The Gurkha Ellesmere Expedition

Two Royal Gurkha Rifles commemorate 200th anniversary of their Regiment with arctic expedition

Jon Turk on the first circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island in 2011. Photo by Erik Boomer
Jon Turk on the first circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island in 2011. Photo by Erik Boomer

By Jon Turk

The bow of my kayak crunched lightly against shore. Erik Boomer and I had just finished our 1500 mile, 104 day circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island and I was exhausted, spent, finished, done. Boomer pulled up alongside with his characteristic cheeriness. “Let’s run a quick victory lap?” I smiled pathetically, “You bet.”

Within hours I was on a medevac flight with kidney failure. It was a tough trip.

Two and a half years later I got an email:

Name: Jon Armstrong
Subject: Gurkha Ellesmere Expedition

Dear Sir,

I am a British Army officer currently serving in the Royal Gurkha Rifles and I am writing to ask for your assistance in planning and executing an expedition in 2015 which will aim to retrace your epic adventure around Ellesmere Island.

Jon Armstrong and Arjun Limbu training for their Ellesmere circumnavigation attempt.
Royal Gurkhas Jon Armstrong and Arjun Limbu training for their Ellesmere circumnavigation attempt.

A bit of history: In 1814, the British East India Company was at war with the Nepalis. The Brits were impressed with the bravery and skill of the Nepali Gurkha infantry. In turn, The Nepalis were impressed with the bravery and skill of the British. After shooting each other for a while, in 1815 they got together and agreed, “This is kind of silly. Let’s join forces and shoot someone else, who isn’t as scary.” So, they formed The Royal Gurkha Rifles, an elite British army unit in which all of the enlisted men and 60 percent of the officers are Nepalis.

Jump start to 2015, the 200th anniversary of the unit. Overt colonialism has been consigned to history’s dustbin, replaced with a subtler, more corporate version. But the Gurkha Rifles, having served the Empire faithfully on the Northwest Frontier, the Punjab, Afghanistan (1878-80; 1919), two World Wars, the Malayan insurgency, the Falklands, and Afghanistan again, still serve.

Now the British Army is low on cash and facing a 20 percent reduction in active duty personnel. While unit spokesman Ken Pike says the Brigade of Gurkhas is not under threat, lesser-known British Army units are in danger of being disbanded. Enter Jon Armstrong, 27, and his 35-year-old partner Corporal Arjun Limbu, both of the Royal Gurkha Rifles, who plan to repeat our Ellesmere circumnavigation to publicize the history of their regiment. The expedition is one of many 200th anniversary celebrations planned for the regiment next year, including several regimental gatherings, marches, parades and an Everest ascent.

Boomer and I are both curious to see how Armstrong and Limbu do. Sure there is skill and perseverance involved, but a lot of luck as well, related to wind and ice conditions. We both wish them fair winds.

Armstrong and Limbu hope to raise £30,000 to bring clean, running water to 63 households in Taplejung, Nepal – Limbu’s home district. You can support the project at justgiving.com/ArcticGurkha/

Read about Erik Boomer’s crazy run-in with a walrus on the first Ellesmere circumnavigation.

Corporal Arjun Limbu. Photo courtesy of Alex Whittaker / Shedpix 2014
Corporal Arjun Limbu. Photo courtesy of Alex Whittaker / Shedpix 2014
Captain Jon Armstrong of 2nd Battalion Royal Gurkha Rifles. Photo courtesy of
Captain Jon Armstrong of 2nd Battalion Royal Gurkha Rifles. Photo courtesy of Alex Whittaker / Shedpix 2014