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Ice man

1 Jun 10

Robert Outram meets Craig Mathieson, VAT expert… and polar explorer

by Robert Outram

Craig Mathieson wanted to go to the South Pole ever since he was 12 years old. Like many young people, he was inspired by tales of the great explorers of the past. Unlike most, he made his dream a reality. In his day job, Craig is director of VAT services with accountants Johnston Carmichael in Edinburgh, but he can also claim to be Scotland’s most accomplished living polar explorer as ICAS members heard when Craig addressed the Institute’s AGM in April this year.

Craig’s first glimpse of the frozen south came when he served in the Royal Navy, when he got the chance to go ashore on South Georgia, a bleak island in the far South Atlantic.

After the Navy he joined HM Customs & Excise and then went to Ernst & Young as a VAT specialist. That was when he decided to make his polar dream a reality. The first step was to call a logistics company and book the flight to Antarctica. He had just run up a bill for $80,000, without any funding or money in the bank.

Fortunately, EY not only agreed to give him three months off, but also came up with £100,000 of funding to mount the first ever all-Scottish expedition to the South Pole. Travelling with EY colleague Fiona Taylor, a corporate restructuring director with EY, the plan was to “man-haul” sledges across more than 700 miles of frozen, gruelling terrain.

After training in Greenland, Craig and Fiona headed to Antarctica in November 2004. Even in the Antarctic summer, Craig says, the weather was “brutal” and much colder than expected. He recalls: “The temperature inside the tent on the first night was -51° C, and even inside my sleeping bag it was -18° C.”

It soon became clear that Fiona, who was starting to suffer from frostbite and hypothermia, was not going to be able to complete the expedition. Craig had no doubts at all, however – he was going to carry on.

Fortunately, as he explains: “My heart rate and blood flow are very resistant to cold. Growing up, my best friend used to say I had antifreeze, not blood.

“One day I was repairing the sledge and I had to take a glove off. After five minutes, two of my fingers were white and frozen solid, right down to the knuckle, but 20 minutes later my fingers started to pink up again. I could feel the blood turning back into slush in my veins.”

It took 56 days to reach his goal. Craig recalls: “After all those years, actually getting there was incredible. I think about that day, every day.”

When he got back, Craig was invited to schools all around Scotland to talk about his expedition, and that proved to be the inspiration for his next challenge. He wanted to prove that young people are capable of anything if they have the right encouragement.

Craig’s plan was to take a school student to the North Pole, something that was immediately condemned as impossible by almost everyone. Of course, that only spurred him on.

Turning down a host of applications from high-achievers, Craig chose a 16 year old from Falkirk – who wasn’t keen at first. Craig says: “Chris, was the hardest possible candidate and I thought that would have the maximum impact. His teachers and even his parents told me he was a hopeless case.

I told his parents, ‘I can get Christopher to the Pole, but he has to comply with a strict regime, and you have to comply with it… just take it one step at a time’.”

He adds: “When we got to the North Pole [on 26 April 2006] you should have seen the expression on Chris’ face – he could not stop smiling.

“We phoned Jack McConnell [at the time, Scotland’s First Minister] from the Pole and we gave him a talk on the meaning of the word ‘impossible’”. Now, Chris is chairman of the junior section of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and studying Geography at St Andrew’s University. Craig says: “Everyone around Chris – parents, school, community, changed as result of what we did.”

Craig’s latest project is Northern Lights Expeditions, a project which aims to take Scottish primary school children to live for 10 days with the Inuit people on the undeveloped east coast of Greenland, with a return visit for the Greenland children to Scotland.

Phase one was a trip by kayak to meet the local communities along the Greenland coast, win them over to the idea, and to deliver laptops - donated by Johnston Carmichael - to the schools. Craig says: “This trip will give a unique, never to be forgotten experience to Scottish kids who will learn firsthand the effects of climate change, as well as gaining an understanding of a very different culture.

“Our motto is ‘inspiration through exploration’ and we believe many lessons will be learned which will return to the classrooms and into the lives of these children long after we return.”

For more information on the Northern Lights project see

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Craig Mathieson | Polar | North Pole | South Pole | explorer | Johnston Carmichael | John Kay