Craig Mathieson is Scotland’s greatest living polar explorer and founder of The Polar Academy. Here he reflects on what inspired him and why his mission is to inspire others
In 2004, I met a Polish teenager with an artificial leg and one arm. Exhausted, he had overcome immense physical and mental challenges to complete a gruelling 60-mile ski to fulfil his dream of standing at the South Pole.
His sheer determination and refusal to be cowed by troubles that stalked his young life, really impacted on me. Our chance encounter in the freezing expanse of Antarctica would prove to be a catalyst for The Polar Academy, a Scottish charity I’d establish in 2013.
Admittedly, a charitable vision to use exploration to transform young lives affected by mental health issues wasn’t on my mind as I sheltered at the South Pole. I too was exhausted, having just completed the first dedicated Scottish expedition from the sea to the South Pole.
Undertaken solo, the Scot100Polar Expedition was a 730 mile sled haul over 56-days, in temperatures so low exposed flesh instantly froze. I’d also just been refused a coffee at the nearby US research station, for regulations forbade offering refreshments to visitors. I later received an apologetic letter from the US House of Representatives – and a large bag of coffee!
Defying the odds to explore
I wasn’t born into a family of explorers. Raised in rural Stirlingshire, I found school tough and gravitated towards my outdoor ‘classroom’ of making campfires in the woods and fishing in rivers. When I was eleven, Mr Brown a primary school teacher, handed me a book about Captain Robert Falcon Scott. I was captivated by the images of towering ice-bergs and the tough mind-set of individuals hell-bent on defying the odds to explore.
From that moment I too wanted to be an explorer. During secondary school I’d try to make my own sledge and skis from pieces of wood. I left Balfron High at the earliest opportunity with the words of a disappointed teacher ringing in my ears: ‘Mathieson – exploration isn’t for people like you!’
I joined the Navy and was soon on a ship to South Georgia. As winter descended over the Southern Ocean, I seized the chance to be part of a team that for 3 days and for 30 miles would retrace the steps of Sir Ernest Shackleton. I revelled in the raw physical and mental challenge of the Shackleton Route, battling unrelenting winds and the bitter cold. At journey’s end, I was convinced that it couldn’t be much harder to ski to the South Pole! The die was cast for pursuing what would become my 2004 Scot100Polar Expedition.
The search for satisfaction
Fast-forward to 2004 and my return to Scotland from the South Pole. I was 35 years old, had left HM Forces and had just fulfilled a childhood dream while holding down a desk job with Ernst & Young. I wasn’t satisfied.
The feat of that Polish teenager had convinced me that many teenagers in Scotland, battling with issues like anxiety and crushed self-confidence, could also use exploration to positively transform their lives. In the months following the Scot100Polar Expedition I spoke about my Antarctic experience to hundreds of wide-eyed teenagers in dozens of schools. On each visit I could spot those pupils who didn’t believe they’d ever achieve anything in life. Just like I had, they felt isolated and invisible. I wanted to help them.
I shared my thoughts with family and friends for a Polar Academy. It would focus on helping ‘invisible’ school-kids change their lives through exploration. Chris Tiso, CEO of Tiso Group, the outdoor retail specialist understood my vision and pledged support that continues to this day. Other friends also signed up but in the main I was met by a wave of cynicism and indifference.
Building self-confidence for young people
To prove the viability of my vision, I identified a 15 year-old teenager from Falkirk called Chris Struthers. A troubled lad, his life options were few. With the full backing of his parents, we trained for 9 months and in the early spring of 2006 left Scotland for the Arctic. Within weeks, we stood at the North Pole. Navigating and camping en route, Chris had co-led every step of that tough sled-haul and he returned to Scotland brimming with self-confidence. The impact of the experience was profound on Chris and his family. He buckled down, passed exams, graduated from university and has pursued a successful career.
Invigorated by my success with Chris and supported by my wife Michele, in 2013 I finally had the support in place for a Polar Academy. I had also just been named Explorer in Residence by The Royal Scottish Geographical Society (RSGS); the first person to be conferred such an honour in 129 years.
The first expedition
How time flies. In 2014 I selected the first ten pupils from schools in North Lanarkshire to be part of the inaugural Polar Academy Expedition Team. Those teenage boys and girls, aged between 14 and 17, were all battling with inner demons. Over 9 months, supported by their school and parents, they committed to relentless physical training. During the likes of energy-sapping tyre hauling, to simulate a sled being pulled over snow, a sense of teamwork developed and self-confidence grew.
As I write, teenagers from Bathgate Academy in West Lothian are hard in training for the 5th expedition to Eastern Greenland in March 2019. Like those before them, each will haul a 45kg sled over the ice for 10 days. Supported by my hand-picked guides, the participants will navigate, cook and camp in the snow while also conducting field research. It’s no school trip. Indeed, The Polar Academy has been described as Europe’s toughest youth training programme.
Crucially, following the expedition every participant must undertake a series of speaking engagements, giving a personal account of the challenges encountered and fears overcome. Since 2015, over 60,000 pupils have heard from a participant of The Polar Academy, the aim being to inspire others to overcome personal challenges and pursue their own goals.
Physical and mental transformations
After completing an expedition, I’m always struck by the participants’ stark physical and mental transformation. No longer withdrawn, they exude self-confidence and a ‘can do’ attitude. Scott Graham, a lecturer at Edinburgh Napier University recently joined The Polar Academy as our Exercise Physiologist. Over the next ten years, Scott will measure the physiological and psychological impact of the charity’s methods on participants. Initially, he will focus on the ten-strong expedition team at Bathgate Academy.
Scott’s research will add further to my conviction, supported by feedback from parents and teachers that the charity makes a real difference to the young people it engages. Wholly dependent on donations, it’s only the need to annually find over £170,000 to operate that keeps bold plans for further growth in check.
However, recognition of the charity’s positive work also comes from unexpected quarters. On account of my own polar expeditions and exposing youth to field-science during Arctic exploration, I was recently invited to join the illustrious Explorer’s Club. Founded in 1904 in New York, its membership includes astronauts like Buzz Aldrin and the most famous deep sea and mountain explorers. To be part of such company is truly humbling.
My acceptance into the Explorers Club should also underline to youth, that whatever your background and personal circumstance, life can get better. Dream big and once free from the shackles of self-doubt, even space can be explored.
This article was first published by The Scotsman