If you thought the era of great explorers was over, think again. Jim McNeill is the founder of Ice Warrior, an organization that trains ordinary people to go on extraordinary expeditions to the Arctic and bear witness to the changing state of the natural world. Having fallen for mountaineering early on, Jim got his professional start as a soil scientist. He later joined the army, where he got his first taste of polar life, and later found rewarding work as a fireman. The call of the Arctic, however, has shaped Jim’s long career as an explorer, educator, and protector of world’s most extreme environments.
As Ice Warriors, Jim and his teams of citizen scientists gather environmental data toward the goal of improving our understanding of climate change and fostering greater stewardship of the planet.
We at Spark have been experiencing his adventures vicariously through his stunning Spark Pages, such as this one, which tipped us off to his upcoming expedition, a treacherous 800-mile journey to the North Pole of Inaccessibility, aka the #LastPole.
We caught up with Jim to learn more about his mission, his inspiration, and his incredible next adventure.
You founded Ice Warrior in 2001. What was your inspiration for the project?
I wanted to take the world of exploration out of the hands of the traditional public school, moneyed, aristocratic domain and put it into everyone’s reach. Coming from a council house in North London, myself, I thought I was living proof that we all have enormous potential that is sometimes difficult to realize and I wanted to help everyone to do just that.
Very early on in life it occurred to me that I would never be able to answer the question – why are we here? Why do we exist? And thereon after I have been motivated by making my life as worthwhile as possible, or what was the point of life itself, and Ice Warrior is my manifestation of this desire.
These days I’m so lucky to be involved with all sorts of wonderful things in the world’s extreme environments. From vetting the safety of tourist operations for governments to being arctic consultant on Captain America to safety consultant, outfitter, guide, and logistician on BBC landmark productions such as Frozen Planet, Human Planet and The Natural World series. I’m waiting for my first James Bond film!
A part of Ice Warrior’s quest is to foster a better understanding of climate change. How does it accomplish this, and what role does citizen science play?
Having started in environmental science myself I’m hellbent on delivering irrefutable evidence as far as our changing world is concerned and the more I begin to learn about it, the more I realize how little we know or understand about our impact on the earth. We don’t pretend to be scientists ourselves but our partner organisations and individuals are some of the very best and they guide and direct what sorts of simple data we can gather to make a real difference.
Ice Warrior’s contribution is not only positive and “vital” but also encourages others to get involved and hopefully contribute in some way shape or form to our future—that’s what I love about it!
The expeditions of Ice Warrior are the foundation of your work, but sharing your adventures with a broader audience is essential to advancing your cause. What role does storytelling play in Ice Warrior?
Telling the story of these ordinary people, training to become explorers is fundamental to the whole process, as I believe it engages and encourages other ordinary people to get involved and spread the message in the best possible way. It is the third D in our 3D approach: Development of people, to Discover change and Deliver the stories in the best fashion possible. On our expeditions (and #Lastpole will be the 8th major expedition we’ve undertaken, training over 350 people), we are immersed in the most extraordinarily beautiful and yet treacherous conditions and capturing the essence of these experiences in every way to convey what it is like is integral to all we are trying to achieve. My hope is that it galvanizes people into taking action. It’s all too easy for us all to say, “what can I do about global change?” and then do nothing. With Ice Warrior you can change your life for the better and actively contribute! A brilliant call to action.
How do you and your team use Spark?
Spark Page is our very best way to get the whole length and depth of the project out there. By linking one spark project to another you can start off with a simple version and make it increasingly complex with as much detail as you wish—and we have plenty of that! It is our major selling tool for corporate sponsorship. My problem is getting companies and brands to look, listen, and engage, particularly potential sponsors, who unfortunately are bombarded with spin, bluff, and nonsense and are therefore naturally skeptical of the project.
Spark definitely gives us that professional edge to rise above the others in the quest for sponsorship and get our case heard. When you’re looking for a multimillion pound budget, that is all important.
What do you like (or love!) about Spark?
Using Spark allows us to project our experiences in exciting, interesting and creative ways and is logical and functional without being overly complicated to use. It is really easy to produce excellent, engaging content and to levels that can be almost infinitely deep.
What other tools have you used to get the word out about your project? What have you found to be most effective and why?
It is my heartfelt desire to tell the world about what we are doing and involve as many people as possible and I’m constantly looking for innovative ways of portraying our endeavours on social media, our websites, and through our media partners, traditional media as well as new methods such as digital billboard networks. We are even building a complex of 3 igloo-like inflatable structures, placed in a high visitor position in central London for the duration of the expedition to unveil the story in as near-live capacity as possible, to provide a visitor experience and to tell the stories of our sponsors involvement, as well.
We’re also blessed by having the whole project beautifully and cinematically filmed by the new but very well founded indie, Three Wise Monkeys, for a feature documentary, which will appear in cinemas and at film festivals and there is the possibility of major a TV series, for broadcast. So, Spark sits beautifully amongst our array of tools for reaching the globe!
Your next expedition will cover more than 800 miles to a region called the Northern Pole of Inaccessibility. What was the inspiration for this ambitious and historic trek and what sort of data are you hoping to collect?
I came across a book that talked about the Arctic Pole (its other name) and realized I had never heard of it. So after huge amounts of research, I found that it had never been reached and therefore stood as the last true world first in polar expeditionary terms. That doesn’t really float my boat but as a pragmatist, it gave me a hook to attract the media and therefore corporate sponsors.
I’ve never been accused of lacking ambition so I set about creating what should, I hope, be the most important expedition of our time with leading scientists ground-breaking technologies such as airships, innovative storytelling and ordinary everyday people.
How are you and your team preparing?
The people involved in Ice Warrior are all-important to me, and the reason I bother to train novices. It is wholly fulfilling to see people develop and grow into better people as a result of exposure to Mother Nature. To think that I have played a tiny part in that process makes my life seem worthwhile (sounds corny but ‘tis true!). Currently we have bricklayers, bankers, vets, vegans, actors, technologists, entrepreneurs, civil servants, engineers, scientists and unemployed people. Disparate groups brought together with a common goal that work incredibly hard to form the high-performing cohesive teams necessary to face the extreme conditions. Some have never even camped out and through extensive, comprehensive, and intensive training they end up being competent polar explorers.
See what it’s like to train to be an Ice Warrior:
What have you learned through Ice Warrior that you wish more people knew about when it comes to climate change and/or the state of the natural world?
I’ve learned how incredibly complex the earth’s interactions are, how little we know and how important it is to invest more time, effort, and money in finding out and applying our intelligence and our technologies to help us survive.
I wished more people would realize that, as humans, we are as vulnerable and fragile as any other species on Earth and as such can just as easily be wiped out. I think the problem we face is much bigger than politics, much more important than commerce and absolutely down to us as individuals to sort it out. No matter how we use and abuse it, the planet will survive but will we?
Do you plan to use Spark to tell the story of #lastpole? How can people follow along on your adventure?
Absolutely and in all its grief and glory. The trials, tribulations, emotional ups and downs, successes and failures, triumphs and troughs. It will all be told in the best fashion we can find and you can follow, help and get involved by visiting www.lastpole.co.uk or www.ice-warrior.com and signing up.
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