An Interview with Arctic Explorer, Jim McNeill

Ice Warrior founder Jim McNeill, is passionate about the Arctic. We caught up with him at home in Berkshire during a quick break from hectic preparations and fundraising efforts ahead of his next expedition.


How did you get into polar exploration?

I only became a professional explorer in October 2006. Before that, I was a fire officer for the Royal household, looking after Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace. But I've been interested in polar exploration since my schooldays. I wasn't very good at applying what little brains I had, so my school sent me on an Outward Bound course.

The course centre, in Cumbria, had a wonderful polar library. It was the first time I had read a book from cover to cover. Every spare moment I had was spent in the library, reading these fantastic stories of the golden era of polar exploration.

What happened next?

As a young man, I did research for early studies on climate change. I was also an army instructor, teaching recruits survival skills. My first trip to the Arctic was in 1984, when I went to Norway with the army. Later, I did other jobs but at the same time I was regularly taking part in expeditions to the Arctic.

What's the thinking behind the Ice Warrior project?

In 2001 I set about creating a worthwhile polar exploration project. Ice Warrior is all about those traditional stories of purposeful, scientific exploration, brought into the 21st century. In the golden era of Polar exploration there was no such thing as an Arctic or Antarctic expert, so there would be a public call for volunteers. That's what Ice Warrior is all about; giving people from all walks of life the opportunity to be trained to conduct crucial scientific data-gathering in the world's most extreme and cold environments.

Novices add a special something to an expedition?

Definitely. We get a full spectrum of society, from captains of industry to the unemployed. What interests me is getting the very best out of an individual and the team. The Arctic demands that you leave behind all the bluff of everyday living - the facades, the egos, the personal agendas. You have to get on with looking after yourself and your fellow team members. It's fantastically fulfilling to watch people using the nice bits of their character and emerging from an expedition as great individuals.

What would we learn from taking part in an Ice Warrior expedition?

You'd learn about yourself, first and foremost. It's a big eye-opener and immensely empowering. It gives you self-esteem. It just makes you a more solid person.

What motivates you to return to the Arctic time after time?

I want to introduce the world to the Arctic. Even now it's an extraordinarily beautiful and pristine environment. We also aim to deliver the reality of global climate change. We don't get into different scientific models. We report what we come across and the more we can do that the better.

The other reason I keep returning is the challenge of facing Mother Nature. No matter how much technology you throw at the problems of travelling and surviving in these extreme environments, Mother Nature always has the upper hand.

Why do we as a society need to know what's happening in the Arctic?

The Arctic is a barometer for climate change. In 23 years, I've seen many changes occur in the Arctic environment. Over the past five years, those changes have been particularly marked. I'm aiming to show people what might be happening in their own environments in the future.

It all boils down to the effects individuals can make on global climate change. It only takes a collection of individuals to make a massive difference to Co2 emissions and to the way people waste energy. It's about individuals taking responsibility for the planet.

You've had a lot of success in your polar career but things can't always go right. How do you cope with failure?

I'm a great believer in the idea that if you don't push yourself to the point of failure, then you haven't pushed yourself enough. Failure is a fact of life. If there are forces beyond your capabilities to deal with and luck doesn't spring your way then you will have to cope with failure. Failure is a positive thing, provided you learn from it.

What's the funniest thing that's ever happened to you in the Arctic?

Sometimes it's so silent out there on the ice that the effect can be really quite eerie. Last year, during a solo expedition, I was asleep in my tent and was awoken by a crack of ice. I went to open the tent to investigate and heard this padding sound, like there was a polar bear approaching.

I got out the pepper spray to defend myself but ended up setting it off inside the tent: I was coughing and sneezing all over the place. Anyway, I opened the tent up and found - absolutely nothing. What I'd been hearing was my own heartbeat. It sounded just like the padding of an approaching polar bear. In the middle of nowhere, I dissolved into hysterical laughter. The really embarrassing thing was that this was the second time I'd been caught out like that!

What do you always carry with you on an expedition?

I always carry a personal log. It's handwritten with a 3B pencil (biros don't work in the Arctic!). When I start writing it, I can't help but let my mind slip back into the golden era of polar exploration. I can almost imagine that I'm Scott writing his last message...

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