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October 2003

Michael's mission possible!

By Sue McGrath,
Muscle Help Foundation.

Sue McGrath is Michael's wife and is a business consultant who works with him at the Muscle Help Foundation headquarters in the role of PR and Communications to promote worldwide awareness of muscle disorders ...

North Pole expedition

You certainly can't call Michael McGrath a sedentary sort of chap! After all, he's voluntarily jumped out of a perfectly good aircraft at 12,500 feet to skydive with a member of the Red Devils Parachute Team and walked just over 9 miles round a golf course all in aid of charity.

For his latest adventure that again pushes the boundaries in support of people's ability, not their disability, he's gone a lot further than that - all the way to the North Pole in fact.

Getting Michael's wheelchair onto the sled.


"Well, I had been looking for some time for a third challenge to complete a very special 'trilogy of events' to raise awareness and much needed funds for charity" says Michael.

Fine, but what you don't know is that Michael has Limb Girdle Muscular Dystrophy [type 2A], which has severely reduced his ability to walk. Not that he lets that get in his way, obviously.

When he read about an expedition going to the North Pole in aid of Muscular Dystrophy, he knew he'd found a unique third opportunity to "make that difference" in completing the trilogy!

As Michael puts it, "more people have climbed Everest and gone to the moon than have been to the North Pole and that's a fact!" What he's too modest to add is that he's the first person in history with Muscular Dystrophy ever to do this.

After much careful planning, it was decided that Michael would join the expedition for the final 150 metre stretch to the Pole [at 90 degrees north] with a personal backup team of two - his personal carer Major Kerry Williams of the Royal Artillery and Miles Peckham, business entrepreneur and friend.

To manage the extreme conditions, Michael, who lives in Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom, had to prepare both physically and mentally. The irony is that those who suffer with Muscular Dystrophy feel the cold considerably more because their circulatory systems are less efficient. It was critical therefore for him to have adequate protection for his hands [fingers] and feet [toes] in being exposed to temperatures of minus 45 degrees below, with wind chill, taking the temperature down to a staggering minus 60 degrees!

His consultant specialist in London wasn't particularly keen for Michael to go for this very reason. However, after a full-on medical check that included a comprehensive cardiac assessment, Michael committed to the project 100% and thereafter had to fight the fear that he may not cope with such extremes of cold.

"From a cerebral perspective I had to replace the negative thought - 'I can't cope with the cold' - with - 'I can cope with the cold and I will achieve my goal,'" he said. He used a combination of visualisation and coaching techniques together with a number of NLP [Neuro Linguistic Programming - the study of human excellence] interventions to help remove these 'limiting beliefs'. For example, in dealing directly with the cold, Michael triggered an unconscious thought in his mind and in so doing visualised a picture of the Ready Break advert where the little chap has that warm orange 'sun-like' glow all around him (this advertisement is well known in the UK).

Working as a Business Adviser specialising in the area of performance improvement, people development and motivation, these are proven coaching interventions used to enable company executives deliver to their full potential.

Well, on Saturday 13th April 2002, Michael and his team left Heathrow for a small island east of the ice cap called Spitzbergen via Oslo and Tromso in Norway.

At this time of year, the temperature varies between minus 5 and 10 degrees on Spitzbergen and Michael knows this because they had to wait on board a Russian freight plane for 6.5 hours on the runway until it was decided that the weather was indeed too bad to fly!

When eventually they did take off it was in the company of 27 drums of 55 gallon kerosene containers, three Russian pilots who smoked heavily and Michael's team of three. The aromatic cocktail on board quickly induced headaches all round for the long two and half flight. Furthermore the plane wasn't licensed to carry commercial passengers - but at least they were on their way. "It was like a John Le Carre thriller, not only being bundled on board through the rear cargo door out of the back of a faceless white transit van but with no words being exchanged from our Russian pilots. As for security and customs … there was no sign of them, just several vicious druelling Nordic guard dogs patrolling the perimeter fence of this desolate airport!" said Michael.

At the other end was Borneo, an ice camp that is seasonally erected each year for explorers, from where helicopters fly groups closer to the actual North Pole. Here they waited an hour in tents while the weather worsened. "It was a blizzard, absolutely dreadful" said Michael "and as a result of the appalling weather, the helicopter pilots refused point-blank to fly"!

As for the Russian pilots - they were keen to leave because of fears about the weight of their aircraft on the 3.5 metre thick ice. Although Michael wanted to stick it out and wait for a break in the weather, logic prevailed and a nod from team leader Major Kerry Williams meant that they would have to fly back to Spitzbergen without further ado.

"I was gutted and I thought my world had come to an end. I had been just an hour away from the Pole. I thought that was that because we had raised sufficient funds for only one flight out to Borneo and one helicopter transfer to the Pole," says Michael.

Luckily, on the third attempt together with a dose of divine intervention as regards the weather, they did manage it back to Borneo where they met up with the main expedition team who were nearing the Pole. Michael was flown by helicopter to within 150 metres of their goal.

"My primary objective had always been to walk unaided but because of the weight of the arctic boots on each leg, I needed the help of the expedition leader whose shoulder provided that additional support and stability."

The terrain he encountered was variable, sometimes very flat, icy and slippery, at other times broken and sharp. Michael was unable to wear skis, which are normally worn so as to distribute ones weight over the ice. Every step taken elicited an ominous cracking, crunching sound rather like milk being poured over rice-crispies.

Michael and the Major taking a short breather on the way.

Was he frightened?

"No, but I was of course acutely aware of the potential dangers. In fact, I was very much at peace with what I was doing and, more importantly the reasons why."

Reaching the Pole was an awesome experience and one he'll always remember. They celebrated by making a bottle of Grouse even more 'Famous' and planted not only the British Flag at the Pole but also a flag representing some 37,000 sufferers of Muscular Dystrophy in the United Kingdom as a symbolic reminder. The helicopter pilots were somewhat impatient to leave but this time Michael and his team were not about to be spirited away having achieved the outcome. Michael took time out to reflect, observe and appreciate the beauty around him.

"The North Pole is an extraordinarily silent, eerie place, especially if there is no wind. It is one of the most hostile, raw, inhospitable environments you can ever imagine. All you see is ice and deep blue sky. The sunshine is extremely bright causing a great deal of glare. In 2 or 3 minutes your beard freezes and crystalizes around your face and your eyelids freeze together. I had to keep blinking and rubbing my eyes. It is truly stunning, and you get a real sense as to the fragility of mother earth. I would have absolutely no hesitation in recommending to anyone, physically challenged or not, to [if the opportunity arose] go and see for themselves", enthuses Michael.

The homeward journey included a long three-day wait in basic tents at the ice camp 'Borneo' for a flight to Spitzbergen after their Russian cargo plane 'defected' to Moscow. "We simply couldn't believe what had happened", said Michael. "The pilots wanted more dollars or more cases of vodka [this appeared to be the most prevalent currency used by pilots in this part of the world as a form of hard currency]", he explained. So as to avoid a PR disaster, it later transpired that it took three days to get a signature on an aircraft charter agreement, signed off allegedly by the Head of the Moscow Civil Aviation Authority!

Planting the UK and MD flags at the North Pole.

So, does Michael feel he has achieved what he set out to do?

"This is about a few small steps by a regular guy trying to make a difference, trying to give something back. I want to lead through example by inspiring others to dig deep and in so doing, unlock the hidden potential that exists in all of us, able or less able. Facing up to challenge and discovering the spirit of true exploration is far more important than being the first at this or the first at that. The subject of 'inclusivity' is very important to me and is very much at the core of my philosophy in how I live my life. I fervently believe that others should be given the opportunity to explore our world fully. I believe that companies have a responsibility to revisit their value systems in encouraging greater respect for the differences that exist in people's backgrounds, experiences, perspectives and talents, where each person contributes to the organisation. There is a compelling business case for understanding the benefits of a robust diversity policy", says Michael.

For Michael, it's very much about self- belief, self-motivation and a strong personal resilience in believing that "whatever you want to achieve, if you believe strongly enough, you can do it".

As for the sponsorship, the North Pole Expedition raised well over 125,000 for Muscular Dystrophy. The money is today being used to purchase improved computer equipment in helping to monitor the progression of those diagnosed with this debilitating condition across the 13 UK major muscle centres and as such help in the continuing attempt to find a cure for Muscular Dystrophy.

Michael in termal snow jacket.

As for Michael himself, his memories of the trip are very precious.

"I now have a place I can go to deep within the recesses of my mind, a place where I have overcome my own limiting beliefs, a place of pure achievement and utter exhilaration. It is a very positive place and I now truly know that we all need a place like that to go."

A little apprehensively, I ask what he might do next. "Well, you know what they say, what goes up must go down! You cannot go to the top of the world and then not go to the bottom!"

pole2pole challenge

Michael has recently embarked on an 18 month 'journey' of careful planning, negotiating and influencing specifically major companies in seeking there support for his next endeavour and in so doing, help to raise a net contribution of 1 million in continuing to pioneer the global search for a cure for muscle disorders like Muscular Dystrophy. He is already making immense progress and has just achieved his first goal - to set up a worldwide Foundation that aims to promote global awareness around muscle disorders.

In Michael's words, The Muscle Help Foundation "seeks to create an inclusive worldwide community, that celebrates the power of the human spirit, that inspires, motivates and educates both children and adults alike. It is about what people can do, rather than what they can't do", says Michael.

His journey will culminate in an expedition of extraordinary proportions - the project will shortly be launched worldwide through an integrated press campaign. pole2pole is the inaugural event for The Muscle Help Foundation.

The goal, to be transported the 'last degree', a distance of 69 statute miles, travelling from the 89th degree latitude to the 90th degree latitude. In Michael's words, "if you've ever seen the film Trains, Planes and Automobiles, you'll know how I am planning to achieve this and yes, I expect to walk the last leg which will symbolically represent approximately 3 million people on our planet with Muscular Dystrophy. We will conquer what is described as one of the most hostile places on earth and in doing so, raise global awareness". The PR team will soon launch a campaign called 'use a muscle to save a muscle' which will underpin pole2pole's strategic campaign.

The Foundations core model has four key points that form the basis of what is a comprehensive business plan: Communication, Brand, Education and Funding. Although early days, much interest has been shown in this project specifically from a media perspective and, not least because in Europe, 2003 has been designated 'The European Year of Disabled People'.

pole 2 pole Challenge - use a muscle to save a muscle.

South Pole and Antarctica it is then!


History has been written ... Since this article was published Michael's quest to conquer both North and South Poles has been realised following a successful South Pole Expedition in January 2004, making him the first person with a disability in the world to achieve this feat.

Editor's note

Michael is an experienced motivational speaker. His 'just do it' mentality is infectious and he is available for speaking engagements internationally.

pole2pole are also seeking corporate sponsors who are eager to, by association, inspire and motivate employees, work in partnership to implement engaging customer service relationship initiatives and embrace an inclusive way of thinking in making a tangible difference in our world.

More information and commercial benefits are highlighted on the official website which can be found at or contact:

All photos are copyright Michael A P McGrath.

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