Harpreet Chandi Breaks Barrier With Solo Trip to South Pole

Harpreet Chandi Breaks Barrier With Solo Trip to South Pole

Isolation has been forced on so many during the coronavirus pandemic. But for Harpreet “Preet” Chandi, a 32-year-old captain in the British Army, it was a choice on the way to a bigger goal.

On Jan. 3, after a journey that involved traveling alone for 40 days over 700 miles of snow and ice, Ms. Chandi etched her name into polar history, apparently becoming the first woman of color to travel unaided and unaccompanied to the South Pole.

There are no official records of attempts made to travel to the South Pole. But Ms. Chandi was widely reported in the British news media to be the first woman of color to complete the expedition alone and unassisted.

As much as the expedition was a challenge to test her physical and mental resilience, for Ms. Chandi, it was also a way to reclaim her Indian Punjabi heritage, which she said she grew ashamed of in her teenage years.

“I wasn’t the image that people expected to see,” Ms. Chandi said. “I was told, ‘You don’t really look like a polar explorer.’ Then let’s change that image.”

She joins the likes of the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, whose expedition was the first to reach the South Pole in 1911, and Liv Arnesen, another Norwegian, who in 1994 became the first woman to complete a solo South Pole trip.

Ms. Chandi, who goes by “Polar Preet” online, started her expedition on Nov. 24 at Hercules Inlet, about 10,000 miles, as the crow files, from her home in Derby, England.

Most days she averaged 11 hours of skiing, but sometimes kept it up for almost 20 hours, enduring temperatures that got down to minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 50 degrees Celsius), and roaring polar winds of up to 60 miles per hour.

Ms. Chandi hauled a pulk — a Nordic sled — named after her niece Simran, and laden with almost 200 pounds of equipment, including freeze-dried meals. Her sustenance consisted of an assortment of high-energy foods, including nuts, chocolate, cheese and salami, which she packed in Punta Arenas, Chile, before setting off for Antarctica.

As an avid hiker who had run several marathons — including the 140-mile Marathon des Sables through the Sahara in Morocco, one of the world’s most difficult races — Ms. Chandi knew some things about endurance. But she knew nothing of Antarctica when she started preparing for her expedition three years ago.

“I literally started researching on Google: ‘What do I do? Do I run? What kind of thing do I even do to move out there?’” she said, speaking from Antarctica last month on her satellite phone.

Ms. Chandi said that before her expedition, some people who commented online did not seem to understand how her race was a significant part of her effort to reach the South Pole.

“‘Army officer’ is written everywhere — that’s acceptable for people. If I’m described as a ‘woman,’ that’s acceptable for people,” she said. “But as soon as the color of my skin is mentioned, all of a sudden, a lot of people have an issue.

“I probably wouldn’t have even used the term ‘woman of color’ just over six months ago, just because I was worried about how people may perceive it,” Ms. Chandi added. “Representation does matter. The color of my skin is important, it’s a part of me.”

Ms. Chandi was born in Derby, in northern England, and her competitive spirit surfaced early in her teens, when she spent several years playing tennis at academies in Britain and the Czech Republic.

But her experience was tainted by feelings of otherness. She said an episode at one tournament during which she and another competitor, who was Black, were spat at, was indicative of the racism that rippled through her youth. “For a long time, I can’t really remember enjoying it,” she said of her tennis training.

At 19, Ms. Chandi returned to Britain. A chance encounter with members of the military in her local city center led her to join the British Army Reserves. “I didn’t tell my family I had joined, because for somebody from my background, in my community, it wasn’t the normal thing to do,” she said. At this time, she also went to college to be a physiotherapist.

Ms. Chandi eventually chose a military career. Over the years, her duties took her to Kenya, Nepal and South Sudan, where camping outdoors became part of her training.

Her first ultramarathon in her 20s, in England’s Peak District, prompted an insatiable desire for challenge. In a moment of serendipity, Ms. Chandi’s old boss mentioned that she could embark on an expedition to Antarctica. “Once it was in my head, that was it,” she said.

With no polar experience, Ms. Chandi quickly catapulted herself into training, beginning in Norway in March 2020. Greenland, a location many had described to her as “the university of polar travel,” became her next training ground that December.

In August 2021, when coronavirus travel restrictions had eased, she headed to Langjokull glacier in western Iceland.

But with the pandemic stifling travel, Ms. Chandi’s ability to train abroad was limited. “The key focus of her training was dragging tires around Derby, which most polar explorers wouldn’t class as the best place to train to go to the Antarctic,” said her commanding officer, Lt. Col. Gareth Hattersley. “But that’s what she ended up doing, to great success.”

Ms. Chandi spent her life savings to finance her 27-day training expedition to Greenland, which concluded with an extremely expensive emergency extraction by helicopter, after she and her guide were caught in an unrelenting storm. She had to raise roughly $109,000 from corporate sponsors to fund her expedition.

During her trek, Antarctica was in 24 hours of daylight, so Ms. Chandi slept in her tent with her hat over her eyes. Perhaps surprisingly, her journey was never over level ground. “It’s all uphill to get to the South Pole,” she said. Apart from Ms. Chandi’s GPS navigation system, the only sign she was anywhere near her final destination was a weather station she passed.

Though she had no internet service, Ms. Chandi used a satellite phone to send pictures and text to her partner and sister-in-law. They then posted them to her over 40,000 Instagram followers.

Throughout her Antarctic journey, she listened to audiobooks by writers who shared her heritage. “It felt like I was spreading their voices in places they maybe haven’t been heard,” she said.

As she covered the last few miles to the pole, exhausted and now coughing, Ms. Chandi said she began hallucinating. But the most difficult part of the journey, she said, was hauling her heavy load over sastrugi — wavelike speed bumps of snow and ice that can extend for miles.

Upon reaching the geographic South Pole, Chandi celebrated by drinking a Coke. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘It was worth it, all that hardship,’” she said. “The fact that I’m here, a Punjabi girl from Derby, it’s just incredible.”

Having arrived back safely in Britain on Jan. 17, Ms. Chandi wrote in a homecoming blog post about the “simple things” she missed while on her expedition: “Sitting on a toilet seat, sleeping in a bed, having a coke zero (it had to be added to the list…). I spent the weekend sleeping a lot, seeing family and eating.” Perhaps the one thing she does not miss, she said, is Antarctica’s relentless summer daylight. “It’s nice to sleep when it’s dark.”

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