As a boy, Craig Mathieson was bullied by his classmates and written off by his teachers. When he told his school careers advisor that he wanted to be an explorer, she laughed at him. 23 years later, Craig led the first Scottish expeditions to ski to both the South and North Poles. Following service in the Royal Navy, he abandoned a career in financial services to focus his attention on turning around the lives of other overlooked kids – the ‘invisibles’ as he calls them. Beware. His story may change your life and career for the better.
MY STORY starts eight years ago. I was waiting to meet the headmistress of a school in central Scotland to discuss an expedition I was planning. A young lad called Christopher sat down next to me. He was waiting to see the headmistress too – he was expecting a bollocking.
I asked him what he wanted to do after leaving school and received the usual cocky teenage answers. I asked him if he liked school. “No,” he said. “I hate it. They’ve had it in for me from the start.”
I saw the headmistress first. I mentioned that Christopher seemed a bit of a character. Her reply came as a shock to me. “Don’t waste your time on people like him,” she said.
Yet I could relate to a boy such as Christopher. I didn’t get on well at high school. I wasn’t bright academically and I wasn’t a troublemaker. I was what I call one of the ‘invisibles’. When I wasn’t being bullied, I was being ignored. I could see a bit of that in Christopher.
Building fires, trapping rabbits
I had one teacher who was different though – the headmaster at my primary school. He was a dear old chap, one of those characters who would hold the class outside if the weather was okay. He gave me the story of Captain Scott to read over the summer. It’s a hard book for a 12-year-old boy to get to grips with but I was glued to it. It was magical. I thought: I have to do this one day.
Because I was unhappy at high school, I lived for the weekends in our village of Buchlyvie, near Stirling. I would go and camp outside all year round, building fires and trapping rabbits. I particularly loved it in the winter when it snowed.
Back at school, I had a session with a careers guidance teacher. I said I wanted to be an explorer. She laughed at me and recommended that I join the local council to work on the roads. I don’t think she realised that I wanted to travel a bit further than Stirling.
The other option was to join the military and of course Captain Scott was in the Royal Navy so that appealed. I went to Glasgow and asked if they still sent ships to the Antarctic. They said ‘yes’. It was the only question I had.
Back at school, I had a session with a careers guidance teacher. I said I wanted to be an explorer. She laughed at me and recommended that I join the local council to work on the roads.
Military life suited me because I like leading a disciplined life. To me it felt like a holiday. I loved the basic training because it was probably less demanding than what I was doing already. They didn’t send me to Antarctica immediately though. Instead I went to the Gulf when the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait kicked off. I was there in a specialist role and had some very hairy times. It wasn’t pleasant at all. However, when the war was over, my ship sailed all the way down to South Georgia, which is famous for the exploits of another of my heroes, Ernest Shackleton, who is buried there. I said to the captain: “I’ll give up an entire year’s leave if you give me three days to cross the island.” He agreed and it was a great little adventure. But it left me wanting more.
Life as a VAT investigator
I stayed in the military for five years. When I left, I joined HM Revenue & Customs. I thought: “They lock up the bad guys – I can do that.” I learnt a lot and became a pretty determined VAT investigator, spending a lot of time in observation vans with binoculars. That led to accountancy firms offering me jobs and I ended up as a VAT partner with a company in Edinburgh.
VAT is one of those issues where you only get the call when someone is in trouble and you’ve got a mess to clear up. There are some fantastic people working in accountancy but it wasn’t for me long term. I still wanted to ski to the South Pole.
Decision day came when I was on the Isle of Skye, doing a management team building thing which was not going very well. My wife Michelle and I had no savings whatsoever but I remember sitting on this rock and thinking: “I’m going to do it.” So while I was still on Skye, I phoned up the logistics company that organises travel to Antarctica and said “book me in for next year”. Before I’d even got home, Michelle had received an invoice for $80,000. Having a bill like that really focuses your mind – and the thoughts of people around you. Your family has to be fully committed too. Life was about to change big time. It was challenging for me but it was much harder for my wife and three young children.
Two marathons a day
To ski to the South Pole in any meaningful sense, you’ve got to start at the edge of the continent, which is a distance of 730 miles. It’s also uphill – by the time you reach the pole you are 9,300ft up. Temperatures range from -50C to -60C, although I had days when it reached -70C. If you feel a tad chilly, you have to put an extra scarf on.
It’s a great place if you want to lose some weight because you burn up to 10,000 calories a day, which is the equivalent of running two marathons a day for two months. So you have to get fit.
I trained every day, including holidays. A typical working day for me was to get up at 4am and either drag some tyres up and down a hill for three hours or go for a 20-mile run. I’d also go for a mile and a half swim in a loch some days, but only in the winter – it was too warm in the summer.
Breakfast would be a massive bowl of porridge, handfuls of dried fruit and a chopped banana on top. I’d wolf that down then eat six boiled eggs and six raw eggs. Then I’d go to work. At noon, I’d do another two hours of training, usually dragging tyres up and down Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh – my employer was very understanding.
Lunch would be a whole chicken followed by a pint of cream down in one. The best time of day would be 3pm when I’d eat a whole cake or a couple of packets of biscuits. Then I’d be in the gym for a couple of hours in the evening. It’s that sort of dedication that you need to do a trip like this.
Lunch would be a whole chicken followed by a pint of cream down in one.
There was one very important thing I needed on this trip and that was someone else to go on the expedition with me. It’s a big decision. One thing you consider is size – two well-built men in a tent is a bit cramped.
I got a tip-off in Glasgow about a woman called Fiona Taylor who could be right for the trip. Actually, she was perfect. She had that old-school grit – very determined and mentally tough.
She’d never done anything like this before but anyone can get fit enough to do this trip. It’s just a question of putting one foot in front of the other a wee bit longer than normal. I taught her everything I knew: how to ski, how to dress, what to eat and we became a really disciplined team. We practised everything. We did days and days of training together over weekends so everything became second nature and we never had to question ourselves. We just knew what to do. The main thing was that we got along with one another. We became friends and great team-mates. It was also important that she became good friends with Michelle – they got on really well.
Colder than a freezer
We trained for 18 months and then left Scotland in October 2004. On 2 November we arrived at our camp at Hercules Inlet. It was a bad start. We encountered a full-blown Antarctic storm. During the first night in the tent it was -50C inside and -18C inside the sleeping bag. That’s colder than a freezer. Fiona started to develop frostbite and, more dangerously, hypothermia. We consulted the doctors by satellite phone and they stopped her from continuing. It was devastating news for her.
At the time, the press suggested that I was considering returning home with Fiona. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Fiona had no choice but I was determined to carry on. I felt disheartened though. I had lost my team-mate.
During the first night in the tent it was -50C inside and -18C inside the sleeping bag. Fiona started to develop frostbite and, more dangerously, hypothermia.
The day I left her, the temperature dropped to -70C. When you’re in those kinds of temperatures for long periods of time, weird things happen. I felt something loose in my mouth so I took off my ski mask. When I spat, it froze straight away into something solid and dropped to the ground. It looked like pure white paper. I thought nothing of it at the time but, when I got back to Scotland, it turned out that the ‘white paper’ was the enamel from my teeth – the cold wind had shattered it.
Blisters would form inside my mouth from breathing in the cold air and the tears from my eyes would freeze on my face. But I was having the time of my life. This was something I had wanted to do since I was 12 years old.
Just ski faster
I’ve met a lot of motivational people in my life but talking to my family by satellite phone was the best motivation of all. One day when I was struggling, my son Jake said to me: “Daddy, just ski faster.” He just wanted me home and it worked. You get tired and hungry, but throughout those times I’d just think about my children and having them next to me and telling me to keep going.
Once you learn to navigate, you can let go of the GPS and use a classic compass. And on the nicer days, when there was nothing but sun, I could navigate simply from my shadow. Those were great days.
You start climbing the polar plateau and you see the curvature of the Earth; the sky goes from the light blue of the atmosphere into the black of space and you’ve got 5.5 million sq miles of ice to yourself.
Of course, you can’t ski 730 miles without something going wrong and the big thing for me was when my tendon in my knee snapped. I felt pain in the base of my spine, the base of neck and my groin. The tendon was sticking out through my skin, so I pulled it down with pliers and strapped it to my leg. I grew up in a household where we never took any pills for anything so this was my first experience of painkillers. I took some Nurofen and the first thing I noticed was they tasted delicious. They’re sugar coated! However, they didn’t stop the pain so next up was codeine. That didn’t work either. The doctor then suggested a mild form of morphine. That did the trick – I knew I was in pain but the morphine meant I didn’t care any more. And I kept skiing.
I had another problem when I was just three days from the South Pole. My feet had frozen when I had my boots off in the tent and the big toe on one foot got infected.
I sent a picture to the doctor at base camp. He immediately replied that they were going to have to fly in to get me and take me to a hospital. There was no way I was going to let that happen. I refused point blank and asked to speak to a surgeon who could talk me through what I needed to do. I sterilised a knife, listened to his instructions and sliced through my toe cutting the nail part off.
On 28 December 2004, I was skiing along when I saw a black dot in the distance. I knew what it was. It was the South Pole research station. At that point, I felt every emotion I had had since I was 12 hit me like a sledgehammer. I wish I could tell you what the last 11 miles felt like but I honestly couldn’t. It was a blur.
People have asked me if arriving at the South Pole was an anticlimax after everything I’d done. Nothing could have been further from the truth. I think about that moment every single day of my life. I managed to put my tent up where Roald Amundsen’s tent was – it was magical.
Every emotion I had had since I was 12 hit me like a sledgehammer. I wish I could tell you what the last 11 miles felt like but I honestly couldn’t. It was a blur.
A couple of Americans from the research station came out to greet me and invited me in. We chatted for a long time while they drank big mugs of coffee. Eventually I said: “Any chance of offering me a coffee?” “Sorry,” they said. “It’s US Government policy. We’re not allowed to offer any food or drink to visitors.”
A couple of years later, I told this story to an audience in Edinburgh. Afterwards, a big American came up to me and apologised profusely for what had happened. A couple of weeks later a big crate arrived at my house. There was a card from the House of Representatives in Washington thanking me for my work and explaining that the crate contained a very large supply of coffee.
A plane picked me up a couple of days after arriving at the South Pole – which was just as well as I’d run out of rations. I was a shell of a man. At the start of the expedition I had weighed 13 stone; now I weighed just eight and a half. Forget Weight Watchers, this is far better.
Searching for the ‘invisibles’
Back in Edinburgh, I turned up at work. They took one look at me and told me to go home for a month and recover. But I couldn’t just sit around. I decided to go into schools to give free lectures on my experiences – I quickly received more than 850 requests from all over Scotland.
It was during these visits that I noticed three distinct groups of children: the A-graders, the disruptives and the ‘invisibles’ that I mentioned earlier. The invisibles never put up a fuss, they just got on with things. When I asked these children what they wanted to be when they grew up, I’d get brilliant answers. But they lacked confidence. They didn’t think they could be what they wanted to be.
I was also called into the Scottish Parliament for three days to talk to them about the trip to the South Pole and my school lectures. The politicians understood what I meant by ‘invisibles’ so I asked them what they were doing about it. All I got was a load of waffle.
So the then First Minister Jack McConnell asked me what I would do. My response was: “Pick any child you like from anywhere in Scotland – I will get them to the North Pole and show you how it changes their life.” To my surprise they agreed, but in typical Scottish style they wanted the initiative to be kept hush-hush in case it didn’t work out. As it was, they left me to find the child to take. But I was determined it should be someone who was seen as a lost cause. Someone that nobody wanted to waste time on. I chose Christopher.
“Pick any child you like from anywhere in Scotland – I will get them to the North Pole and show you how it changes their life.”
I went to see his parents. They were lovely people but even they had given up on him. They said they’d ‘lost’ Christopher years ago. He no longer talked to them. He just sat in his bedroom playing computer games. Nobody thought he was capable of achieving anything. Christopher was perfect for the trip – and he told me he wanted to do it. I could see a spark in him.
We came to an arrangement that meant his parents had to be part of the team. I would train Christopher but they would also have to go the gym three times a week and get fit. They would all have to eat healthier food and, for the first time in years, sit down and eat all their meals together. It had to be a team effort.
The first few weeks were chaos. I was turning up at 4am to take Christopher on long runs or make him drag tyres up hills; he and his parents were struggling to cope. But by the third week, when I turned up at his house, he would be outside waiting for me, ready to go, excited, enjoying it. His parents were getting fit too, and they were all talking to each other.
Christopher trained really hard. I taught him how to ski, and a lot of the other skills I’d taught Fiona. I could see he was getting close to being physically and mentally able to do what nobody thought he was capable of – skiing to the North Pole.
It was time for a test. I told him he was going to run a marathon. He turned up with his running gear on. I told him to put his walking boots back on, wear his overalls and put his backpack on – and that I’d be running the marathon with him. We had a fantastic day. We joked and laughed all the way around, spurring each other on. We did it, together. I was really proud of him. We stopped for some soup on the way back in the car and I told him to check the distance we had run on the map. “Why bother?” he said. “You told me we’d run a marathon, which is 26 miles.” I showed him the map. He’d actually run 40 miles.
I told him to check the distance we had run on the map. “Why bother?” he said. “You told me we’d run a marathon, which is 26 miles.” I showed him the map. He’d actually run 40 miles.
Take me to the North Pole
The day came when we were finally going to make our trip to the North Pole. We were dropped off via helicopter at our starting point and before we set off I handed the compass to Christopher and said: “You’re taking me to the North Pole. This is your expedition.”
It couldn’t have gone more smoothly. The conditions were fine, we were well organised and Christopher was by now very fit and very determined. I still played the occasional trick on him though. Given that our expedition was in the summer when there is permanent sunlight, we would ski for eight hours then rest/sleep for eight hours. One day Christopher said he was really struggling with tiredness so could he sleep for 16 hours to recharge his batteries. Okay, I said, on the condition that in our next session after that we ski for 16 hours too. He agreed.
I woke him up after his big sleep. “How do you feel?” I asked. “Brilliant,” he said. “I really needed that. That was a great sleep.” I never told him that I had only let him sleep for eight hours. I still made him ski for 16 hours though. Tiredness is all in the mind.
We reached the North Pole on 24 April 2006. We arrived there ahead of schedule, without a scratch. It was fantastic. On arrival, I phoned the First Minister and was put on loudspeaker in the Scottish Parliament. I thought, should I go for it? And I did. I gave them a 10-minute lecture on the youth of the nation and to stop being so bloody negative.
The new Christopher
I was so proud of Christopher. Here was a guy who had had zero aspirations, zero confidence and was so shy he wouldn’t even talk to his parents. I took him to school on his first day back and all his fellow students lined up and clapped him in. I like to think that some of the teachers hung their heads in shame.
Christopher grew up whilst on the ice and now understood what achievement meant. He became the first person from his family ever to make it to university and he graduated from Aberdeen last year with a first in Geology. His life and that of his parents has been transformed – and they did it themselves. They just needed a bit of encouragement.
There are ‘invisibles’ like myself and Christopher everywhere. At school, in banks, in insurance companies, and every other segment of society. You may well be one too – and you almost certainly work with some. When we push ourselves and encourage others to fulfil their ambitions, it is extraordinary what can be achieved. And it doesn’t take a special talent. It just takes hard work, determination and a positive attitude.
The financial services world has taken some serious knocks in recent years, largely of our own making. And it’s not the easiest of arenas in which to push through radical ambitions. But disruption also creates opportunity. And you don’t have to walk to the South Pole to set off on a thrilling expedition of your own making – or to encourage your colleagues to do the same.
things I learned
Craig learnt a lot from his Polar expeditions – and many of the lessons apply to anyone working in business.
IGNORE THE DOOM-MONGERS
People with limited ambition will always try to put you and your dream down. Thank them for their thoughts and then promptly ignore everything they say.
THINK IN TERMS OF FOOTSTEPS
Regardless of the journey you are about to embark on, savour that first footstep then focus on the final one.
FEAR IS YOUR FRIEND
To be afraid is good. Harness it as it will make you stronger and more focused.
NO PLACE FOR EGOS
Avoid wasting time with egomaniacs – they are the first to panic when the chips appear to be down.
Always trust your own abilities but never accept that you know everything; further improvement can always be achieved.
Regardless of what is socially accepted, you CAN wear the same pair of woolly pants for two months when out for a very long walk.
The Polar Academy
Craig Mathieson now dedicates his career to finding other Christophers. He has established the Polar Academy which, each year, will take four schoolchildren on an expedition to the North Pole. He does however need financial support to make the project happen.
Visit www.polaracademy.org to find out more.
This story is taken from the first issue of Poppy. Our print run is strictly limited but, if you are based in the UK, you can request a printed copy via the ReadPoppy.com website.