am happy to be raising a family amidst the great outdoors. We are often in the sea, in the forest or up a mountain. Svalbard left me with a deep appreciation for the environment we live in and it is a privilege to pass that on to my children.”

Kate Towse

“Whenever I talk to people about the Svalbard expedition (which happens more frequently than you’d imagine nearly 30 years on!) they always want to know about the scenery, the landscape and the wilderness. And of course, it was beautiful and wild and awe inspiring, but for me it was the people that have left the most lasting impression.

The depth of connection and friendship forged in that time has impacted me in so many ways through out my life. Just seven short weeks, but seven weeks of such intensity of emotion, highs and the inevitable but resolvable lows, the challenges and above all the laughs, UN level negotiation at times and team work.

I think all these learned skills affected my choices in my first career as a social worker. If you can work through long drop digging rotas, smelly tent mates and attempts to make camp food more palatable you can negotiate anything. The bonds we forged have been held in a special part of my heart and one of the joys of social media has meant we could keep in touch throughout the years and the inevitable miles. It is impossible to explain how folk from such a short period of time such a long time ago have remained friends of such value.

Perhaps it was the intensity of the shared experience, or the fact we were kindred spirits in search of adventure. Whatever the reason, I am forever grateful for my Fire.”

 

It’s always a joy for us when we hear from Members of our community. Stories from their expeditions, what they’ve gone on to do next, and knowing that they are still in touch with one another even 29 years on.

If you have recently reconnected with your Fire, or would like us to help you do so, we would love to hear from you.

Get in touch at membership@britishexploring.org.

 

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