New Scots of the Antarctic look north

2nd January 2009 at 00:00
Accountant Craig Mathieson was inspired by the explorer Scott of the Antarctic to follow in his footsteps four years ago. Now he is mounting an expedition to the Arctic, which will link Inuit pupils in Greenland with primary schools in Scotland. Jean McLeish reports

It is a bitterly cold Sunday afternoon and, like most sensible people, Craig Mathieson is snuggled up in front of a roaring fire with his three children watching a Sunday afternoon film.

Outside, the temperature has plunged to -5C and Scotland is Christmas card perfect under a heavy frost. But this time four years ago, Mathieson was battling temperatures of -50C in an incredible journey to reach the South Pole.

It was the first Scottish expedition to the South Pole and the culmination of a boyhood dream for Mathieson, who was inspired by Scott of the Antarctic to make the extraordinary 730-mile journey. After his success, newspaper headlines called him "A new Scot of the Antarctic" and since then, he's visited schools all over Scotland, telling children about his experiences.

"It all started when I was 12 years old, reading a book called The Worst Journey in the World, the story of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, written by Apsley Cherry-Gerrard," says Mathieson, at the family home in Bo'ness. "It's a brilliant book, but it does one of two things. It either inspires you to do things or it makes you avoid cold places for the rest of your life. It puts you off or it turns you onto it."

For the Buchlyvie Primary schoolboy, the book signalled the start of a lifetime of adventure, including trips to both poles. "Ever since then I have been hooked on the outdoors and started climbing and mountaineering early. I was lucky - I lived in Buchlyvie in Central region, out in the country, so I had total freedom of the hills and countryside."

Fast forward 23 years to December 2004 and Mathieson is on his way to the South Pole, after years of training, planning and preparation in Scotland and Greenland. He was accompanied by another accountant, Fiona Taylor. "We set off in the first dedicated Scottish expedition ever to the Pole. The first four days were bad - I mean really bad - a huge storm," he says.

"The temperatures inside the tent were below -50C and inside the sleeping bag was -18C. Fiona got frostbite and had to be airlifted out on Day 4, so I continued after that.

"There were five people in total going to the Pole and we all teamed up and travelled together. Fifty-six days later we reached the Pole safe and sound. That was great and that was a huge trip of over 700 miles pulling a sledge, a true epic."

Mathieson had built his weight up as part of an arduous training programme to prepare for ski-ing and hauling the 150lb sledge with his provisions. He would drag massive tyres for hours along St Andrews beach and march miles carrying a heavy backpack up and down hill on Rannoch Moor. He's spent several years in the services, so he's used to punishing fitness regimes and inhospitable environments.

Training would start at 4am to give time for breakfast with the family before heading for the day job with accountancy firm Johnston Carmichael, where he is a director. He also trained with the Inuit people in Greenland, who taught him about survival in sub-zero temperatures.

"I had lost so much weight my bosses gave me time off to recover. Forget WeightWatchers," he laughs. "I was 13 stone when I left - I had bulked up - and I was eight-and-a-half by the time I got to the Pole.

"That was over two months, but you have got to remember you are burning 8,000 to 10,000 calories a day, so it's like running two marathons every day. You're pulling a sledge and you are skiing - and you are skiing uphill into blizzards so it's extremely hard all the time. Running marathons is much easier. It is physically demanding, but it's also much more mentally demanding because your body is screaming at you all the time to give up.

"You do have a satellite phone that you could use to call it off at any point. But you don't, you keep on going and the longer I'd done the trip, the more unlikely it was that I was going to stop. You get to a point where you don't want it to end, you just want to keep going and going and going.

"It's the difficulty of it all which is the draw and the fact that it is so rarely done, especially from the coast. You learn that you can push and push yourself. You get tired, but after a while you realise you can push yourself a lot harder than you think, for weeks and weeks and weeks.

"And you can go hungry and it's not that bad, or you can get injured and it's not that bad. And you can just keep going. It's something you just prove to yourself as you go along."

After the expedition, as he recovered weight and strength, Mathieson spent six months visiting schools across Scotland, talking to thousands of children about his incredible journey and dreaming up plans to involve and inspire them. Just a few weeks ago, he was at Arduthie Primary in Stonehaven, describing past highlights and future plans.

Now another extraordinary expedition is to be launched in August. The Northern Lights Greenland Expedition has been endorsed by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and backed by Falcon Scott, the grandson of Mathieson's early inspiration, Captain Robert Falcon Scott.

Falcon Scott is a father of three, who lives with his wife Jane and their children at the house he designed and built at Craobh Haven, on the west coast of Scotland. He's agreed to be patron of the expedition and his sons Christopher, 12, and Charles, 8 - great-grandsons of Scott of the Antarctic - will follow its progress at home and at school.

Mathieson will sea-kayak to the remote Inuit communities of Eastern Greenland with his friend Richard Smith - another ex-military man, who served in the Special Boat Services, the marine equivalent of the SAS. Their educational expedition will establish links between Inuit and Scottish schools and culminate in teacher and pupil exchanges between the two countries

Next summer in Greenland, Smith and Mathieson will paddle through the icy seawater dodging icebergs for up to 10 hours a day, stowing laptops in their kayaks for the Inuit primary schools to enable this unique collaboration with Scotland.

Funding for this first stage of the venture is almost all in place - Mathieson's company is donating the laptops and other donors have also contributed. But more cash will be needed if he and Smith are to open up this opportunity to more Scottish schools, as they would like.

"Richard is an IT specialist, so he knows how to rig these up for the internet and have secure transmissions between schools and that kind of thing," Mathieson explains.

Three Scottish primary schools are involved at this stage - Craignish Primary at Ardfern, where Falcon Scott's son Charles is a P4 pupil, Deanburn Primary in Bo'ness, where Craig's sons Jake, 10, and Ruari, 5, are pupils, and Castleview Primary in Edinburgh.

If the project wins further backing, there's potential for more extensive educational involvement. "The schools can do any project imaginable, but we are nudging them towards climate change projects because that's having a drastic effect in Greenland with the disappearance of the sea ice," says Mathieson. "You've got traditional hunters depending on the ice to come in, because the seals come out on the ice and they can get the seals. But if there's no ice, there are no seals and if there are no seals, there's no way of feeding their dogs. It's a vicious circle - if there are no seals, there are no bears either, so they starve."

Mathieson hopes Scots children will learn how the Inuit people are adapting to climate change, as well as learning about their culture and everyday family life.

The two men plan a second and third phase of this expedition, where Scottish pupils will visit Greenland and stay with families, and Inuit children will visit Scotland the following year. "Unlike here, where you hear about climate change programmes and committees for this and that, they don't have time for that - they have to adapt instantly to it. It's tough but their attitude is that 'it's happened, we get on with it'. They've got a fantastic attitude and it's all positive," he says. "Rather than talk about the negative side of climate change, we can talk about what we are doing to fix things."

Over on the west coast at Craobh Haven, the Scott family is round their fireside. In the hall hangs a portrait of Captain Scott - grandfather of Falcon Scott, whose father was the famous conservationist Sir Peter Scott.

Falcon's son Christopher is in first year at Lochgilphead High and has completed a project researching his famous great-grandfather. Like their dad, he and his brother were christened on board Scott's ship "Discovery", and baptised with water from the upturned ship's bell. "I would sum him up as amazing," says Christopher, "and I would like to know more."

Charles has inherited the family interest in wildlife and is keen on drawing and painting. His favourite animal is the Arctic fox: "I'd like to go to Alaska," he says.

The boys' father is an enthusiastic patron of the Northern Lights Greenland Expedition. "What's special about it is connecting it with schools - it's a really good idea. It's important they learn about how the Inuits survive such difficult conditions in Greenland when, actually, Europeans didn't survive in the past - the Vikings didn't, " says Falcon, who travelled to Greenland when he was 18 and later to the Arctic and Antarctic.

But how will today's young Scots take to life among the Inuit people? Craig Mathieson thinks they might turn up their noses for a day or two at the diet of fish, whale, seal and bear meat. "Not a lot in the way of vegetables, but again, that will suit the Scottish children," he laughs.

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