With A-level results and university fees to fret about, teenagers are shortening their gap year to a month, says Lucy Grewcock

Ben Rigby, a student at Aberystwyth University, reflected: "Dangling on the end of a rope inside an 80ft crevasse – not how I expected to be spending my summer."

Other members of the British Schools Exploring Society (BSES), a youth development charity based in London, have noosed caiman in the Amazon, watched for polar bears at night, or kayaked down the Zanskar Gorge – none of sorts of activities you'd expect to be doing at 18 and away from home for the first time.

Gap-year experiences are valued not only by gappers, but by universities and employers too. "They provide life skills such as teamwork, leadership and self-awareness that give young people real confidence in their abilities," says Dr Ceri Lewis, NERC research fellow at the University of Exeter. But with tuition fees rising and the scramble for university places increasingly fierce, round-the-world trips and island-hopping odysseys are starting to sit less comfortably with paying parents, forcing disappointed school leavers to reconsider.

The BSES thinks it has a solution: it has invited today's teenagers to consider remodelling, rather than doing away with, their gap-year dreams. Joining month-long expeditions to jungle, polar and mountain wildernesses, BSES members condense their gap-experiences into five worthwhile weeks, sandwiched between finishing their A-levels and starting university. "With conservation research embedded into each expedition, young explorers have the opportunity not only to go somewhere truly remarkable, but also to do something of value while they are there," explains Peter Pearson, BSES's executive director.

My first experience of a BSES expedition was as a science leader. Seventy-eight degrees north, I was in Arctic Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago where mirror-like fjords reflect flat-topped mountains, and crystal glaciers lick through sweeping valleys. My team of 10 youths were investigating evidence of climate change, measuring the vertical ablation of glaciers in Spitsbergen, Svalbard's largest island.

With not a day of prior polar experience between them, my group spent their first week gaining vital Arctic survival skills. Under the guidance of chief mountain leader Neil Gwynne they learnt how to rescue a team-mate from a crevasse fall, ward off polar bears and make freeze-dried beef and powdered rice pudding more appetising.

Survival-skill proficient, we trekked past antlered caribou and arctic foxes into frozen mountains to begin our glaciology research. But we quickly ran, or hiked, into a problem: the glacier we wanted to measure was missing. After double-checking our GPS systems and matching the iced land forms that rose around us to the contours rippling across our maps, we gazed at the grey mound of moraine where, according to the Ordinance Survey, a 600m-wide glacier should have been. We stood staring climate change right in the snout and listening to it trickle through the glacial debris beneath us.

Our final week was spent trekking across the Lomonosov ice cap, en-route to a 1,000m peak the team was intent on reaching. We journeyed across the ice, somewhere between Norway and the North Pole, and while we'd become pretty slick at glacier-crossing, progress is slow when you're carrying your bedroom, kitchen and – in compliance with Svalbard's laws on polar-bear safety – a 5kg shotgun. When a storm began to blow and we lost sight of our peak, I refuelled on a frozen Mars bar while Matt Palmer – team leader for the day – wrestled with his map and deliberated our next move. This was BSES's personal development program in action; fine-tuned by Dr Pete Allison, co-founder of expeditionresearch.co.uk. BSES hands the decision-making over to its members, with leaders acting to oversee safety, rather than call the shots. Matt recalls the "valuable and unexpected lessons" he'd learnt through this process. "I now know how challenging it can be to be the leader," he says.

Four months after returning from the Arctic, my team was reunited at BSES's annual gathering in London. In front of a 500-strong audience at the Royal Geographical Society, Tom Kelly, in his first year at Cardiff University, delivered our expedition report. He described the glaciers we'd measured, the crevasses we'd avoided and the frozen waterfalls we'd climbed; he relayed the challenges of camping on ice and surviving a 48-hour white-out.

After resounding applause, our presentation was followed by reports from other teams: the previously unclimbed peaks reached and mapped in the Himalayas; the 500 river dolphins surveyed in the Amazon; and the 3m ice cores drilled by another Arctic team.

Listening to these reports, I recalled my own gap year: six months drifting round South-east Asia. Had half a year really been necessary, when these teenagers had so much to say for themselves after just a month? My thoughts were answered by Kelly, who said: "People are amazed when I say I conducted an Arctic expedition, rather than went to a full-moon party in Thailand."

Catching up with members after the gathering, I asked what they'd gained from their months away. They told me how they'd been encouraged to recognise their strengths, gain confidence in facing new challenges and put their lives into better perspective. But perhaps the most valuable lesson was learnt by a member of the Himalaya team, who said she'd learnt that "chilli sauce goes with everything – even rice pudding".

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