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The Tragedy of Svalbard

Landscapes on the frozen Arctic Ocean

Some thoughts from friend of the site Sarah Outen about youth expeditioning in the wake of the recent fatal polar bear attack on a young boy in the Arctic.
I would be really interested to hear your own thoughts on this subject in the comments below as these are important questions:

  • Is it wrong to do expeditions that infringe on the environments of endangered animals such as polar bears?
  • Is it wrong to take such young people into dangerous situations?
  • Would it be wrong to stop such expeditions because of the small risk of occasional disasters?

This week the family of schoolboy Horatio Chapple faced what I imagine was one of the toughest days of their lives: his funeral. He was seventeen years old when he was fatally mauled by a polar bear earlier this month on a remote glacier in the Norwegian Arctic. The attack has been widely publicised and I expect it will continue to attract attention for a while yet. There are two major investigations underway into the events and failings that led to this small party of campers on a youth expedition being attacked by the bear.

Until those findings are released I wouldn’t want to comment on them, other than to say that it was tragic on many levels. It is tragic that the bear was allowed to venture so close and attack before anyone noticed, before it was too late. It is tragic that equipment used to scare and injure the bear failed to function as expected. And it is a tragedy that both Horatio and the bear died because of these events, and that four other young people were also badly hurt.

With all due respect to Horatio’s memory and his family and friends, I believe, however, that there is the potential for an even greater tragedy. Potential for even greater loss.

As I see it, the greatest possible tragedy here is the risk that we might never let our children go exploring and expeditioning to wild places again and that this may herald a reduction in the number of expeditions by, with and for young people to remote wildernesses.

Adventure and exploration are inherently risky and necessarily so – without it, they would be nothing. That risk and the adrenaline and challenge that it whisks up is part of what makes these things so exciting. Overcoming them is part of what makes the achievement so special and the satisfaction so sweet. Importantly, for the most part, most expeditions happen smoothly and without significant injury and death and participants return home having had fabulous and often life changing experiences.

Our young people are already (I think) mollycoddled, spoon fed in a sanitised, prescriptive world which is forever telling them to be this or be that, do this and look like that. Expeditioning and exploration forces them out of their comfort zone, challenges them and beats them down a bit and makes them sustain a puffing effort towards a common and hopefully arduous goal, all the while building confidence, widening eyes and growing perspectives, in an environment where their true character is allowed to shine through without the normal boundaries and confines of modern society and its expectations and, perhaps for the first time in their young lives, the immediacy of social media. For many, it may well be a road to increased awareness of others’ needs, almost definitely a growth in self-respect and undoubtedly a broadening of knowledge and skills. All of these will be invaluable as said youngster bounds into adult life and all the challenges and trials to be found here. There is nothing quite like an expedition for making a shy youngster stand tall, a naughty one show herself and her peers that she does have a good side, or the mediocre kid who never gets noticed for anything really blossom and find their talent. For young people of all ages, sizes, colours and outlooks, an expedition experience can be invaluable.

I have spent many hours in the saddle recently thinking about this and truly believe that if the Svalbard tragedy leads to restrictive legislation or even bigger mountains of paperwork and red tape when it comes to expeditioning by young people then this will be the greatest tragedy of all. I am all for learning from the mistakes and making the findings and recommendations for safety provision in future expeditions as widely known as possible, but please, for goodness sakes -and for Horatio’s sake – let expeditions for young people go on.

Sarah Outen is currently travelling from London to London by pedal and paddle.

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  1. Agreed. This thought came hot on the heels of the initial shock of the news. It would indeed be a tragedy if our culture of blame put a misconceived end to something so valuable.

  2. The book ‘Last Child In The Woods’ by Richard Louv discusses this subject – although not necessarily expeditions – in more depth, and is a good read (albeit repetitive) if you’re interested.

    “Louv directly links the lack of nature in the lives of today’s wired generation – he calls it nature-deficit – to some of the most disturbing childhood trends, such as the rises in obesity, attention disorders, and depression. LCITW is the first book to bring together a new and growing body of research indicating that direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development and for the physical and emotional health of children and adults.”

  3. If an enquiry prevents further needless death what harm can it do?
    According to some sources the safety equipment wasn’t working. If so,it needs to be sorted out.
    A few years ago some youngsters died on a canoeing course. There hasn’t been a repeat as far as I know, and canoeing goes on, I believe.

  4. A lot of the reporting on this was absolutely dreadful, dwelling on who to blame and where he went to school – it’s nice to hear some sense, thank you!

    Fully agree that kids are wrapped in cotton wool all too much; plenty of my friends from school, and others our age (early 20s), will have missed out because this, now and when they get older. It’s not all of us though – there are plenty of young out climbing, cycling and stuff – don’t lose faith!

    What will happen to BSES???

  5. ” The Culture of Blame ” – awesome !

    This story is not about the tragedy ( millions of people are dying around the world ). The only point/question in this story is WHO CAN WE BLAME ?

    Right now in my state ( WA ) something similar is going on regarding the death of a hiker that happened last year when he was gored by a mountain goat, and recently a law suit was filed against the National Park Service.

    YOU CAN’T BLAME NATURE, because that’s exactly what is happening in these cases.

  6. I agree that it would be a tragedy if trips like this were curtailed for this freak, very rare event.

    I do feel however that there should be a full inquiry to try and find out how the bear managed to penetrate the camp – obviously the ‘alarm’ systems (shotgun cartridge tripwires) were just not good enough and every explorer would benefit from the findings.

    • Ja I’m sure there were way more than just four ways to die on that trip, considering there were four meumdis within which you could have died and then considering all of the ways to die in each of the individual meumdis You’re the physics major so you figure it out. But in which medium do you think it was most likely that you would have died? I think it must be paddling class five whitewater in pack rafts. Tammy

  7. Phil Avery Posted

    I’ve just taken a group of 15/16 year olds to Greenland on a three week science/adventure expedition. We saw bear prints, we carried a gun and a bear was shot close to where we were as the local village hadn’t reached its hunting quota. Was it worth the risk? I think a random selection of the comments made by the young people on the trip gives you your answer:

    “Going to Greenland was like nothing I’ve ever done before. It was incredible in every way possible – so challenging and beautiful. It has allowed us all to take opportunities we’d never been able to have, enabled us to express ourselves and pushed us to our full potential. We have all made friends for life and we could never, ever forget it!”

    “Greenland has been the most fun, scary and worthwhile thing I’ve ever done. The people, challenges and scenery will stay with me for the rest of my life.”

    “Greenland has just been breathtaking. An amazing experience. I’m so glad that I got the opportunity to do this with such nice people. I had some of the best moments of my life. So many amazing memories. Thanks!”

    “A challenging, yet awesome, experience, which I am so glad to have taken part in. The expedition has definitely shown me what I can achieve if I have the support and pressure to reach that peak!”



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