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Meet the adventurer: Preet Chandi, the first woman of colour to ski solo to the South Pole

In January 2022, British army medical officer Preet Chandi, or ‘polar Preet’, became the first woman of colour to ski solo to the South Pole. From dragging tyres around London to managing money, she discusses her journey to the expedition.

By Nora Wallaya
Published 8 Mar 2022, 10:00 GMT
Preet Chandi spent two and a half years training for her expedition to the South Pole.

Preet Chandi spent two and a half years training for her expedition to the South Pole.

Photograph by Preet Chandi

How did you decide to ski solo to the South Pole?

I knew I wanted to do something big, but I didn't know what it was going to be.

My boss was the one who first mentioned Antarctica to me. I didn’t consider it at first because I’d never tried skiing, but the thought occurred to me again later, in a roundabout way. I was on an operational tour with the army in South Sudan, which was when I completed the Marathon des Sables — a 156-mile ultramarathon in the Sahara Desert that obviously takes place in very extreme conditions. During the run I thought, if I can do this, then I can definitely train for Antarctica!

I Googled ‘polar explorers’ and saw all these people with big jackets with fur ruffs, so I went out and bought a jacket with a fur ruff. I started filling in the Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions application form online and couldn’t answer ‘yes’ to some of the questions — like whether I’d had experience with ice climbing or walking on glaciers. So, I booked a trip to Iceland and hired a guide to make sure I could. I took the jacket with me, and that was when I took the selfie that’s now on my website, which is now used everywhere. I find it funny because when I took that picture, I knew nothing about polar exploring — and the Iceland trip did almost nothing to prepare me for Antarctica. I just wanted to be able to say ‘yes’ on the form.

How did you train for the expedition?

It took two-and-a-half years. But it wasn’t until January 2021 that I started training six times a week and following a strict programme. I was doing cardio twice a week on an exercise bike and then strength training, so I knew I could pull a pulk (a low-slung, small sled). I started dragging these two tyres everywhere I went, so whether I was in London, Preston or Derby, the tyres would come with me. The tyres are leaning against the side of my house now and the other day the postman left a parcel in one of them. I love that they’re still being put to good use.

How did you pack?

I needed 48 days’ worth of food, drink and equipment. It was very hard trying to get some of the required kit because of delays caused by the pandemic and new Brexit regulations. A lot of the kit is very specific and bespoke, too. For example, the tent I needed was only sold in France. But by far the most time-consuming thing to pack was the food. Everything had to be emptied out of its original packaging and cut up, so it was easier for me to eat. I didn't take any luxury items with me at all, or anything I didn't need. If I had to choose my favourite piece of kit, it’d be my Garmin inReach — a device used to send and receive messages. People can't message you unless you've messaged them first, though. I was in contact with just seven people, and four of them were on the ice, too.

48 days of dried food must have been tough. What food were you dreaming of?

I really wanted Coke Zero. But to be honest, I really liked some of the dried food. I finished the cheese and salami first — even though they stay frozen out there. You just put them in your mouth and let them melt.

Were there any unexpected happenings on your journey?

Seeing the sastrugi (features formed by wind erosion in frozen landscapes) with their wing-shaped ridges was quite overwhelming — they were huge. I'd never seen anything like it. I knew they'd be difficult to navigate in sections, but at times I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get past them.

What were your biggest challenges?

By far the most difficult part of it was trying to get financial support. Now that the expedition’s a success story, I have companies contacting me saying ‘we knew you could do it, Preet!’ And I think, well, where were you at the start? When I was in Antarctica, I reflected on those hard times and realised that if I could get through that stress, then I could get through anything. By the time I left, I had so much more support. I’ve finally managed to pay my credit card off — my sponsors have been a huge help. I read somewhere that my worth is now £3-4m, which really made me laugh. How did they get that figure?

Money isn’t often talked about in this arena. How did you manage it?

I like to be as honest as I can with people — it’s important to talk about money. Put simply, the expedition was super expensive. I don’t know how you could afford it without sponsors. I had no idea how I’d raise the funds — I even started playing the lottery every week. People think that because I’m an army officer, the army paid for it, or that they’d asked me if I wanted to go on an expedition — but I started this journey on my own and off my own back. It didn’t become an army expedition until six months before I left, by which time I was already in a lot of debt.

Part of the money management was my fault — I’d underestimated some of the costs. Covid-19 meant prices had risen everywhere. There were so many unforeseen costs, like the cost of air freight. Thanks to the kindness of people, I managed to save in some areas, like the solar charging company that gave me free solar panels and power packs and the guy in Chile who sorted out my ski bindings. I’m really thankful to those unseen people, who aren’t from big companies. That said, I couldn’t have gone out there without the support of my sponsors. It takes a team of people to make a big expedition happen.

You’re celebrated as the first woman of colour to have skied solo to the South Pole. How important is representation?

I’ve always known how important representation is, but historically, I’ve not had the confidence to talk about anything controversial — I’ve stuck to the safe side of conversations. But on my training trip in Iceland, I did a presentation to a group of young people from diverse backgrounds with the Outward Bound Trust. I asked them whether they thought it mattered that I’m completing the expedition as a woman of colour. With their permission, I recorded their responses and put them in a video on my Instagram, and the response was incredible. People might ask why we need to discuss our differences, but if you look at the broader picture, my differences are constantly being pointed out: my age; that I’m an army officer; my nationality. So why shouldn’t we mention the colour of our skin? It’s important to embrace our differences. People come from different start lines. People from similar cultures understand what it’s like when you’re told to stay in your lane and to do what’s expected of you. When I first typed ‘polar explorer’ into Google, I didn’t see anyone who looked like me. Now when you type it in and scroll down, you’ll see a picture of me. I can’t even begin to explain how powerful that is.

You’ve inspired so many people. But who inspires you?

My niece inspires me. We’ve been going on adventures since she was two years old, whether it was camping in the garden or horse-riding. I want her to grow up without boundaries. Boundaries aren’t there when we’re born, they’re created for us. Now, my niece’s ‘normal’ is that her aunty has been to the South Pole. I want her to dream big. People say you should be realistic, but I’m just a Punjabi girl born in Derby — how would going to the South Pole have been anywhere on my horizon? I named my pulk after my niece. I look at her and I want her to be able to do anything, and to be happy.

How would you describe your relationship with Antarctica now?

I don’t agree with the word ‘conquer’. You don’t conquer these places. You’re grateful that these places allow you to be there. Every day, I’d thank Antarctica. I didn’t enjoy every minute I was there — but that’s just the reality of it. If anyone says they enjoyed it all, I wouldn’t believe them. But there were some amazing days. When the weather was good, you could see for miles and admire the different shapes and shades of light. I still can’t believe that, of all people, I could get there — the girl who was picked on at school for the way she speaks.

You said your grandma had asked you to bring her back a souvenir. What did you get her?

A fridge magnet from Chile!

Read more interviews from our Meet the Adventurer series

Published in the April 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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