Simon Calder: A tragedy – but no reason to stop expeditions like this

  • @SimonCalder

Even by the standards of northern Scandinavia, the Svalbard archipelago is a remote, alien environment.

The main island, Spitzbergen, is much closer to the North Pole than it is to Norway's capital, Oslo; the nearest trees are 1,000 miles away. In the archipelago's capital, Longyearbyen, the vicious Arctic night begins shortly after noon each 26 October; the sun does not rise again until the morning of 16 February. Conversely, from mid-April through to late August, the people in the world's northernmost town don't need their electric lights: the sun does not set. Svalbard provides perhaps the most extreme experience the ordinary tourist can have without serious training and equipment.

Besides majestic landscapes, visitors are drawn by wildlife from the Arctic fox to walruses – and the photographic trophy that every traveller craves, a polar bear. Most sightings are from the safety of a ship. But anyone who steps ashore is left in no doubt about the perils of too close an encounter with these creatures. Before tourists are allowed ashore, the landing site is secured by expedition leaders armed with rifles. The British Schools Exploring Society, a well-respected and experienced organisation, will have made meticulous preparations to maximise the safety of the young expeditioners – but this tragedy is a reminder that man's grip on such extreme locations is feeble. So should we should stop exploring such raw edges of the planet? Absolutely not. Without diminishing this tragedy, it should be seen in the context of the risks that attach to everyday activities.

The largest proportion of the nine or 10 British travellers who die abroad in the average week die on the roads; swimming accidents claim many victims. Statistically, a teenager is safer on a supervised trip to the far north than when riding around a Thai island on a moped or taking pharmaceuticals of uncertain provenance at a beach resort in India or East Africa.

Going to geographical extremes is a British tradition that is likely to provide a far more enriching experience than merely messing about on a gap year.