Earlier this year, on January 3, Preet Chandi’s exploits in Antarctica exploded over adventure junkies’ social media feeds all over the world. Visuals depicting the British army officer and expeditioner dragging her pulk—named Simran after her niece—across the white emptiness of the Antarctic landscape, or that of her jubilant face encased in the hood of her anorak, brushed aside the grimness of another potentially devastating pandemic wave.
Chandi had become the first woman of colour to reach the South Pole solo. A frontier that finds itself choked with flags planted by white men—the Shackletons and the Amundsens of the world—had been breached by an Indian-origin woman. As the world discovered soon after, Chandi was born in Derby, daughter of an Indian immigrant couple. Having enrolled in the Territorial Army as a teenager, the 33-year-old has trained as a physiotherapist and now serves as a Captain in the U. K.’s Royal Army Medical Corps.
Tackling extreme temperatures, wicked sastrugi and phenomenally high wind speeds—together making up the harshest climate on Earth—she trekked the 700 miles of her expedition in 40 days, a week ahead of schedule, closing at third on the all-time fastest list of successful unsupported women’s expeditions to the South Pole. As we catch up with her for a long-overdue conversation, Preet is on annual leave, taking a much-needed break in Bulgaria. We get chatting about her expedition as a victory over self-doubt, why it empowers her even more to have done it as a woman of colour, and other challenges. Excerpts from the interview:
I think it is the biggest achievement in terms of what I want to achieve, which is inspiring people. When people ask me what my biggest achievement is, I remember I’m even still just graduating as a physiotherapist. And that’s because I was told that I wouldn’t be able to do it. Going to Antarctica was big on a different level, because of what it meant, not just for me, but for the whole reason I wanted to do it—to try and inspire people to push their boundaries. We’re so often told to stay in this box or that lane that’s been created for us. And I want to encourage people who maybe have been in a position like me—to tell them that it’s okay to push those boundaries.
I’ve seen so many comments of people saying, well, why does being a woman of colour matter? We’re all equal, but at the same time, you know, nobody ever raises a question when my nationality is mentioned. People call me British, nobody questions that. People often said to me, ‘Oh, you don’t really look like a polar explorer.’ And maybe it’s just an offhand comment, but for people even to have that comment, whereas I wanted to show people it doesn’t matter what you look like. I didn’t know anything about Antarctica. This wasn’t a lifelong dream I had. Three years ago, I typed ‘polar explorer’ into Google. I didn’t see anybody that looked anything like me. I did the same thing a few weeks ago, and saw an image of myself there. And that in itself is just really powerful.
Someone pointed out the other day that people always used the term ‘female adventurer’, whereas actually, you wouldn’t say ‘male adventurer?’ Reaching the South Pole singlehanded is an amazing feat in itself but, at the same time, I do think the fact that I’m a woman of colour is important, because why am I the first woman of colour?
I’m so happy to see that it was covered in different papers in India, that makes me feel really proud. I saw a comment that said, ‘Oh, you’re not Indian, because you weren’t born in India.’ But I identify how I want to identify, and I am Indian. There’s never been a part of me that has thought I’m not Indian because I wasn’t born in India. I’m Punjabi, that is my culture and my heritage.
At 19, I joined the Reserves, which we call the part-time army, because I saw an advert in the city centre. My army experience definitely helped. The first course I did—I found it online—said it was a polar training course. There were 12 of us—12 different people from different backgrounds who had joined the course for different reasons. Some people wanted to go to Antarctica, some probably treated it like just a winter course.
And I realised quickly that even though I hadn’t done stuff in that environment (the course took us to Norway), I had crossover skills: I knew how to navigate (you had to use a compass and GPS); I hadn’t put up a tent in a snowy environment, but I knew how to pull up a tent, work as a team—there were so many skills I realised that I already possessed.
Yeah. Funnily enough, I love being a part of a team. And yet, doing it alone, I think, was part of the challenge too. I started to train by dragging tyres, again alone, and then repeated the exercise in Antarctica. On the tougher days, when I would really feel that I was on my own, I would break it down and take only one step at a time. I had downloaded 50 voice notes on my phone that my family and my closest ones had sent to me. I would listen to them—my friends are amazing, some of their voice notes were like short stories. I only called my partner every day as a check-in call because I didn’t want to be calling people on the satellite phone because that can also make it harder. I didn’t call my mum after I finished my expedition for five or six days.
It’s my fault, I need to go through my finances—but I’m still not in the complete clear. Greenland was the hardest to accomplish because I knew I couldn’t afford it—they had cancelled it and had no expeditions going to Greenland that year. I contacted different companies and eventually, one of the companies found somebody who would accompany me, because I needed a guide. It was very expensive; I used my life savings. The trip itself was difficult. We got caught in some storms and bad weather, got stuck in the tent at the end of six days, and we actually had to get extracted by helicopter. I remember [the call from the satellite phone, and being asked] how I was going to pay for the extraction, which I couldn’t afford.
To be honest, by people that push any boundaries. If somebody has decided to run a 5k marathon, and they have never done much outdoors—my mum, for example. In England, we actually live close to the Peak District, which is a lovely walking area, and we would never go there. And then, she just started doing a bit more walking. She came with me to the Peak District just like it was a gentle walk.
Don’t be afraid to take the first step. I created ‘Polar Preet’ from my sofa with my partner’s help; he created my Instagram page and website. On Instagram, I started following anybody that had ‘polar’ or ‘Antarctic’ in the handle. I want to say to people—you’re not alone. There are quite a few outdoor adventure groups that provide a lot of support. I used social media quite a lot, followed people who had done different things that I had wanted to do. Believe in yourself, and break the goal into smaller units so they look more achievable.
Prannay Pathak dreams about living out of a suitcase and retiring to the island of Hamneskär to watch films in solitary confinement. He is Assistant Editor (Digital) at National Geographic Traveller India.