The elusive White Continent has been the fascination of many explorers since it was discovered in 1820. The majority of people who have explored Antarctica have been White, starting with Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen who completed the first recorded expedition to the South Pole in 1911. Now, a 32-year-old British-Indian Army officer, Preet Chandi, has become the first woman of color on record to complete a solo expedition to the South Pole.
“Antarctica was more than just a dream expedition for me. It was about showing that anyone can do anything, irrespective of their gender, background or the community they belong to,” she says. “The color of my skin is important; it’s a big part of who I am. But it isn’t the only thing that defines me.”
Chandi completed the 700-mile expedition in January in 40 days, eight days ahead of her goal, but the journey to get there and break barriers was long.
The road to Antarctica
Chandi has wanted to push boundaries, both physically and metaphorically, since she ran her first half-marathon at 20. Since then, she has completed several ultramarathons, including the grueling 156-mile Marathon des Sables across the Sahara.
She can’t recall exactly when or how she set out on the idea of a solo expedition to Antarctica, but it had something to do with setting an example for her 10-year-old niece.
“I didn’t want my niece to grow up with the same boundaries that I did,” she says.
She chose Antarctica purely because she knew nothing about it, and that in itself was a challenge. She had been on Nordic skiing trips with the Army as well as on numerous hiking and climbing adventures in Kenya, Morocco, Mexico, the Alps, Bolivia, Peru, Nepal and more.
In early 2020, she began preparing for Antarctica, starting with a polar training course in Norway that taught her the survival basics — how to set up a tent, melt snow and cook in extreme conditions. Back in the United Kingdom, she trained six days a week, dragging tires, “which was the closest to pulling a sled.”
Her first real expedition took her to Greenland in August 2020, which showed her what to expect in Antarctica. She put her life savings into the trip. When she did reach the ice cap, she was stuck in a storm for six days, shoveling snow on her hands and knees and rationing fuel.
“Those 27 days in Greenland were physically and mentally exhausting, but it prepared me for Antarctica and gave me a real taste of what it meant to organize and embark on an expedition on my own,” she says.
Chandi was born to Indian parents in Derby, England. Her father moved to the country as a 20-something from the state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India. Her mother is a second-generation immigrant whose parents came to England from Punjab. Chandi’s was a childhood molded by the ethos and expectations that come with belonging to a minority ethnic community.
Chandi wasn’t always comfortable using the term “person of color.” She remembers her first brush with racism in her early teens, when she was walking home with her uncle who was wearing a kurta; they had eggs thrown at them from a rooftop. At 15, while traveling in Eastern Europe with a Black female friend, a person walked up and spat at them.
“I knew it was important to talk about discrimination, but I wasn’t the person who’d speak up about it,” Chandi says.
As she got older, she began to embrace the term as well as her identity. “Not only do I feel proud now of my culture, my heritage, where I’m from and the color of my skin, but I stand up and own it, too,” she said.
The march to the South Pole
The pandemic had dampened her progress, but on Nov. 24, 2021, Chandi found herself at the Union Glacier camp in Antarctica, ready to embark on her solo expedition.
When she began the 700-mile-long journey to the South Pole, her sled weighed 192 lbs. It carried her tent, tools, repair kits, spare parts, medical supplies, and most importantly, food and fuel for 48 days — the goal she had set for herself. She also had skis on and placed her satellite phone, GPS, compass, Leatherman multitool and a few other items in her pockets.
Chandi averaged a distance of 17 miles per day, while pulling her sled and tackling 60 mph winds. Somewhere beyond the midway point, she was greeted with wave-shaped icy ridges bigger than her.
“When they were together in patches, you could kind of avoid them. But at other times when visibility wasn’t great, I ended up sliding down the ridges a few times,” she recalls.
“I remember telling myself to take one step at a time, to concentrate on just that and not even think of the day as a whole,” she says.
Audiobooks, written messages inside her tent, and voice notes from friends and family downloaded on her phone kept her going throughout the journey.
“When I had really tough days, I’d listen to their voices and feel like they were there with me. All these seemingly small things are huge back there, when you’re on your own.” She also spoke to her partner over satellite phone once daily.
Chandi was physically exhausted and mentally drained toward the end of the journey. Her sled had gotten lighter, and so had she — by 22 lbs. But she reached the South Pole in 40 days, with eight days’ worth of food and fuel to spare. Making it to the South Pole at 2:30 a.m., she remembers the day being bright and beautiful.
“It felt surreal to finally get to the place that I had been training for two and half years,” she says. “More than anything else, I felt glad that I didn’t listen to the people who wanted me to stick to conventions.”
Chandi plans to set up an adventure grant for women with half of the funds she received through the GoFundMe for her expedition. “It can be any unique adventure and doesn’t have to do with Antarctica at all,” she says. Besides that, she will start working toward gaining her weight and muscles back, and most importantly, planning the second phase of her Antarctica expedition — a crossing.
“It’ll be much longer in both distance and days and a lot harder too. But after this, it doesn’t seem as daunting,” she says.
There’s one lesson she wants people, especially women of color, to take away from her experience: “Everybody starts somewhere. There may be a lot of people, especially from our backgrounds, who’ll not want you to, but you just have to be inspired to take that first step. The rest will all fall into place on their own.”
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