Marathons just weren’t doing it for Preet Chandi. She’d completed one of the hardest — an ultramarathon that sends competitors on a grueling six-day, 156-mile trail across the Sahara Desert. She still wanted more.
Skiing through Antarctica would require Chandi — a 33-year-old British Army officer from Derby, England — to learn new skills. The idea of venturing to the South Pole alone and conquering a physical and mental challenge unlike anything she had ever attempted appealed to the endurance athlete. After two years of training, Chandi became the first woman of color to complete a solo expedition in Antarctica in January 2022.
This year, she decided to do it again — and go even farther.
Chandi completed a 70-day, 922-mile solo expedition through Antarctica, the British Army announced last week. Chandi, who trained for and completed the expedition outside of her military duties, said she used the trip to fundraise, gather data to aid research on women’s bodies in endurance sports — and discover the absolute limits of her endurance and will.
“If a Punjabi woman from Derby can do this, then anybody can achieve anything,” Chandi wrote on her blog.
The British Army said Chandi’s 922-mile effort set a new world record for the longest unassisted polar expedition. The Polar Expeditions Classification Scheme, which manages records of polar expeditions, recognizes Chandi’s trek, but Guinness World Records lists a longer, 1,400-mile solo ski by Aleksander Gamme in 2012. PECS officials acknowledged Gamme’s expedition but told the site ExplorersWeb it should be classified differently since the trek was supported by self-laid food and equipment depots.
Chandi didn’t mention records when asked about what drove her to return to Antarctica, but said she wanted to defy expectations and inspire her family.
“I have a niece who’s 11 now and I always just wanted her to be able to grow up in a place where she can do anything,” Chandi said. “ … Hopefully she has people to look up to.”
Chandi was never the fastest or strongest athlete growing up, she said. But she’s stubborn, and that attitude helped her take quickly to endurance sports like marathon running. A physiotherapist in the British Army, Chandi likes seeing how far she can push her body.
Her first ultramarathon in Britain’s hilly Peak District was rough, she recalled. She finished near the end of the pack and forgot to book a hotel afterward, so she slept uncomfortably in her car. But the feeling of accomplishment buoyed her.
When even those long-distance runs became routine, Chandi set her sights on Antarctica and began a years-long training program. But she was out of her element. When she first contacted a logistics company that arranges Antarctic expeditions, they said she lacked the experience to attempt one.
“I Googled ‘polar explorer’ [and] saw nobody that looks anything like me,” Chandi said, laughing.
The company asked Chandi if she had experience walking on a glacier, so she bought the cheapest winter jacket she could find and booked a flight to Iceland where she could snap some photos of herself ice climbing. That got her through the door. Then it was time to get serious.
A prolonged solo expedition in Antarctica would require Chandi to traverse on cross-country skis and pull her own gear — a roughly 220-pound sled carrying her tent, equipment and weeks’ worth of food. She pulled tires at home to build her strength, enrolled in a training program in Norway that taught adventurers how to navigate, live and cook in polar conditions, and took on debt to travel for training expeditions in Greenland, Iceland and France. Still, the company said she wasn’t ready.
Chandi had set her sights high: a 1,100-mile coast-to-coast traversal of Antarctica, expected to take between 70 and 75 days. She proposed a shorter, 40-day expedition to the South Pole and back to prove she could do it, and got the okay. She set off in December 2021 and completed the trek the following month — already landing herself in the record books as the first woman of color to complete a solo Antarctic expedition. She returned home to recover, and prepare for the real deal.
On Nov. 14, she set off again.
Things were tougher this time around, Chandi said. Seasonal changes led to softer snow, which made her sled of supplies feel even heavier. Winds had whipped the snow into wavelike ridges that tipped the sled, forcing Chandi to stop and flip the 220-pound load back upright. The ridges — called sastrugi by polar explorers — were sometimes the only shapes that broke up the featureless, white landscape Chandi journeyed across.
“On a good day you can see for what feels like forever,” Chandi said. “There’s nothing there. It just keeps on going.”
Chandi navigated using a compass, though she had a GPS for backup. She used a satellite phone to stay in touch with a support team and her partner, and to send updates to a blog — “Polar Preet” — that tracked her progress.
She set out moving 15 hours a day and sleeping five-hour nights, raising and stowing a tent each day and melting snow to drink and cook with. But it wasn’t enough. Amid the difficult conditions, Chandi fell behind her target mileage.
Chandi upped her schedule, somehow, to 20- to 24-hour shifts of skiing between seven hours of sleep. A hard deadline loomed on Jan. 22, not because of Chandi’s supplies (she insists she would have rationed her food to finish the expedition), but because Antarctica’s travel season was closing and the last flight off the continent would leave days later. When it became clear her goal of completing the coast-to-coast traversal was out of reach, Chandi resolved to continue.
Falling just short of her stated goal didn’t discourage her, Chandi said.
“I just thought to myself, ‘If you’re going to push yourself, if you’re ever going to push yourself, this is the time,’” Chandi said. “And I’m glad I did. Because now I know there’s nothing I could have done differently.”
After 70 days, she reached a plane that brought her back to a base camp and she returned home, satisfied.
Chandi hasn’t left the house much since returning to England as she slowly recovers from the toll of her expedition: weight loss, a calf injury that may require surgery and a persistent knot in her hair (there was no weight to spare in her sled for a comb). She isn’t sure what’s next, though she said she will probably look for something new after months of skiing across Antarctica.
“I don’t necessarily have any plans at the moment,” Chandi said. “But … I’m already feeling restless.”