Due south for the long haul

16th July 2004 at 01:00
Two accountants are about to make history for Scotland by hauling themselves to the Pole, writes Douglas Blane

Walking across Antarctica requires a lot of support from friends and family, Craig Mathieson, a tax consultant turned adventurer, tells senior pupils at Gylemuir Primary in Edinburgh.

The idea of trekking to the Pole was far from a spur-of-the-moment decision, the 35-year-old says. It first grabbed his imagination when he was about their age.

"I read a book about the Scott expedition called The Worst Journey in the World (by Apsley Cherry-Gerrard). Some people reading about these early explorers only see the terrible hardships they endured. But these men were so determined, so focused. They really inspired me," he explains.

"My wife always knew one day I'd come home and say I was going to the South Pole, and that's how it happened."

In November, Mr Mathieson, who grew up in central Scotland, will embark on the hardest part of fulfilling his dream, when he and a companion, Fiona Taylor, a 36-year-old accountant originally from Dunfermline, will turn their backs on the Antarctic Ocean and take the first steps on the arduous journey across the windswept wilderness of the harshest continent on Earth.

"We are going to walk all the way," says Ms Taylor. "It's 730 miles and it will take us 60 days. We will travel from sea level to a height of 9,000ft, much higher than Ben Nevis - about twice its height - and because the air is so thin, it will feel like 15,000ft to our bodies. It will be very hard to breathe."

The adventurers will set off from Hercules Inlet on the Antarctic coast on November 1 and arrive at the South Pole on or about January 1, 2005.

Averaging more than 12 miles a day, often uphill, usually into the wind and in temperatures down to - 40C, they will each expend 6,000-8,000 calories - roughly equivalent to running a marathon - every day. Unlike early Antarctic explorers, they will have no dogs to pull their sledges, nor will they use motorised transport. Instead, both of them will haul all they need on a 150lb sledge.

"That's about the same weight as your teacher," says Ms Taylor, and 150 pairs of eyes swivel to size up Peter Miller, the Primary 6 teacher who organised the adventurers' visit to the school.

"After our talk you can try our clothes and equipment and have a shot inside our tent. And maybe Mr Miller will let us attach the sledge harness to his feet and some of you can try pulling him around the hall."

The Scot 100 South Pole Expedition by Mr Mathieson and Ms Taylor has been recognised by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society as the first dedicated Scottish attempt of a man-haul expedition to the South Pole. It coincides with centenary celebrations for the achievements of Dr William Speirs Bruce, although the purpose of the 1902-04 Scottish National Antarctic Expedition on the Scotia was scientific and the aim was not to reach the pole itself.

The adventurous accountants and outdoors enthusiasts first met on a management training course just over a year ago. Ms Taylor's interest in Antarctica is not as deep-rooted as her companion's, she says, but her drive and determination seem equally strong.

"When we get there I expect an overwhelming feeling of achievement and exhilaration. If you had worries about not making it, you would never do something like this. Neither of us has any doubts. We are going to make it."

"This is the big one, the one I've always wanted," says Mr Mathieson. "For years I'd go climbing with people and wonder if they would be up for it, not so much physically but mentally. I knew within a week of meeting Fiona that she was the one.

"The hardest part of an expedition like this is dragging yourself out of bed every morning, putting your feet into frozen boots and going outside to face another day of dragging a heavy sledge across the ice with a howling wind in your face. It is hell in the morning."

Their dramatic presentation to the pupils covers every aspect of the forthcoming expedition: the planning and preparation, the team's efforts to raise a pound;1 million for charity (for Childline Scotland, Cancer Research UK Scotland, the Scottish Huntington's Association and MS Society Scotland), the equipment and clothing - so much more effective than those used by early explorers - the satellite phones, the provisions.

"We will take tea and hot chocolate and lots of dried food - stews, soups, pasta," says Ms Taylor. "When we're half-way there a plane will drop more food and letters from home.

"The human body can only take on 5,500 calories a day and we'll be burning much more than that. So we will slowly be starving. In the weeks before we leave we need to put on at least a stone in weight by eating lots of chocolate and fatty foods."

Right now the adventurers are slim because of the punishing fitness regime they have been following, including weight training, running, hillwalking and pulling sledges or tractor tyres. They train every day and have just returned from a month in Greenland, acclimatising to ice, wind and snow and practising the essential life-saving skill of hauling themselves out of crevasses.

The fascinated children fire questions at the pair.

"How will you go to the toilet?"

"At - 40C, very quickly."

"If you travel for 60 days without washing, won't you smell terrible?"

"It's so cold, you lose your sense of smell."

"What will you do when get to the South Pole?"

"We will plant our flag, then pitch our tent," answers Mr Mathieson. "There is a dome at the Pole, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, with scientists inside doing research. But they won't let us in.

"I've been told that's the worst part of all: having to sit in your tent with the dried rations you've been eating for two months, while delicious smells of steak, pizzas and chips waft towards you from the kitchen."

Mr Mathieson and Ms Taylor talk about the personal qualities needed to trek to the South Pole: focus, integrity, resolution, perseverance and creativity. They ask the youngsters about their career ambitions and get a variety of responses: singer, football player, vet, zoo keeper. Then they wonder what personal qualities are needed to achieve these ambitions and the children recite a familiar list: focus, integrity, resolution, perseverance I "To do any job well," concludes Mr Mathieson, "you need exactly the same attributes that will take us to the South Pole."

For Mr Miller, the motivational message is just one of the benefits of bringing the adventurers into the school. "This is a great vehicle, right across the curriculum," he says. "You can use it for imaginative writing, functional writing, science, art. There will be lots of follow-up work.

"We are hoping to link up with them when they come back and maybe e-mail them while they are on the expedition.

"For the kids it's something tangible, a real connection with a distant part of the world most of them will never see."

Carrying a light but strong harness, two pupils appear at Mr Miller's shoulder. He excuses himself: "I have to go now and get tied up and pulled along the floor."

www.scot100.comThe Royal Scottish Geographical Society has produced and distributed to schools an educational booklet on Scotland and the Antarctic. For more information or to book a speaker on Antarctica, contact the society, tel 0141 552 3330www.geo.ed.ac.ukrsgs

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