Five members of Oxford University will attempt a 184-mile crossing of Spitsbergen, just 700 miles from the North Pole, this summer. They will retrace an Oxford expedition of this Arctic region in 1923 - one which has yet to be repeated. For five weeks they will ski unsupported, towing all of their equipment in sledges. 

Spitsbergen retracedAndrew Irvine enjoying the midnight sun in Spitsbergen, August 1923
By Liam Garrison
(Chemistry, 2012)

On the 31st July 1923 the Ternigen arrived at Duym Point on the north-east coast of Spitsbergen and waved goodbye to Noel Odell, Geoffrey Milling, Robert Frazer and Andrew Irvine. What followed was an epic, thirty day crossing of the East Spitsbergen ice cap. The team’s route took them up through the difficult ice falls and waist-deep morass onto the ice cap proper. Diverting only to summit outlying peaks, including the highest in Spitsbergen,  the team conducted a groundbreaking geological survey; mapping the region for the first time, using then state of the art photographic techniques. Spitsbergen retracedJames Lam (expedition leader, 4th year MPhys) familiarising himself with the pulk in Radcliffe Square

At the end of last year, we unearthed over thirty of these original landscape photographs stored in the archives at Merton College, and the Royal Geographical Society. Enthused by the stunning  glacial landscapes and the opportunity to explore how they have changed over ninety-three years, we decided to re-trace this expedition. Our expedition aims to repeat the original photos as well as supplementing them with drone footage, the twenty-first century equivalent to their ‘state of the art’ techniques.  Using the resulting 3D maps, we will be able to consider the effects of a changing climate on selected glaciers and their surroundings. 

This area of the archipelago has received very little attention from researchers and we are working with the University Centre in Svalbard to ensure that the data we collect will be beneficial to the scientific community. The only set of biological samples for this region was taken by the 1923 expedition, and we will build on this legacy by photographing and collect DNA samples from the species of vascular plants we encounter en route

Spitsbergen retracedAndrew Irvine on skis in Spitsbergen in 1923

We hope to draw attention to these changes through a documentary feature, and touching on the question of how polar exploration has changed in ninety three years. Drawing on the diaries, journals and maps of the original expedition we will tell the stories of its members. Notably these included Andrew Irvine, a young graduate at Merton who disappeared on Everest a year later, having potentially made the first ever ascent of the world’s highest mountain. It was in Svalbard that Irvine developed his experience of greater-range mountaineering.

Although our 2016 team comprises experienced mountaineers and/or skiers, in order to maximise our chances of success in this hostile environment we will have to stick to a rigorous training plan. As well as fitness and endurance training, we will be working closely with a guide to ensure we have the skills necessary to deal with everything from crevasse fields to polar bears. Spitsbergen retracedAndrewSandyIrvine, a Mertonian chemist who was on the 1923 expedition, on the winning boat race team that year and went on to fatefully attempt Everest the next year with George Mallory

Travelling to one of the farthest, frozen corners of the Earth is a major undertaking in itself, and is one which carries significant financial costs. We are all making major personal contributions to ensure the expedition’s viability. In addition we are applying to a number of charitable and scientific bodies for funding, but there is a limit to what they can provide. Through the generosity of private donors and sponsors, relatively modest sums can help us achieve a great deal. We are immensely grateful for any support you or your organisation can provide. 

Spitsbergen Retraced: Expedition Trailer

At the end of June, all our donors will be invited to an evening in Oxford to celebrate the 1923 expedition. We will showcase a number of artefacts and a presentation will be given about the historical perspective of our trip. To support us and find out more about the expedition please visit our website svalbard2016

Images: Oxford University Images


By Monica Kendall

Splendid, but ... my son led an expedition in Svalbard for Imperial College just a few years ago!

By Roger Short

With "warm" best wishes from Canada where I've just participated in Canada's 50th Ski Marathon.
I was in #1 too but have not done all in between and now am content to do a half marathon.
(The full course is 160 km over 2 days), so I'm impressed with your challenge and the self sufficiency required).

By Charlotte Holley

I was very interested to read this article. In 2001, 3 of my contemporaries and I also took part in a small geological expedition to Spitzbergen, with support from the Oxford University Expedition Society and the Royal Geographical Society. We were further south than your route, so we didn't encounter so much snow and ice as you will need to deal with, but polar bears were a clear and present danger!

I wish you the very best of luck and look forward to reading about your exploits in future editions of Oxford Today.

Best regards,
Charlotte Holley (nee Pearce, matric. Univ 1998)

By John Bannister

How does one become a donor?
You recognise of course that Odell was responsible for Irvine being on the 1924 Everest expedition and - ironically - the last person to see him (and Mallory) alive. Apologies if this is all in your blurb somewhere but as a 78 yr old Luddite it's as much as I can do to comment thus.

By James Lam


I've been in touch with Alex and he's been extremely help with the planning.

By James Lam


Thanks very much Keith.
We actually first heard about this expedition in a talk on Charles Elton by Caroline Pond!

By James Lam


That sounds like an amazing and challenging race with great heritage!

By James Lam


It's always fascinating to hear about the other Oxford expeditions to the archipelago. We will certainly be taking every precaution against the polar bears!

By James Lam


Thank you very much, John. Just send me a quick email and I'll give you the details:
From their diaries it seems as if Spitsbergen was a real training ground for the 1924 Everest expedition.