How to manage risk - by a leading Polar explorer

Can long-term investors learn from the experiences of a polar explorer? We think so – which is one of the reasons we asked Craig Mathieson to share his experiences of journeying through the world’s most extreme environments.


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Craig Mathieson, alongside his highly successful professional career as an accountant, is one of Scotland's foremost explorers, having led the first dedicated Scottish expedition to the South Pole in 2004. Two years later he led an expedition to the North Pole.

In 2013 he became the Royal Scottish Geographical Society’s Explorer in Residence. 

He now devotes his time entirely to Polar exploring and in particular to the work of the Polar Academy, the charity he established six years ago (see below).

Cazenove Capital's Edinburgh office invited him to share the experiences and knowledge gleaned from his expeditions through the world’s most extreme environments. What follows are some of his insights on the topic of risk.

Almost everything is in the planning

“Many of the people who’ve undertaken expeditions like mine have turned them into books. But I haven’t written a book: it would be too boring. That’s because so much of what I do is in the planning, rather than on the trip itself.

“If you get the planning right, the expedition itself becomes more a feat of discipline and repetition. I often say that anyone can get to the South Pole. It’s just about putting one foot in front of the other – two-and-a-half million times.”

There is the academic, technical planning…

“I started planning the 2004 Antarctic trip two years ahead. Some of that was academic, technical research. I looked at 20 year’s worth of weather data, for example, looking for patterns that could help me predict the likelihood of conditions during the two-month period of the planned expedition. As we got closer to the departure, I began to look at weather reports to estimate the effect on ice conditions, including the locations of crevasses.”

…and the physical preparation…

“The cold is so extreme and protracted that extraordinary things can happen to your body. The enamel on my teeth, for example, have shattered as a result of cold.

“The strength and endurance required takes a lot of preparation. An expedition like that is a process of controlled starvation – so how much weight should I put on beforehand, and how? As much as possible my preparation involved talking to those who’d undertaken similar trips before – those people who’d been there and done it.”

…and the crucial element of gathering together the right kit.

“There’s nothing in my sledge that doesn’t have multiple uses. I need to know every single item of my kit: how to break it down, how to repair it, how to use it for another purpose.

“You need this level of preparation because the consequences of something going wrong can be so severe. Say your stove breaks, for example. That could mean no drinking water – because you haven’t the means to melt ice. I buy very few kit items off the shelf. Almost everything is customised.”

“Planning is the difference between being an explorer and an adventurer. Planning is the limitation of risk”

“I don’t call myself an adventurer. An adventurer is a risk-taker, and I use planning to limit risk.”

“In most cases where something goes wrong it’s through lack of planning. Planning is what’s going to get you through unexpected outcomes. These are the circumstances where a failure to plan would spell disaster.

“Take food, for example. I took food for 60 days, but I could make that last for 100 if necessary.”

It takes discipline to stick to a process…

“Say something goes wrong near the end of a trip. That’s a real challenge, and it’s easy to give up. Your energy levels are depleted, your morale is low. But that’s when training kicks in. Your training tells you to keep those negative feelings at bay. Instead, you make decisions based on a strictly logical frame of mind. That’s discipline.

To me, the most important values are linked to discipline and planning: they are the values of patience, of practice, of humility and resilience.

“These are the things that lead to genuinely great decision-making.”

…and experience – your own and others’ – is invaluable.

“Before a trip I talk to as many people I can find who have done the same journey or who have relevant experience. So, for example, when it came to making a decision about how I would progress if there was a whiteout, I had spoken to Inuit people. They told me it’s possible to continue travelling through whiteout conditions, even though this is not what most explorers tend to do.

On my trip to the South Pole I had almost ten times the period of whiteout than you would expect based on previous years’ weather records. In order to succeed I was going to have to continue travelling through the whiteout – and I did. Most explorers on previous expeditions waited in their tents for the whiteout to pass, but I would have failed if I’d done that.”

About The Polar Academy

The charity, established in 2013, identifies “invisible” students within secondary schools and transforms them – through the process of an extraordinarily challenging expedition through remote terrain of Greenland – into confident youngsters who can inspire their peers and forge futures that might otherwise not have seemed open to them.

Craig, who is a special adviser to HM Forces in relation to Polar training, describes the Academy as running the “toughest youth programme in Europe”. To date no one has dropped out.



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