Ill-starred treks

July 5, 1996

A spate of high-profile expedition disasters has unleashed a wave of rule-tightening across campuses and is endangering the future of a brave tradition. Aisling Irwin reports

They were four blithe students who thought they would spend their holidays tripping up the Amazon to find natives unpolluted by western civilisation. They packed their bags and had a farewell party. But four weeks into their trip they were overwhelmed by the heat, the flies, the jungle and one another. The vegetarian girls headed back while the meat-eating boys strode off to prove themselves by climbing a nearby mountain.

Unfortunately for them, a camera crew recorded every detail of their embarrassing adventure for Encounters on Channel Four. For watching university staff it may have added just a little more unease to a growing feeling that one day some such expedition will end in a real disaster.

The tradition of independent undergraduate expeditions is under threat. Although organised by students, they depend heavily on universities, both as a source of expertise and because using a university's name makes it easier to raise funds. There are fears that a few badly organised or unlucky expeditions have exposed certain universities to unwelcome publicity that could lead them to discourage independent trips.

Shane Winser of the Royal Geographical Society attributes the change in attitude to recent high-profile expedition disasters: the spate of deaths on Everest; the four Cambridge students taken hostage in Irian Jaya by the Free Papua Movement and released in May; and the Lyme Bay canoeing accident in which four sixth-formers died after taking part in a trip with an activity centre. Less well known are the occasional incidents when geology undergraduates fall to their deaths or suffer serious injury while doing their compulsory mapping projects. Some Bristol University medical students died several years ago, leading to a ripple of rule-tightening across campuses.

These disasters highlight the fact that blame, and possibly litigation, may fall on a university if its name is associated with a botched expedition. A student at Queen's University in Belfast had an accident while on a field trip a few years ago and sued the university, leading to an out-of-court settlement.

When the Irian Jaya hostages returned there was a flurry of accusations. The students had received money from Birdlife International, which was criticised as "reckless in the extreme" by the editor of Overseas Jobs Express, David Creffield. "The sponsors of this group acted irresponsibly in sending young people to these remote areas without proper preparation or supervision," he said. Yet Birdlife International says it had no responsibility for a group to whom it had merely awarded a prize. The students were approved by Cambridge's rigorous expeditions committee, which checks on safety and insists on links with local universities. But even approved expeditions cannot use the university's name. "They are not university trips," says Bill Adams, lecturer in geography. "The university is not saying 'we think this is a safe thing to do'." Rather, the committee is a source of help and advice.

Elsewhere, university club rules have been changed so as almost to prevent expeditions taking place. At the University of East Anglia, student clubs were told that their committees would be legally responsible for any accident occurring during their trips. This frightened the fell-walking and caving club committee into nonexistence for a year.

The RGS Expeditions Advisory Centre is so worried that it toured universities this year to persuade them of the virtues of independent student expeditions: they foster the independent spirit and leadership; they ensure that at least some of the next generation do not grow up soft. Expeditions can also help with academic and industrial careers. Andy Perkins, an environmental scientist who did his PhD at UEA, where he used to cave, says: "I had done a very minimum amount of caving before I started. Had it not been for the club I would have done very little." Ben Stephenson, who has worked in industry and is now a postgraduate at Oxford University, did an expedition with colleagues in a remote part of north-west India. He says: "These things definitely help you get on to doctoral programmes and land jobs."

And expeditions foster interesting connections. Stephenson is trying to help raise money for the Drukpa Kargyud Trust, to build schools for people he came across. "They were so hospitable that I want to give something back."

Many student expeditions are successful. The typical one is put together by students who belong to a university expedition club. They present their plan to a university board that may award funding and, crucially, allow the university's name to be used when they try to raise funds elsewhere. Around 80, all approved and many funded by the RGS, are setting off now for destinations around the world. By July 1, for example, six adventurers from Oxford University, sponsored by among others The THES, should have left for East Greenland to climb ten mountains they say have never been climbed and to study the snowpack chemistry of a glacier with no name. Four Aberdeen university students have just departed for Malawi to study the socio-economic characteristics of Malawian society.

Stephenson's team was lured by the mystery of a village that is accessible only when its river freezes for a few weeks annually. One year they laid up supplies along the route. The next they skiied up the frozen river to the settlement of Padam. The temperature reached -30xC and they slept on the ashes of their evening fires. Their trip led them to rocks that mark the northern margin of the Indian continent before it collides with Asia, thrusting marine sediments from the ancient Thespis sea up to seven kilometres above sea level.

On his return Stephenson lectured students attending the RGS's annual expedition health and safety weekend, a repository of expertise and finance for would-be adventurers. The training weekend highlights the difference between a Walter Mitty-style wander into Peru and a properly organised expedition. The speakers manage an almost impossible balance between inspiration and caution. There is plenty of daunting detail - costings; public relations; emergency medical back-up; preparing for the season, the altitude and the terrain. But these talks are interspersed with good visionary enthusiasm.

RGS director and secretary, John Hemming says: "We are living now in the golden age of exploration. It was not during David Livingstone's time: it is right now. The early motives of explorers were often none too laudable . . . we modern explorers are a much nicer lot. We have got better motives." And the best of these motives, he says, is science. On a more cautious note, David Warrell, professor of tropical medicine at Oxford University, tells the audience that travellers think, rather romantically, that they might die of lassa fever, venomous bites, animal attacks or cannibals. In truth they are most likely to die in a road accident.

But the RGS has failed to persuade Roger Downie, herpetologist at Glasgow University and member of its exploration society, of the value of independent exploration. He defends his university's decision that there must be a member of staff on any expedition. "I've seen the reports that come back [to the advisory centre] and they are of very variable quality. Sometimes students get the money together but don't know what they want to do." He cites a group who reached the target country only to be sent packing by the authorities.

"One of the things we feel is important about expeditions is the results. You are going not just to go - but to do some sensible science. It enhances the benefit if you have thought clearly about it and got a set of results. Involvement with a reasonably large number of staff maximises that. It certainly doesn't get in the way of students having the experience of doing a lot of the work themselves."

But Winser fears such trips end up like Operation Raleigh - a step up the ladder of experience but not offering the challenge that some undergraduates are ready for. Downie does not deny this, but adds there is nothing to stop students who wish to go off on their own provided they do not use the university's name. But as far as he knows there are no such expeditions.

At Imperial College, where students present their ideas to a board that has Pounds 10,000 to hand out to around five expeditions, Bob Schroter positively revels in the idea of students going off on their own in the name of the college. Staff are not even eligible for awards. "We do not wish to see expeditions driven by staff or old lags," he says. "The students are excellent ambassadors for the college." And fund-raising spreads the good name of the college.

Perhaps the key to Downie's and Schroter's disagreement lies in their views of the purpose of expeditions. "We are very happy to consider adventure expeditions just as much as scientific ones," says Schroter. All the college requires is "logistical safeness" and "a venture that would not bring Imperial College into disrepute".

In an increasingly safety- and litigation-conscious society, is it simply more sensible for undergraduates to learn by apprenticeship? Perhaps the image of the over-confident 20-year-old, trampling in ignorance over remote cultures is an image that the British would be happy to forget? Or is it the duty of universities to foster the spirit of independent learning?

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