Bo'ness explorer Craig Mathieson is invited into the ranks of illustrious Explorers Club
When Craig Mathieson was a wee boy, he dreamed of becoming an explorer.
The head teacher of his primary school in Buchlyvie gave him a book, The Worst Journey In The World, by one of the youngest members of Robert Falcon Scott’s team, Apsley Cherry-Garrard.
And that fuelled his dream of, one day, making it to the North and South Poles.
He left high school, aged 16, to join the Royal Navy in a bid to see the world.
But the Gulf War began and, as well as tours there, the furthest south he made it was the Falklands.
Leaving the navy five years later, Craig moved back to Scotland where he began work as a fraud investigator for Customs and Excise.
He said: “I dealt with all the psychoes – it didn’t bother me – but it sounds more exciting than it was.
“About 95 per cent of the time I was desk bound with five per cent action.”
Craig was, however, so good at it his job that an accountancy firm poached him to look after their taxes.
All the while, though, he still couldn’t quite let go of his dream.
At every opportunity, he made trips to the Arctic and Greenland and mountaineered all over Europe, including Scotland which he says is still hard to beat for outdoor pursuits.
In 2003, he decided to turn his dream into a reality and, after raising more than £100,000, he finally made it to the South Pole.
He said: “By this time I was married and had three children, with no savings, but I just decided to go for it.”
Thanks to sponsors, like Chris Tiso who remains a firm supporter, Craig finally achieved his dream.
He said: “It took me 56 days, leaving from the Antarctic coast on November 2 2004 and travelling 730 miles uphill all the way to the South Pole at 9300 ft, arriving on December 28.
“It was the first dedicated Scottish expedition to the South Pole.
“I missed birthdays and Christmas with my wife Michele and our children Layla (22), Jake (20) and Ruari (15). But I had a Christmas card from them and inside was a wine gum which I ate when I got to the Pole. It’s the best thing I’ve ever eaten!”
Having survived that mission, with temperatures of -70 in the windchill, returning home was a shock.
He explained: “I’d lived in a tent, with a wee stove, for almost two months and came home to a world where people wanted more – faster cars, bigger TVs and the like.
“I started speaking in schools, telling pupils about my trip, and I realised they hadn’t changed in all the time since I’d left.
“There were three groups of kids in every school – the elite pupils from good, solid backgrounds; the troubled youngsters at the other end of the scale and the forgotten group in the middle – that’s the kids I wanted to help.”
A pupil from Falkirk helped him with a pilot for what turned out to be Craig’s successful children’s charity.
He said: “I said I’d be able to take him on an expedition to the North Pole.
“No-one thought we could do it but on April 24, 2006 we made it to the Pole.”
On the back of that, Craig launched his charity, the Polar Academy, in 2013.
He said: “There was no job satisfaction at the accountancy firm – I was making rich people richer.
“So I took a 100 per cent paycut overnight to launch the Polar Academy.”
It’s a move Craig has never regretted, despite now being guide, coach and fundraiser.
He said: “I’m never going to be rich because I have to fundraise £170,000 every year to enable the pupils to get to the Pole.
“But it’s the greatest job in the world – I love it.”
And the results speak for themselves with Craig’s former expedition pupils going on to great success.
Named Explorer in Residence by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society (RSGS), he was also invited to join the illustrious Explorers Club this year.
Founded in 1904, fellow members include Sir Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay, Jacques Piccard, Don Walsh, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins.
Craig will travel from his Bo’ness home to address fellow members of the club in New York next year.
He said: “Only those who reach the pinnacle of exploration are asked to join.
“To me, it’s like receiving 1000 Olympic gold medals at the one time. You know you have made it as an explorer if you’re asked to join.”
Craig (49) is now working with Bathgate Academy pupils for a 2019 expedition to Eastern Greenland.
He added: “To be able to carry the Explorers Club flag on that expedition will be an extremely proud moment for me and everyone associated with the life-changing work of the Polar Academy.”
To find out more visit www.thepolaracademy.org.