Jack Wathen / MSc Paramedicine Student / Nottingham Trent University
This Wilderness medicine course is run by Unique Expeditions. An organisation forged from a union of military, medicine, and survival skills professionals; with over 40 years of experience traveling through earth’s most inhospitable environments. Whether it’s jungles or mountains, arctic or desert, Unique Expeditions provide teaching and experiences for adventurous souls.
What – Seven nights deep inside the Arctic circle learning the skills required to survive in this austere environment.
When – The Polar Wilderness Medicine Course runs once yearly in April (when the sun is out, the snow is thick and the lake is frozen)
Where – Grense Jakobselv, Kirkenes. An area of wilderness within the Arctic Circle where few others go.
How much – £2,000, fully-catered (exclusive of international flights).
Qualification/Accreditation – Advanced Expedition Medicine Skills (Level 4) and Health and Safety Executive Remote First Aid At Work.
Delegates – 24 spaces, medics and non-medics welcome
Prerequisites – This is one of Unique Expedition’s more difficult courses due to the cold so come prepared with equipment suitable for potential temperatures of -30 degrees Celcius.
Any traces of pre-course anxiety that I had been harbouring immediately dissolved on touching down in Kirkenes. Although we had been well briefed on what to expect in Finnmark, it was impossible not to be awestruck by the most northern region of Norway. After an exciting landing between polar hills we collected our luggage from the carousel; possibly the only one guarded by a fully grown brown bear (stuffed, but very much real). Mat Howes, one-half of our teaching staff for the week, met us at the airport and made us feel immediately welcome. Mat lives in Kirkenes and is a fountain of knowledge, not only academically due to his extensive military and expedition background but also in the culture and history of Finnmark and the Sámi people who call this wild place home. The second half of the faculty was Dr. Josh Allison who masterfully balances his time between working in ED in London, leading and doctoring various expeditions, and teaching wilderness and remote medicine to burgeoning medics.
Our first night was spent checking our kit, taking on the course brief, and getting to know the rest of the team through the intimate Norwegian tradition of a sauna. Both literally and metaphorically there is no better ice breaker than sitting with your new peers in a wooden box at 90°C, emerging delirious before diving into a snow drift together. Our group was a mixture of health professionals ranging from Paramedics, Medical Students, Anaesthetic Registrars, and GPs; this diversity hugely benefited the course as a whole.
- Primary survey
- Hypothermia, Frostbite, and Cold shock
- Snow blindness
- Soft tissue injury
- Shoulder dislocation/relocation
- Major trauma- Penetrating injuries, Traction splinting, and C-spine control
- Exhaustion / mental health
- Casualty handling, Packaging, and Evacuation
- Radio communications
- Snowmobile driving and maintenance
- Sub-zero fire lighting
- Shelters including snow caves
- Ice fishing 🎣
The primary teaching is delivered using a combination of simulations, debriefs, workshops, and informal lectures. All of the simulated scenarios take place in the field and combine medical, logistical, and survival skills. Team roles are cycled allowing every student to experience being an expedition medic, expedition leader, communications operator, and competent helper.
The secondary teaching happens passively through a jam-packed schedule of extra-curricular activities led by the incredibly experienced faculty. On top of the formal teaching, the week included a snowmobile trip to the beaches of the Bering sea, snowshoe trekking, wildlife recognition, dog sledding, and of course, a more obligatory sauna time.
After a hearty breakfast at the hotel, our excited group was driven to the trailhead to start our 6 day’s adventure. The base camp for the course was a truly remote cabin nestled on the side of a vast frozen lake near the Norway-Russia border, around 400km inside the Arctic Circle. The apprehension of the journey ahead to reach this, whilst carrying 6 days worth of polar kit, quickly dissolved when we discovered the procession of snowmobiles ready to take us. After a quick demonstration and safety brief, we were soon screaming across frozen lakes and through arctic forests in convoy. When the trail got too technical even for these epic machines, we donned our snowshoes and completed our wild journey to base camp on foot.
The accommodation was large 3-person tents with the delightful and crucial addition of wood-burning stoves and reindeer skins. On day 5 we strapped on our snowshoes and trekked along the Partisan trail where we were given spades and directed towards a large snowdrift. After several hours of digging, we created our very own snowhole which, ironically, afforded us the warmest night’s sleep of the week. All of our food was provided for the duration of the trip and was a combination of Expedition Foods dried meals and some delicious homemade local delicacies including reindeer stews, smoked fish casseroles, and moose sausage. Not to mention the fresh arctic char (native cold-water fish) we caught and cooked ourselves one night.
The week flew by and sadly it was time to hop back on the snowmobiles across the wilderness to the town of Kirkenes. Just when we thought the fun was over, we were surprised with an end-of-expedition King Crab fishing experience out on the polar fjords and treated to a feast of freshly caught crab right there and then on the boat. Our final night was spent back at the hotel courtesy of Unique Expeditions where Mat and Josh hosted a course prize giving and we all enjoyed the last supper of reindeer steaks and wine.
If you’re looking for a trip that offers non-stop fun, learning, and boundary-pushing, in a supportive environment with excellent instructors, in a frankly next-level location, then the Unique Expeditions Polar Wilderness Medicine Course is for you. I have been fortunate enough to go on multiple courses and trips and experience the inevitable highs and lows that those ‘type-2 fun’ people know all about. I can honestly say, however, that the only low from this trip was having to get on a flight home. I hope to return to the Arctic and will definitely be booking more courses with Unique Expeditions.
To find out more about Unique Expeditions course in the Arctic please, see Unique Expedition’s website.
Photos courtesy of Luc Gillard