‘Polar Preet’: British Sikh Army Officer Preet Chandi embarks on a solo expedition to the South Pole

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Editor’s Note – This story is part of CNN’s commitment to cover identity issues including race, gender, sexuality, religion, class and caste.

(CNN) – Preet Chandi wants to make history. The British-born Sikh Indian army officer embarks on November 7 for the long journey to Antarctica. Once there, she hopes to become the first woman of color to ski alone and unassisted to the South Pole.

Nothing about shipping seems easy.

After flying to Chile, it will be dropped at Hercules Inlet in Antarctica. From there, Chandi will solo 700 miles through the ice to the Pole, pulling a sled weighing 90 kilograms (nearly 200 pounds) with all of its gear, fuel, and food for about 45 days.

The sun will never set, but temperatures could drop to minus 50 degrees Celsius (minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit) with the wind chill. His only contact with the outside world will be a daily check-in with his support team.

Chandi, who adopted the nickname “Polar Preet” for her blog and fundraising efforts, spent two and a half years preparing for the grueling expedition.

She took crevasse training in the French Alps, traversed the Icelandic Langjökull glacier, and endured 27 days on the Greenland ice cap – not to mention months dragging a heavy tire behind her return home in England, to simulate the pull of a sled.

‘They tell me: “You don’t really look like a polar explorer”‘

Preet Chandi is an Indian Sikh army officer of British descent.

Courtesy of Preet Chandi

The 32-year-old Army Captain is determined to achieve her goal, both for her own satisfaction and, she hopes, to inspire others to push their limits and challenge cultural norms.

“I’m not quite the image I think people expect to see, even now,” she told CNN, referring to her South Asian origins. “I’m told ‘you don’t really look like a polar explorer.'”

While battling terrible weather in Greenland, Chandi suffered from frostbite – an early stage of frostbite – on the tip of her nose. “People have told me that they’ve never seen jelly on someone with my skin color before,” she said.

“I really hope this inspires people, I hope doing something that was so far out of my comfort zone… would make people push their comfort zones and push their limits.” It could be anything, she added, as a polar expedition is clearly not realistic for everyone.

Chandi’s own journey has already taken her far from her roots in the English town of Derby, where she grew up with two older brothers.

After playing tennis competitively as a teenager and entering a tennis academy in the Czech Republic at the age of 16, Chandi returned to the UK at 19. She joined the British Army Reserve as a doctor while studying for a course in physiotherapy.

She waited a few weeks before even telling a family member that she was committed, she said, “because it’s something very out of the ordinary for someone in my life. environment”.

According to the UK government’s latest report on diversity in the armed forces, Black, Asian and ethnic minority personnel made up 2.7% of officers in the UK regular armed forces as of April 1, 2021. Only 0.1% of personnel who said his religion was Sikh, according to the report.

After graduating and juggling her work as a physiotherapist with her Army Reserve engagements, Chandi decided to join the regular army in 2012. Her military duties took her to Nepal and Kenya and, more recently, to South Sudan, where she was deployed on a six-month United Nations peacekeeping tour.

Along the way, Chandi developed a passion for endurance events, starting with her first half-marathon at the age of 20 and going through ultra-marathons including the six-day Marathon des Sables – a 156 mile race through the sands and salt plains of the Sahara Desert.

It was after completing this event that Chandi realized that she needed a new “big thing” to aim for – and the dream of her solo trek to the South Pole was born, despite her very small size. skiing experience.

Other women have skied to the South Pole, with Norwegian Liv Arnesen the first in the world to make the trip alone and unassisted in 1994. But Chandi believes she will be the first woman of color to do so solo and without assistance.

“Representation matters”

Chandi was trained in Greenland in 2020.

Chandi was trained in Greenland in 2020.

Courtesy of Preet Chandi

The Covid-19 pandemic has complicated Chandi’s efforts to prepare for his trip, making his trip to Greenland last year longer and more expensive, for example. As a trained doctor, she was also part of the British vaccination campaign against Covid-19.

She named her pulk – the almost 7-foot-long Nordic sled that she will carry through the ice of Antarctica – for her niece, Simran. His Nordic skis are named after his nephew, Karanveer. The trip should take him 45 to 47 days; the pulp will carry food for 48 days.

Chandi plans to listen to audiobooks along the way – Michelle Obama’s memoir “Becoming” is a favorite – and has voicemail messages from close friends on her cell phone ready to play when needed. She will record a daily vlog for her support team to download so others can follow her progress.

Still, spending more than six weeks alone in such harsh conditions will be Chandi’s biggest challenge to date. But the belief that she can inspire others will help her move forward.

“I think the more you do, the more you realize that you are capable of it. And it’s not just for the people in my community, but I understand that coming from a community like mine, there is a lot of boundaries and barriers – and that’s something very out of the norm. And most of the time, it’s not always seen as positive when you’re doing things outside of the norm. “

While preparing for her expedition, which is undertaken as part of her active military service, Chandi has also become increasingly aware of the importance for young people to see someone like her as a role model.

An entry in her April blog shows her dragging her tire behind her in traditional Indian attire. “I am proud to be a Punjabi girl,” she wrote, adding that she had spent years denying her Indian roots.

“A while ago, I probably wouldn’t have thought or realized how much representation matters,” she told CNN. “It was probably in the last few years and on this trip that I realized how important it really is, how there are other young girls called Preet, because Preet is a name. Common Indian, or with my middle name Kaur.

“They see someone who might be from the same background, or who just looks a little different than they expect, and how powerful that is.”

The army officer also helps others in more tangible ways. While in South Sudan, Chandi hosted a charity endurance event for herself and other service members. During the first Covid-19 lockdown in England last year, she raised money for charities supported by England’s National Health Service through another endurance challenge.

Upon her return from Antarctica, Chandi plans to set up an “adventure grant” for women using half of the money raised through the Go Fund Me appeal for her polar trip. It will be open to women of any age or background, she said.

“It can be for any adventure, any unique adventure they want to do that pushes some kind of border. It doesn’t have to be a polar expedition. And I really hope it’s something. that will continue, year after year after year. “

She also has the graduation ceremony for her recently completed Masters of Sports and Exercise Medicine in mid-January – and hopes to enjoy a well-deserved beach vacation next summer. “It’s definitely on the to-do list,” she said.

Top photo courtesy of Preet Chandi


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