Belfast Telegraph

Deep in the arctic zone

by Natalie Gorman

A young adventurer from east Belfast has described the moment he found himself abandoned on a polar ice cap and battling arctic winds of 150 mph with neither tent nor team mate in sight - and wearing nothing more than a fleece and a pair of flimsy trousers.

At just 21 years, Richard Franklyn is now the youngest Irishman to complete the 342-mile journey along the Arctic circle in Greenland.

He took the death-defying challenge last month to cross, unsupported, the world's second largest polar ice-cap to raise money for a charity that supports Belfast Hospital for Sick Children.

Unconcerned with accolades, Richard was to raise as much as possible through this feat for children's charity, 'Helping Hands'.

"I've been on expeditions in the Alps and in Africa, but I have never endured anything like this before," said Richard.

"It's no exaggeration to say myself and my two other team mates, were nearly brought home in a box. It was an amazing experience though - one I'll never forget."

Richard headed out to Greenland last month, aiming to begin his polar trek on April 5. But bad weather, brought on by a particularly incessant low pressure system, forced many of the teams to go home - but Richard and his two expedition partners, Englishmen Bob Hoskins and Jonathan Paige, persevered.

Richard said: "An Italian team sponsored to the hilt were one of those who decided not to risk it. But we waited it out and it was a great way to see how the local people lived. We went ice fishing, saw how they made their native sleds and made friends.

"Before the exhibition I had never thought about getting to know the place and the people and looking back, I am grateful it was something I ended up having the opportunity to do."

After a week of turbulent weather, the helicopter that was to take them to their starting destination on the west of the island, was finally able to get off the ground. For almost the entirety of their first week on the polar trek, the trio were making significant headway across the Arctic plain and things appeared to be going to plan.

However close to the seventh day of the expedition, the vengeful low pressure system that had played havoc with their starting schedule came back, but this time the stakes were much higher.

Richard recalled: "We had put up two tents, one as a back up and we all slept together in the other. But at around half past one in the morning we heard one of the tent poles crack and within seconds we heard the rest of the tent poles go one by one and the entire external cover of our tent blew away. One of the poles tore the internal lining and the snow began to drift in.

"We had to get to the other tent fast or we were going to get buried in the snow. We got out of our sleeping bags and I wasn't wearing more that my fleece and the bottoms that I was sleeping in, but that didn't matter, we had to get out, and the tent we pitched was only a few feet away.

"The winds I would say were at least 150mph by this time. When we got out of the tent we couldn't see a thing it was so dark. We had to lie as flat to the ground as we could so as not to get picked up by the wind. We were shouting but none of us could hear each other. It was so cold I can't tell you. We made our way holding on to each other but no matter how far we went we just couldn't find the other tent.

"We made an effort to turn around the way we came but we realised even the outline of our tracks had disappeared in seconds from the force of the winds."

Then the unthinkable happened. "I lost my grip on the others, and within moments I lost them. I was out here on my own, couldn't see as my eye lids had frozen by this time. I tried to clear the ice from my eyes but even my gloved fingers had ice all over them, it was clearing ice with ice. I kept moving but I could feel my body ached so much from the extreme temperature.

"I kept crawling on my belly, the minutes passed and none of the tents were in sight. Even if it was light I wouldn't have been able to see because of what had happened my eyes. After about five minutes had passed, I thought that's it, I'm stuffed."

With hypothermia setting in Richard made one last effort. "I just stretched my hand out," he said, "And I couldn't believe it when I touched the opening of the tent and was pulled in. I couldn't believe my luck, I don't think I could have gone on if I had found myself anywhere else around the tent."

Richard and his team mates had made it back to what was left of the tent that had ripped. Huddling together for the next hour, knowing they were freezing to death as the snow kept pouring in, they knew they wouldn't be alive to see the morning. They knew they had to try again for the other tent.

"My sight was beginning to come back and we looked outside the tent and this time we could just about see the outline. But we couldn't take the chance of crawling on our bellies again. We looked at each other and knew we had to bomb it over."

Incredibly, this time they made it. The three men remained "subdued" in their life saving second shelter for the next day and a half as the wind continued to howl.

Richard said: "We didn't speak much after what happened - I think we were all just lost in our own thoughts. We didn't eat for the next day and half as we were too afraid of lighting the stove with the winds being the strength they were.

"During that whole time I just kept thinking I've lost everything, it's all blown away, my passport, everything. -- it was a real setback."

Eventually they were able to emerge from the their tent to find blue skies. Even better, their other tent had been buried but was intact, along with their possessions.

The skies remained calm for the remainder of their trek and though keeping up a fast pace with frostbitten fingers and a swollen, bruised kidney would be difficult by anyone's standards, Richard shrugged it off and said, "the rest of the trip was great, we even got a tan."

On the final day of their trek, they found a huge glacier standing in their way to the ferry point. With spirits in the camp high, there was no other way to tackle it than sleighing down it.

Richard said: "That was great fun, we really made the most of everything. What we weren't expecting when we reached the bottom was being greeted by a polar bear - and it looked skinny."

Waving skis in the air to look bigger and shouting from the top of their lungs to keep the polar bear at bay, they managed to get their gun ready to shoot and scare the Polar Bear off. Thankfully for them it worked.

Richard said: "If you had asked me before I went what the chances of coming across a polar bear would be while we were out there, I would have said you would have more chance of winning the lottery.

"Thankfully it ran off after the shots were fired. We waited then for local men to ferry us through the waters - GPS doesn't work here, you have to rely on local knowledge.

"The men who ferried us were hunters and unfortunately just as we had loaded everything onto the ferry the polar bear came back.

"Within half an hour the Polar bear was caught, killed, skinned and quartered up. Though it made me feel sad, at the same time I had to respect this was how people survived out here."

Arriving back to Belfast, to the great relief of a worried family, Richard told his tales, though he admits, "I've given my mother the watered down version so not to worry her - I think by the time this is printed, she'll be in a position to hear what really happened!"

Settling back into his first week of suburban life Richard has found he has raised just over £11,000 for Helping Hands - a figure he tells me he intends on increasing.

The new crowned hero of the sub continent, though still recuperating from his near death experience, already seems mentally set for an icy return.

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