It sounds very compelling as a TV concept. Imagine the pitch ‘Take one seasoned explorer to the last great arctic unknown leading a rag-bag crew escaping from their emotional backstory before voting them off one by one.’
“They wanted to call it ‘ice-idol’ or something like that”, said the seasoned explorer Jim McNeill – “but I said: ‘Absolutely no way, I’m not doing that’ ”.
McNeill could well be the one great explorer you’ve never heard of – until now.
Based in Princetown on Dartmoor, the 61-year old is explaining how he turned down a TV production company ahead of his next big adventure with a team of ‘citizen scientists’ aka ordinary people, called the The Last Pole Polar Expedition.
It’s fair to say, if he wanted fame, he would have had it already. He has an impressive track record – has worked as a safety advisor on BBC’s Frozen Planet, counts Sir Chris Bonington as a friend and has been Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ polar consultant for 21 years.
What else…he has been a fireman at Windsor Castle, called on a favour from Sir David Attenborough and has helped NASA pinpoint some of the remotest landmarks on earth.
But he’s not one to be in the limelight. In fact, he’s happiest when he’s getting the best out of other people.
That is what makes his next mission so special.
McNeill will lead a 28-strong expedition that will reach the Northern Pole of Inaccessibility in 2023. It is the last place on earth that is still significant and unreachable by mankind.
It is defined as the Arctic Ocean’s furthest point, located in the centre of the Arctic Ocean. It is located 270 miles away from the Geographic North Pole.
In a mission that echoes Ernest Shackleton who led a team who had no previous experience, McNeill is pulling together a crew of men and women who are complete novices but are willing and able to put up with what he calls the ‘inbuggerances of going on expedition’.
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They will also be exposed to freezing temperatures, melting ice beneath their feet, and the possibility of being confronted by hungry polar bears.
Among those who have signed up are ground maintenance workers from Cornwall, a merchant seaman and an HR man for B&Q – there is still time to apply with the deadline closing in December 2022.
He has taken businessmen who are more at home on desks than they are outward bound on expeditions, and he believes that anyone can be an explorer, provided they go through the training and selection process.
This expedition is about citizen science. It collects data from an area never before explored to map the effects climate change.
McNeill explained: “I want it to be accessible to everyone because traditionally, exploration was the preserve of men who were Eton educated and who started life with a silver spoon. McNeill explained that it was always ordinary workers who would have made up this team.
“It gives people who would otherwise not have the opportunity to do an incredible thing.
“And importantly, they can’t pay for all of the trip themselves, they have to get sponsorship because that is part of the process, that teaches you the skills to be on the expedition – it teaches you important things like courage and dealing with frustration”
McNeill stated that most applicants will opt out of the training stage.
He explained: “We do whatever we need to do to upset their expectations of what it will be like because it is only then that they can really learn about themselves and what they’re capable of.”
McNeill has done this all his life. Born into 1960s North London, his father Richard emigrated from Ireland at a time when shops still had signs saying ‘no Blacks, no Irish’ on the door. He was raised on a Barnet council estate and earned a reputation for being able stare down bullies as a schoolboy.
He didn’t like the classroom much and the only thing he was interested in was sport. His mum sent him on an “outward bounds” course when he was 16 to help him find his way. It worked, and he has been exploring the world ever since.
While he was working as a scientist at the Grasslands Institute’s scientific research unit, he began mountaineering. He also developed military exercises in arctic Norway during his time in the British Army. While serving as a fireman at Windsor Castle for 10 years, he developed a relationship with the Inuit during three-month sabbaticals.
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McNeill later set up Ice Warrior Project, which he operates out of Princetown basecamp with Sam Clifford.
Svalbard McNeill trains ordinary people annually to become polar competent from his base at Resolute Bay, and more recently, his base at Longyearbyen. He has led seven flagship expeditions and trained more than 400 people.
His expeditions took him to Antarctica via the Southern Ocean and mainland Canada, Norway, Svalbard and Bathurst Island. Ellesmere Island, Bathurst Island, Bathurst Island, Bathurst Island, Svalbard and the Arctic Ocean.
He was an expeditionary traveler for the past year, until 2021 when the pandemic ended overseas travel.
He was forced to take a break from work to allow him to plan for his next venture, which will be his third attempt at the North Pole of Inaccessibility.
He had a failed solo attempt in 2003 after contracting a flesh eating disease in his left leg. His second attempt in 2006 was stopped by disintegrating seaice, 130 miles into the journey.
McNeill explained that this is truly the last great mystery in polar exploration.
He doesn’t know if it is even possible – and even if it is, it needs a target of around £1.8million to get there.
It would be a dream to transport the kit via boat, instead of flying. Plymouth To Resolute Island (Canada). The team would leave from here and set off for Ellef Ringnes Island, before embarking on the 800-mile journey across sea ice. Each team would travel on one of the four legs, which each takes around 20 days.
“For novices, 20 days is enough, if people start feeling down and need picking up then 20 days is achievable, Any more is probably asking too much.”
They will record everything they see in order to track the effects climate change, from polar bear sightings to weather conditions to levels of pollution.
“I don’t know if we will even be able to reach it and that will tell another story if we can’t because that will be because of melting sea ice as a result of climate change. But I do know we can get there. If we don’t, we will have documented every step along the way and will have a record as to why we failed.
“We know that the arctic is warming three times faster than other parts of the earth and it will be a forewarning of what is coming our way.”
The project requires sponsorship. McNeill is currently in talks with Australia’s richest man, billionaire Andrew Forrest, chairman of mining giant, Fortescue Metals Group that has vowed to become a ‘renewable energy’ powerhouse To achieve its 2030 targets for absolute zero operations
Overall, the increased interest in sustainability, corporate accountability, and green issues within business and finance is paying off. But there is still much greenwashing to be uncovered.
McNeill stated that the prolonged periods of lockdown during early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted a renewed interest and concern for the environment.
He said: “People are seeing the effects everyday, fewer planes in the sky, wildlife coming closer for the first time, reduced traffic.”
It is actually the Big corporations that control large amounts of the power.
He said: “I was asked to talk at a similar event in Tromsø in 2007 about the arctic frontiers.. The scientists were saying the right things, the politicians were saying what they always do and there were 168 oil wells in Arctic at the moment. And I realised then, it doesn’t matter what the scientists or politicians say, if you are going to affect change then you have to have the commerce guys on side.”
The goal is to secure a corporate sponsor who is forward-thinking and to encourage small businesses, schools, and individuals to pledge what they can.
“They may not be able to afford huge sums but they could put their name to a footstep along the way and help get the word out.
“I want to be able to engage the business world so they can be involved in getting a finger on the pulse of the planet which will help us all make properly informed decisions about climate change.
“If we don’t do this, how do we know that anything we might do to mitigate the climate crisis is actually working?”
McNeill is not afraid of a challenge.
He admits that he can’t ever remember being frightened of anything, despite witnessing a fair amount of trauma in his career, particularly specialising in road accidents with the fire service.
He said: “I love being responsible for other people and the way I do that is by being dedicated. I’m not interested in ego, I just want whatever I’m doing to be purposeful and worthwhile.”
Find out more The expedition can be found here