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Dundee teens’ lives will be transformed by skiing under Northern Lights and over frozen Arctic lakes

Braeview Academy pupils have undertaken intensive training to prepare for their Polar Academy expedition.

Ellie Simpson and Carly Rose are about to head for Greenland. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson.
Ellie Simpson and Carly Rose are about to head for Greenland. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson.

In less than a fortnight’s time, Ellie Simpson, 16, and Carly Rose, 14, will ski across frozen Arctic lakes.

They will tow 45kg sledges – known as pulks – with all the equipment they need to survive in the wilderness of Greenland.

There’s a pretty good chance they will see the Northern Lights and the phenomenon of diamond dust – glittering ice crystals which fall from the sky.

But each night they will help to erect polar bear fences to protect themselves from the predators as they camp under the stars.

Ellie, Carly and eight fellow Braeview Academy pupils are the latest teenagers to embark on Polar Academy.

The Braeview Polar Academy group including depute head Fiona McPherson (centre back) during a recent training session at St Andrews. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson.

Each year two schools from Scotland are chosen for the expedition which aims to transform the lives of ‘invisible kids’.

And already Ellie and Carly and their peers have grown physically and mentally during 18-months of intensive training.

They’ve pulled tyres over 20km and 30km distances.

They spent a week at Scotland’s national outdoor training centre near Aviemore and recently learned to sail at St Andrews.

Tyre pulling and press-ups

Some of the group struggled to do 20 press-ups in the beginning. Now the girls regularly top 100 during regular exercise sessions. One of them broke the Polar Academy record by hitting 330.

Carly said: “It’s been challenging but I can feel myself getting stronger.

“I also feel more confident now, more sure of myself.”

Ellie agreed. “My confidence is growing,” she said.

She has enjoyed the weekly training sessions, including Insanity, an intense full-body workout.

She added: “The first tyre pull was really good. The second one was more challenging but we made it through.”

Polar Academy is for, as founder Craig Mathieson puts, it the ‘invisible kids’ – those too shy or unconfident to put their hands up in class or put themselves forward.

Last year’s Polar Academy explorers from Arbroath and Monifieth high schools. Image: Polar Academy.

The impact on past explorers – last year’s were from Monifieth High School and Arbroath High School – has been astounding.

Craig said: “It stops them being invisible.

“That ambition that everyone’s got, in these kids at the start it’s buried so deep down that they don’t dare talk about it.

“But that comes to the top.”

Since last August he has been working with the Braeview team weekly and said they had already been transformed.

“They are already totally different humans.

Polar Academy founder Craig Mathieson said the group are already “totally different humans”. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson.

“Most of them couldn’t even make eye contact with us at the start, or couldn’t do a press-up.

“None of them had the confidence or the belief that they could do stuff.”

Now, he said, they are “ready for it”.

“We’ve proved how brilliant they are every week.”

Skiing with their jaws dropping

Ellie, Carly and their teammates will have to draw on the strength and skills they have gained over the last few months as soon as they arrive in Greenland, where temperatures could fall to -20 degrees.

Craig said: “Where we’re going is the last true place in the Arctic. It’s a hunting community and the only people we will see will be hunters going out to feed their families.

The youngsters will pull their pulks over frozen sea and lakes. Image: Polar Academy.

“Everything will be new to them. The landscape is just incredible and they will spend the first two days skiing with their jaws dropping.

“They will be skiing over the [frozen] sea, through unnamed mountains, see the Northern Lights and diamond dust coming down.”

A different pupil will lead the trek each day.

Craig said: “We step back and it’s up to them where we go. They do the navigating, they set up camp, cook their food, put the polar bear fence up.”

Depute head Fiona McPherson is part of the Braeview squad. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson.

They will fly from Glasgow to Reykjavik on March 12, then on to Kulusuk in Greenland.

A helicopter will take them to Polar Academy’s base in Tasiilaq. There they will spend a couple of days learning Nordic skiing.

Braeview depute head Fiona McPherson will accompany them. She said: “Most of them haven’t skiied before. Once they have their ski legs, we set off.

“They will be pulling their pulks with everything they need in them and we head off across the sea ice.”

The team could pull their sledges for seven or eight hours each day before setting up camp for the night.

Learning how to sail at St Andrews was crucial to their scientific research. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson.

A key part of the expedition is conducting scientific research, and the pupils will take water readings and record snow density and microplastics.

Findings will be presented on their return to St Andrews and Cambridge universities.

Braeview’s Polar Academy selection

When the school learned it and Bucksburn Academy, in Aberdeen, had been selected for Polar Academy 2024 hundreds of pupils were eager to sign up.

Staff chose those applicants they expected to benefit most.

Fiona said: “Sometimes it’s the ones who don’t want it most that would get the most from it.

“It’s not the youngsters who are captain of the football teams or are doing their five Highers and everything is hunky dory.

Braeview pupil will camp in the Arctic wilderness like their peers from Monifieth and Arbroath last year. Image: Polar Academy.

“It’s the middle kids who often get overlooked. The kids who struggle to find their place or find their voice.

“It gives them a shared sense of purpose and feeling of being part of something in a very intense way.”

Now the preparation is done, anticipation is mounting for the trip itself.

Fiona said: “Physically they are much stronger and mentally they are much more confident.

“They are working hard together as a team.

“Now they are excited, really excited.”

Ellie is most looking forward to learning how to ski but admitted to nerves about the helicopter flight.

She was overjoyed when was selected for the Polar Academy.

“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity; something like this doesn’t come around twice.”