Legendary adventurer Myrtle Simpson talks to Sue Stockdale about her life in the second part of this interview (episode 84 featured her adventures on Ice and Mountains). Myrtle shares her recollections of how she lived for three months with a tribe in the rainforest in Surinam and more recently attended the COP 26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow.
Simpson was awarded the Polar Medal in recognition of her arctic achievements, and National Geographic named Myrtle as one of four women ‘who defied expectations and explored the world’.
Born in 1930, Myrtle Simpson began her early life in India, and then returned to Scotland after the war where she developed a love of climbing. Myrtle travelled to New Zealand and began working as a radiographer, spending weekends learning about climbing high peaks. After Mount Everest had been conquered in 1953 and the Himalayas became more popular and expensive for climbing expeditions, Myrtle and two friends decided to travel to Peru where they climbed numerous virgin peaks including a new route on Huascarán, the highest mountain in Peru at 6768m.
Myrtle continued to travel along with her husband, Professor Hugh Simpson, a scientist and pioneer of breast cancer research, whose research took him to many remote places. Hugh and Myrtle crossed the Greenland ice cap on skis in 1965, and four years later attempted to reach the North Pole, setting the record for the farthest North reached by any unsupported expedition at the time. Her adventures have been immortalised in an award-winning documentary “A Life on Ice” that premiered in 2019, winning several awards for ‘Best Exploration and Adventure film’ at film festivals around the world.
Find out more about Myrtle Simpson A Life on Ice Documentary website
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Myrtle Simpson Transcription
Sue: Hi, I’m Sue Stockdale and welcome to episode 85 of the Access to Inspiration podcast, the show with the social mission to help you be inspired by people who may be unlike you. We always hope that their experiences and insights cause you to reflect on your own perspectives about the world and to be inspired.
This week is part two of an interview with Myrtle Simpson, a climber and polar adventurer, who was the 10th woman in the UK to receive the polar medal. Myrtle talks about attending the COP 26 UN Climate Change Conference, how she lived for three months with a tribe in the rainforest in Surinam and why everyone needs something to live for.
Sue: So, we’ve talked about your expeditions north. I also know you went to the rainforest?
Myrtle: Well, we’ve had to go there because of Hugh’s work. He needed people that had lived on the Equator who had never had light. And so we looked at South America mostly, and then we tried, we thought British Guiana is place to go to. And so the idea was that I would set off in a boat with the four children at that time. And a girlfriend was going to help me who also played the flute. And I thought that’d be so helpful making friends with the local people. So she and I set off on the boat, but while we were halfway on our six week journey on the boat, and Hugh was to fly out to meet us at the last minute, there was all sorts of political troubles in British Guiana, so Hugh began saying come home. And I thought, what! After all of this effort not likely! The next country, which was Dutch Guiana, Surinam well, we thought would go there. So a friend and me landed with the four kids and are waited Hugh’s arrival.
And by doing that, we got to know some gold perspectors who knew a river that if we went far enough up the river, we’d meet people that had never had any light, and still hadn’t. They knew how far the gold prospectors had got, all the missionaries had got, but there were still people living further up river that, that hadn’t happened. So we thought that’s the place to go to. So we flew to this guy’s gold mine. He was called Papa Tom by the locals. And he gave us an introduction to one of the locals that had come down to trade with him, who took us up to a village of his people who looked at us in absolute amazement, but were thrilled to see the children because other people like prospectors and so on, hadn’t come with families.
So that’s why they were suspicious of them and didn’t want to make friends but they liked our kids. And funnily enough, our second son has blue eyes and pale hair, or he had at the time. So the women loved handling him. Well, anyway, Bruce became the one that everybody handled. So the rest of our family have always said, oh, that your blue eyed boy, Bruce . So I have to fight that still to this very day that I loved them all just as much as blue eyed Bruce. But I think he lowered the shutters to make us, to make friends with the people who were fascinated by our kids. I didn’t know what to eat in the way of food. So they showed me can eat this. You can make bread with this. And, they loved doing that.
I heard a girl on the radio the other day saying people don’t realize how much it costs to bring up children. Like it costs a pound to buy a bottle of water. Well, I’ve never bought a bottle of water in my life, wherever I’ve lived. You soon know what to drink or what not to drink. And the locals will certainly be able to tell you, the time that caught me out was we were actually, we had the family in Iceland and we came across some mushrooms. So we picked them but my good friend that we needed to carry one of the children because we had four kids and only two of us and one could walk and we needed another pair of hands. She had thick specs and she stood on them and broke the specs, but went on picking the mushrooms.
So that night, of course we cooked up the mushrooms and I a whole lot. And suddenly I was overcome with the most right for food poisoning was sick or sick. And my husband, professor of medicine, wasn’t at least been interested in me being sick, but he was appalled that the breast fed baby would get the mushrooms through the milk. So when I lay on the floor being ill and all he did was fuss about the baby. Anyway, it, it was just frightful and it was all because we hadn’t got our wits about us. You know, my friend, Janet without specs had gone on picking and I hadn’t looked through them, the responsibility was all mine. It was my stupidity.
Sue: you always need to know what you’re eating.
Myrtle: know your mushrooms before you leave home, know what’s growing what you can eat, for goodness sake. And then it doesn’t matter. Actually I asked the National Geographic once, how many people in your association have died in the field? And they said it was something like 99 and they died in their beds. Most people want to come home from a journey, wherever it is, and expect to get home and they will get home long as they’ve looked at the dangers before and made themselves capable. I think a lot of people these days, because everybody needs something to head for. They all need the north Pole, whoever they are, they need the north, need the north pole. You know, I think we strive on, on stress of getting somewhere. People have made life so cosy. A lot of people’s way of life, suburban way of life, kids going off to nursery school early in the day, when days that my generation wouldn’t dream of putting the kids to school, it was their job to give them their breakfast.
And likewise be at home when they came with hot scones, when they came back from school. Well, that doesn’t seem to be a priority for modern families, and I’m of course I’m envious . It’s magic that they’ve made a place for them in the world for themselves, but they’d better be careful because a lot of them are just given out too much and the priorities of life and solving the stresses they’ve sort of ever done it. Or I think a lot of women have anyway, let alone. Who can knit, I have asked all my family, my growing family, because now we’re on grandchildren. I’ve got 10 grandchildren and I think it’s four or eight. I can’t remember how many great grandchildren. So we’ve gone on and on how many of their mums knit use the sewing machine I’ve be in frightful trouble for saying all that.
Sue: It brings us handily onto the subject of one of the areas or issues of concern for many people these days is the environment. And I know that you went to COP26 in Glasgow.
Myrtle: I was thrilled to.
Sue: what, what did that involve?
Myrtle: Well, the first thing was I had a phone call from a man and I said, who am I talking to? And he said, my name’s anyway, I better not mention his name. And I said, I’ve heard of that name. And he said, I’m the heir. Oh, I said sitting up straight. Anyway. He said he had a bee in his bonnet that if all the world was going to get together about the weather, they’d better face the world. The most important word is high Arctic. Cause it’s the temperature, the world getting hotter than Arctic is melting. So there’s more water coming south. And that is what’s going to make the world insufferable and may very easily just about end being able to live here. So he paid huge sums of his American money into having this sort of meeting the thing about was, there were people interested in the high Arctic.
There were people interested in geology of what scientists of this and that, the next thing. Anyway, I said to him, what on earth could, what can I tell in the world? He said, we’ve looked, we want somebody that’s walked or skied across frozen land in the high Arctic. We’re looking for someone that’s been further north than 84 degrees north. He said, and we started looking for Nansen he’s long been long dead, which they went all the way down the explorers, apparently until they came to me and Hugh. And our furthest north, we got on our north pole journey before our generator let us down was 84 degrees north. He said, you have done it, come and tell us about it. So I thought, well, is there really something I’ve done that no one else has so then I realized my age and I thought that’s a bit of nonsense. And I said, I can’t make my way to Glasgow, let alone, Timbuktu, you know, sort of thing. He said, well, bring a Sherpa. So I thought, okay, I’ll take my youngest son, Rory.
So Rory and I set off to go to Glasgow where it was meeting. And he’d brought with him one of these electric scooters. And I said, what have you got that for? And he said, mom, I brought it for you because the roads are all going to be closed and it’s gonna be a problem. Anyway, I thought, as I’d already decided, I couldn’t ride a electric bike. I didn’t think I’d manage an electric scooter. Anyway, we set off for Glasgow, with a friend who had a car, Sean Langer. And we found, because Sean knew all the back roads. And so on, of course we could drive perfectly well. And we got to this place and I just loved the atmosphere.
Everybody there in our pod had done something. For instance, I was sitting, somebody gone for a coffee and said, oh, did you sit there? Bring you a coffee. There was a young guy. So we were chatting away and suddenly he said, oh, look, those are the, my slides. You can see it must be my turn. So he’d jumped on the platform and only then did I realize he was just back from swimming five consecutive days from the North Pole to show to people it wasn’t a joke. It wasn’t just a little puddle. It was for real, there was real open water around the North Pole to the extent that he could swim for five consecutive days.
Well, I loved hearing him talk and everybody was somebody they’d all done something. And this guy who coughed up the money for our pod, he’d actually made a boat of plastic bottles and sailed around the world in it, like the Kon-tiki. Just to prove waste can be used. You can destroy the world if you don’t use what’s there. And everyone that we met had done something special. And as I sat waiting for my turn, because I’d been asked to bring about 12 slides. So now we have thousands of slides and anyway, I’d got my slides, right pictures. But I realized that, it was very interesting to actually people don’t know what it’s like, what we’re losing.
And I’d noticed that there was a very Greenland faith. There was a man there who obviously couldn’t speak much English, but he had a very perfect Greenland face. Now, nowadays, funnily enough, people don’t like to use the word Eskimo, but in our day, the last thing Greenland is. The Greenlands wanted it be called Greenlanders or Eskimo.
What they did not want to be called was Inuit because they came, they were the wrong, the wrong people. They came from the other, they’d gone north from left to right. Rather from, they were very fussy about that. Like now you’ve gotta be very careful that you don’t mix up your words. My family always saying to me, mom, you can’t say that nowadays. Anyway, I just do needless to say so I get into deep trouble.
He was obviously a Greenlander and he didn’t speak much English, but he had slides that he immediately showed of people on the beach, kids playing with their dogs, their dogs, sledge dogs, and having terrific fun and just growing up and women making the clothes and all, from fur and so on, all this interesting. And then he just, just went, pushed his arm to side gone, or only word he could say was ‘gone’ and what he was really getting the message and why they’d asked him to come was that because the sea had got so warm, it had risen three feet where he lived his world.
The whole world had just gone. He couldn’t travel. He couldn’t get the family food in because the snow had gone. There were no dogs, dogs had be all been shot or eaten because they couldn’t go inland and hunt. They couldn’t get to their seals because there was no frozen sea. So they were now relying on being fishermen.
And luckily, because the sea was thawing, they could get big enough boats to go fair enough out to get the cod. They never got the cod before, cos’ that was, that was in deep water, but suddenly they found they could, in fact, but as far as, you know, culture was concerned, their way of life had gone and all the people all around polar regions lives will be untenable. And that’ll happen to the west unless we wake up and stop using our coal and leaving our lights on and so on. I mean that, that was the message of the whole thing.
And of course there was some brilliant speakers there. In fact, there was an ordinary, an ordinary, I was going to say wifey because that’s why I spent a lot of my life in Glasgow. They are wee wifeys. And we were just talking mutually, made friends and were chatting away and it turned out she was actually the leading scientist in Cambridge at a very special Institute and was a botanist.
And she was just a world authority on what she was talking about. And, I began to listen to the other people and you suddenly realize that there are people that knew things. And I was talking to a man and I realized he was a journalist of some sort and his jacket moved slightly. And I saw he was actually the editor of the New York Times, which I suddenly thought, who was I talking to? Anyway, he said to me, have you seen my rainforest? And of course I said, no, where? And he said, oh, it’s in the basement. We went down and down and down. Then hey presto we were in what looked like a huge, great big warehouse and he’d press something the door opened and you could feel the rainforest.
You know, the rainforest, you know, immediately, if it’s the real rain rainforest, you feel it in the air. And I was just amazed and stood there and realised that we were just standing in the middle of huge, great big barrels. And they each had a tree in them and the trees were straight from the rainforest.
And at the end of all this local school kids were going plant these. So in Glasgow somewhere or rather near the centre of town now has a rain forest. Anyway, his whole point was that unless we can handle the temperature of what we’re doing in the world, that not only will we lose the rain forest, but everything else that grows. Unless you listen to the , who are going to tell you what will grow, which will probably mean three quarters of the world’s got to change the vegetable it grows or the greener it’s going to eat that, you know, they need the bottom is to tell them it could become the most important, no point in having a farmer.
If he can’t grow his stuff because it’s too cold or too hot or, or whatever. Anyway, I love this rainforest and it was just magic to see it there and to realise that that’s what we need. It’s all in the air. It’s, it’s the temperature. And you’re going to find that in the high Arctic.
Sue: Well, things are changing so quickly and, and you have seen so much change, in your lifetime Myrtle and had so many experiences. I’m wondering if you were leaving a message for our listeners to, to perhaps reflect on what would be an important message that you would want to share about life or about what you’ve observed about.
Myrtle: Well, I think the people that are living are ones that have got faith in the future. You’ve gotta, you’ve gotta have something to strive for people have. I mean, I think people have got so used to not to strive for accept money or whatever, just look at the old ways of life. Don’t dismiss your grannys, what’s it, they used to say in class, but don’t teach you granny to suck eggs, you know, listen, listen a bit more to the oldies. What did keep people going when the people weren’t earning sort of money as they do today. It’s possible. Thousands of people shared it can be done. You’ve gotta have something to strive for. And if you can’t think of anything to strive for, because we all thrive on stress and something to head for you better, better find something mighty quick, cos that’ll be your downfall. It’ll be psychological in other words, so find something that’s worth fighting for or striving for. Go out and don’t just sit in your sofa and thinking, oh, woe is me, what could I do? Well, you could perhaps cook some scones and take them to some hungry man sitting on the pavement somewhere. Or there’s something for everybody to strive for. We need stress to keep, going. And you know, you can do it even by little, little footsteps, you’ll get there in the end. And I can see an awful lot of hopeless people, you know, at all ages. And I can’t bear to see the young not getting up and doing something and I see it happening.
Sue: Where you’ve given us such a sense of possibility and how you’ve just gone on and done stuff and taken small steps, Myrtle. What’s your next small step then? What are you looking forward to doing next?
Myrtle: I want my nasturtiums to grow long. no, seriously. Well, the winter is coming down. So can you cope with, with the cold and the dark and of course the loneliness, but I, I think you’ve all those things you are, are doable. And if you can’t think of anything that will give you enough stress, write a books, do something, don’t just sit there, waiting for the world to fall in around you and don’t allow to be pushed into a corner. And if any of my family are listening, they’re probably, oh, they’re awful mum again. But you know, I do mean it. I do think that people with the best intentions, perhaps, I mean all this fuss at the moment about care homes, oh, they’re all closing. There’s not enough staff. I remember the days when there wasn’t the hardest such a things at care home who looked after the elderly and allowed them to decay, perhaps instead of saying, oh, the care home, weren’t let me visit granny. what’s granny in the care and to start why, this feeling of loneliness and despair that I, I see around me in my own community, people far too young to have despair have got it. Even kids begin to say, oh, what’s the point of going to uni? I think, you know, it’s, it’s worth learning something oh, look, we can’t save the world. But I think, I think a lot of people have given up.
Sue: You certainly haven’t given up Myrtle. I think you’ve given us a sense of vitality to day energy and belief in doing things and taking small steps. And it’s been an enormous treat for me to, to talk to you today and to, to hear about your life and your experiences. Thank you so much.
Sound Editor: Matias de Ezcurra
Producer: Sue Stockdale