ESSEX FARMER SCALES ARCTIC CIRCLE’S TALLEST MOUNTAIN IN SUPPORT OF FCN

(Photographed – FCN Supporter Thomas Philpot)

Essex farmer Thomas Philpot recently embarked on an expedition in support of FCN, climbing the highest mountain (Mt Gunnbjörn – Greenland) in the Arctic Circle as part of a small team of brave explorers. With only 60 groups having ever climbed to the top, it makes it a very rare mountain to climb, and a true feat of endurance and bravery.

Thomas kept a journal of his travels, which he has shared with FCN, alongside a selection of awe-inspiring photographs. Below Thomas recounts the ups, the downs, and the unexpected twists of his incredible journey.

You can access Thomas’s fundraising page here: https://www.justgiving.com/page/thomas-philpot-1716399615269

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Background:

It would appear I have my father’s inability to say no to an opportunity when one presents itself! For those that do not know the story that led our whole family to go on and complete an Arctic expedition…

My father wished someone well on their trip to the South Pole following a day shooting and the reply came back: “Would you like to join us last minute, as someone has dropped out?”

Without thinking, he said “yes”, and within 10 days was on a plane to the Antarctic. Following this trip he was next asked to join an expedition to the North Pole, of which he was successful on both occasions in making it to the Poles. 

My father then managed to convince the rest of our family that these crazy expeditions were worthwhile and we all agreed (albeit both sisters and my mother through gritted teeth) to do a winter traverse across Baffin Island in North Eastern Canada from Qikiqtarjuaq to Pangnirtung.

Within the Arctic Circle in temperatures reaching -35, plus windchill.

Whilst we all completed this expedition successfully, my mother and both sisters had sworn to never do a cold expedition again! 

A new journey begins…

On the other hand it would appear that I had maybe not!

At the end of April I was presented with the same question my father was once asked. Someone had dropped out of an expedition to climb the highest peak within the Arctic Circle. Without thinking I said “yes” to joining a team of 4 others who had been waiting 4 years to be granted the permit to climb the mountain. 

Mt Gunnbjörn is 12,119ft and situated within the Watkins Range on the East of Greenland. It is the 9th most isolated peak in the world and the highest peak within the Arctic Circle. It has only been climbed by roughly 60 groups due to many believing another mountain was the highest for a long time as well as the extremely difficult logistics of getting to the mountain. I was also told that climbing in a polar region where there is reduced air pressure would make the altitude feel higher than its numeric value. 

I had never climbed a mountain before (other than using a chairlift!) so this was definitely going to be a new experience. 

On the 26th of May we flew out of London Heathrow to Reykjavik in Iceland then on to Akureyri in the North. Once in Akureyri we began to organise our sledges, distributing all of the equipment between us and ensuring that our combined weight of ourselves, our clothes, equipment and sledges were all below 600kg collectively; for otherwise the plane would not be able to make it back to Iceland!

Gunnbjörn Fjeld in Greenland, where we were supposed to be landing, was experiencing very bad weather and heavy snowfall. This prevented us from flying out of Akureyri for several days which allowed us time to explore the town and go on a few long walks to prepare ourselves for our climb. However, we were constantly checking the weather updates and speaking to the company flying us out. 

(Photographed – the plane the team flew in)

On Friday the 31st we finally got the green light and we were able to fly out of Akureyri. However, we had to fly further north to Nerlerit Inaat Airport on the coast of Greenland to avoid bad weather and to allow the plane to refuel before flying south to Gunnbjörn Fjeld. We flew in a twin otter aeroplane with skis. The plane only had 6 seats due to having an additional fuel tank inside with us to allow for the long flight over 250 miles of ocean. 

A bumpy landing

When we landed in Greenland we were not expecting there to be as much snow as there was, which caused a number of problems for us and the pilots. After a slightly bumpy landing in the snow we unloaded all of our sledges and moved away from the plane. We were in snow that came up to your knees. We put on our snow shoes and watched the plane attempt to take off.

(Photographed – a view over the mountains / Gunnbjörn Fjeld)

However, as the snow was so deep, the plane was unable to move and the propellers were very close to hitting the snow. This required the pilots to get out and dig the snow away from the buried skis in the hope that it would allow the plane to move. On about the third attempt they managed to get moving and eventually take off; leaving us miles from the nearest civilisation. The reality of our isolation began to set in. 

We started pulling our sledges, heading in the direction of the mountain to establish our 1st camp. I had the job of “cook”, which meant I was in charge of melting the snow and adding it to our meal pouches each morning and evening. Sleeping in the tent with 24 hour daylight was a new experience for me and it took a little getting used to, with it being as bright at midnight as it was at midday!

(Photographed – walking to the summit)

For our second day on Gunnbjörn Fjeld we continued to move up the glacier towards the peak, pulling our sledges up steeper terrain in deep snow proving to be very hard work. As very few people had climbed this mountain and the last group had been prior to Covid, we only had a couple of photos of the mountain to guide us along the rough route…which were no longer accurate. This was due to the glacier moving and new crevasses forming. Again, we pitched our tent slightly closer to the peak in anticipation to make the summit on the following day. 

(Photographed – camping in harsh conditions)

We set off early, all roped and harnessed together in case one of us fell down a crevasse. We left our sledges at our camp and just took our daypacks as it was so steep. We would walk for 50 minutes then have a 5 minute break, allowing us to have a couple of sweets or bits of chocolate and a couple of sips of our drinks before repeating this process again. On our way we navigated round many big crevasses, reminding us constantly to remain vigilant. In -20 temperatures we had to ensure that we did not sweat as it would then freeze when we stopped. 

The descent

As we got closer to the summit the weather got increasingly worse, to the point where we were unable to tell the difference between the cloud and the snow as well as only being able to see a few metres in front of us. We decided to stop in the hope that it would clear. However, it was at this point – just 350ft from the summit – that we had to make the decision that it was not safe to proceed any further, for we did not know the exact route and were unsure of any crevasses. 

We all shook hands acknowledging how far we had gone and agreed it would be too dangerous to carry on. We then began to make our descent, which took a quarter of the time it took us to climb up following our already trodden tracks. We made it down to our camp, packed up our tent and filled our sledges. Then we proceeded to continue our way down the mountain. We had called the company due to fly us out letting them know we were on our way back down and could be ready to be picked up.

However…they told us they were unable to pick us up that evening and for us to phone again in the morning at 9am for an update. 

The following day we called for an update, only to be told that northern Iceland was experiencing the worst icing that they had experienced for 50 years and they would not be able to fly out to get us back. We continued to call at 09:00 and 16:00 every day for an update, only to be told again that the weather was getting worse, that they were continuing to monitor it, and they would come as soon as a window appeared. Hearing this news, we had to begin rationing our food to half a main meal for dinner and a mug of soup at midday. 

We were told that if the plane did manage to get out of Iceland we needed to create a runway to prevent the plane becoming stuck in the snow as it did when it dropped us off. So, we set out filling our sledges with snow and marching up and down in a line, compacting the snow as much as possible. 

The return – and lessons learned  

In our 16:00 update on the 5th of June we were given hope that there may be a window on the 6th that they could possibly get us out. We woke up on the 6th to find that there was now cloud over our tent and our hope of getting out seemed to disappear.

Luckily for us when we called at 08:30 the cloud was beginning to break and we were told they were going to attempt to fly out of Iceland, although there was still a chance of icing and they may have to turn back. With our new hope of getting out we moved our tent closer to the runway and waited. 

(Photographed – a view from the plane)

Just after 13:00 we were having our soup when a plane was spotted. Everyone’s soups were thrown away very quickly and we began packing up camp at an incredible speed! The pilots told us that the icing was still bad and they had to descend to 500ft above the sea to avoid icing up on their way here. 

On our way back we lost all visibility coming into Iceland and only regained it again just as we came into land! Touching down on Iceland was a fantastic feeling! 

Looking back on this trip it was an incredible experience for a brilliant cause. However, I’m extremely grateful to be back home and think I might take a break from doing anymore crazy cold expeditions!

Many thanks to Thomas and his team for supporting FCN and for sharing their story with us!

(Photographed – a toast to the team!)

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