On Becoming an Explorer

Craig Mathieson, March 2014

rsgs - becominganexplorerI made the decision to become an explorer at the age of 12, after reading Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World.  Already a bit of a feral child, I would spend many weekends wild camping in the woods around my home village of Buchlyvie, living off fish caught in the River Forth and the endless supply of rabbits from the surrounding fields.  To me, even at this young age, it was all part of training to become an explorer one day.

Unfortunately, being an ‘explorer’ was not on the list of career options which I was given by my guidance teacher on reaching 16 years old.  Quite simply, “people like you don’t do that sort of thing” was the advice I was given.  However, I was never one for giving up easily, so I decided that the only person who could make this work was myself; therefore, over the following years, that’s exactly what I did.

Starting by joining the military, I was able to gain some of the skills required for successful exploration.  However, I would always seek out anyone who could give me any advice; I would listen and practise any new skill until it became a natural instinct.  I would also read any book which could help me get into the mindset of being an explorer.  Needless to say, I began to see the explorers of the ‘Golden Age’ as my role models.  For me, the professionalism and attitude of Amundsen and Nansen shaped the way I would plan and train for expeditions, whilst the inspiration to achieve would come from the likes of Scott, Shackleton, Bruce, and of course Sir Wally Herbert.

rsgs - becominganexploreAll the years of hard work came to fruition when, on 28th December 2004, having skied 730 miles, I reached the South Pole.  There are no words which can describe the sense of accomplishment of a life-long goal; indeed, many people could ask if, having achieved the Pole, it left me with a sense of anti-climax.  Nothing could be further from the truth; to ski to the South Pole is one of the greatest privileges in exploration.  I often think about the actual moment I reached the Pole and what it took to get there – the training, the sponsorship, the pain, and the commitment from my wife and children to help me achieve.  Therefore, instead of a sense of anti-climax, it fills me with an enormous sense of pride, as well as giving me the privilege of now being able to share my own experiences with others.

After the South Pole, I conducted an extensive lecture tour of Scottish schools.  I would tell the pupils of my experiences, but at the same time ask them who inspired them and what did they want to achieve in life? Over the many months of lectures, I began to identify a section of pupils within every school who would have fantastic aspirations but no confidence or belief that they would achieve anything significant in life.

This troubled me, so I set out to demonstrate that anyone with the right training could change their attitude to achieve any goal, regardless of previous beliefs.  Therefore, I took Chris Struthers, a very normal, shy teenager with a serious lack of confidence, on a journey that would change his life – skiing to the Geographic North Pole.

Preparation for any expedition has to be meticulous, but more so when dealing with youths.  We trained hard, and over the months I could see Chris’s confidence grow.  The expedition was flawless and on 24th April 2006, shoulder to shoulder, we reached the North Pole.

Chris returned to school, worked hard, and used the skills he had learnt to eventually gain enough qualifications to be accepted into university.  A very confident Chris and his mother visited me last summer to say thank you; they had just returned from his graduation ceremony at Aberdeen University.  They explained that the North Pole expedition had changed their lives forever: life no longer had barriers, just opportunities.

There are thousands of youths all over Scotland who are just like Chris when I first met him.  I know, as I still talk to schools all over the country.

I consider myself to be exceptionally privileged to have had the opportunity to undertake my expeditions.  However, with this privilege comes a duty.  A duty to pass on all the life lessons learnt, to share the images I’ve seen on my travels, and to inspire the next generation.  I now devote all my time to establishing the Polar Academy, a Scottish charity which seeks out the ‘Chrises’ of this world and gives them the responsibility and trust needed to enable them to join me in scientific expeditions to the Arctic.  Whereby, on their return, they go into schools and inspire their peers with the message that any goal can be achieved.