An interview with explorer Craig Mathieson
“The coldest, I have been? Minus 70. In the Antarctic. It gets really cold down there.” Craig Mathieson runs the Polar Academy. A charity dedicated to giving disadvantaged young adults a chance to train for and lead a ten-day expedition in the wild. Turning them into role models for the next generation.
“But you know what, I was toasty warm because I had the right kit on. When people ask me what’s the coldest I’ve ever been, it was actually in the Cairngorms. I wasn’t wearing the right kit and the rain soaked through and I was chilled to the marrow bone!”
It’s this experience and understanding of the importance of preparation that’s helped and inspired Craig to found The Polar Academy. We believe he is one of our Ambassadors who gets the most out of his watch. Craig wears The Holton Professional; “For me a watch is a lot more than a gadget to tell the time.
“Because I am based in the Arctic it’s a navigational aid. I am pretty old school and I use the sun and time. It’s the most accurate navigation you can get. The sun moves 15 degrees every hour so as long as you know what time it is and you can see the sun, you can find any direction.”
Meeting a legend
In 2013, Craig was awarded the honour of becoming “Explorer in Residence”, by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. “It was a very proud moment, a bit like getting an Olympic Gold Medal. A proper dream come true.” And back in March he was asked to go to New York to have dinner with the Explorers Club, meeting the Apollo astronauts.
“That was incredible, I was like a wee boy again. Buzz Aldrin looks like a rock star. He had a silver silk suit on embroidered with rockets. Every finger had a gold ring on, and he was driving a chevy.
“His mind is as sharp as anything and he still works for Nasa. The way he looks at things is incredible. He told us an incredible story about Mission Control wanting to abort when they had just 15 seconds of fuel left. But Buzz thought, that’s more than I thought we had! Let’s get there by the seat of our pants, crack on and get the job done!”
Becoming a role model
So why does he now devote his time to the next generation? It’s all about attitude. “Kids these days get told what they can’t do. It knocks their confidence. Together with modern day issues of social media bullying, it can be quite horrendous for our kids.
“Kids who are lacking self-belief are perfect for us as I know they have the resilience. They have survived through school. We tap into this and show them that they can do it.”
The Polar Academy has been dubbed the toughest youth programme in Europe, but Craig hopes to one day include America. “This isn’t a guided expedition, they do everything themselves – cooking, safety. It’s a huge responsibility. They have to put up their own polar bear fences! Otherwise they won’t learn anything about themselves.
“The military has looked at the way we train and were gob smacked. But it’s easy. I’ve never asked one of the kids to do anything. I’ve only ever told them what they can achieve. Don’t offer them a choice, just tell them what’s going to happen.”
Why do you like the cold?
“I’m Scottish with Scandi blood running through me. I was in the military and specialised in cold places. It’s too hard in the jungle! 12 degrees outside is warm for me. There are too many things to kill you in the jungle – I don’t like pulling out parasites!”
“It’s in my blood. I am from a travelling family of gypsies. We are all explorers – but overall Britain is nation of explorers. Those are our origins. We would head out and discover. But exploring for me isn’t about planting a flag and bragging about it – it’s about sharing the knowledge, experience and memories.”
What’s on your bucket list?
“I have always wanted to get my wife involved and it’s happening next year. She’s coming to the Arctic in the summer time. She hates the cold! We have some Innuit friends up there. She’s a strict vegetarian but they’re going to take us hunting!”
Where’s your favourite place close to home?
“The west coast of Scotland is brilliant for climbing, kayaking and just escaping. There are a lot of quite pristine places that tourists can’t get to. I love going out there, wild camping, recharging the batteries.”
What are you working on at the moment?
“I have been asked to go on an expedition with Karen Darke. She is a Paralympian who had a horrendous climbing accident when she snapped her spine, paralysing herself from the chest down. But her focus and self-belief is off the scale.
“She is doing Quest 79 – cycling 79 miles through each continent, and she was to go to Antarctica. Raising money for The Spinal Injuries Association. We’re going to plant a new pole – The Pole of Possibility. We’re also taking a kid from the Polar Academy with us. We’re going to have to do things differently. Karen can’t generate her own body heat. It will be a first for 2012.”
Why do you love your Elliot Brown Holton watch so much?
“The way they are made is awesome. If you had to sit down and pen what you would look for in a military watch – they have sussed it. Everything from the face to the luminescence to the bevel. And they are the only people to make proper watch straps. The new webbing straps hit the money every time. They won’t rot out, won’t snap, you can get them covered in salt – indestructible.”