07 Preet Chandi

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

CNN  — 

Preet Chandi is aiming to make history. The British-born Indian Sikh Army officer is embarking November 7 on the long voyage to Antarctica. Once there, she hopes to become the first woman of color to ski solo and unsupported to the South Pole.

Nothing about the expedition sounds easy.

After flying to Chile, she will be dropped at Antarctica’s Hercules Inlet. From there, Chandi will trek solo 700 miles across the ice to the pole, hauling a sled weighing 90 kilograms (nearly 200 pounds) with all her kit, fuel and food for around 45 days.

The sun will never set but temperatures could dip as low as minus 50 Celsius (minus 58 Fahrenheit) with wind chill. Her only contact with the outside world will be a daily check-in with her support team.

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

She’s undergone crevasse training in the French Alps, trekked across Iceland’s Langjökull Glacier and endured 27 days on the ice cap in Greenland – not to mention months spent dragging a heavy tire behind her back home in England, to simulate pulling a sled.

‘I’m told: “You don’t really look like a polar explorer”’

Preet Chandi is a British-born Indian Sikh Army officer.

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 boundaries and defy cultural norms.

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

While battling appalling weather in Greenland Chandi suffered frostnip – an early stage of frostbite – on the tip of her nose. “People have said to me, they’ve never seen frostnip on somebody with my color skin before,” she said.

“I really hope that this does inspire people, I hope that me doing something that was so far out of my comfort zone… would inspire people to push their comfort zones and push their boundaries.” That could be anything, she added, since clearly a polar expedition is not realistic for everyone.

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

After playing tennis competitively in her teens and moving to a tennis academy in the Czech Republic age 16, Chandi returned to the UK age 19. She joined Britain’s Army Reserve as a medic while studying to get onto a physiotherapy degree course.

She waited a few weeks before she even told anyone in her family that she had joined up, she said, “because it’s something very out of the norm for somebody from my background.”

According to the latest UK government report on diversity in the Armed Forces, Black, Asian and minority ethnic personnel made up 2.7% of officers in the UK Regular Armed Forces as of April 1, 2021. Only 0.1% of personnel who declared their religion were Sikh, the report said.

After graduating and juggling work as a physiotherapist with her Army Reserve commitments, Chandi decided to join the regular Army in 2012. Her military duties have taken her to Nepal and Kenya and, most recently, 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 age 20 and building up to ultra-marathons including the six-day Marathon des Sables – a 156-mile race across the sands and salt plains of the Sahara Desert.

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

Other women have skied to the South Pole, with Norway’s Liv Arnesen the first in the world to make the trip alone and unsupported in 1994. But Chandi believes she will be the first woman of color to do it solo and unsupported.

‘Representation does matter’

Chandi trained in Greenland in 2020.

The Covid-19 pandemic has complicated Chandi’s efforts to prepare for her trip, making her trip to Greenland last year more time-consuming and expensive, for example. As a trained medic, she was also part of Britain’s Covid-19 vaccination drive.

But Chile has now reopened to international travelers and Chandi is confident she is physically and mentally ready for whatever Antarctica might throw at her.

She has named her pulk – the nearly 7-foot long Nordic sled she will haul across the Antarctic ice – for her niece, Simran. Her Nordic skis are named for her nephew, Karanveer. The journey should take her 45 to 47 days to complete; the pulk 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 voice messages from close friends on her cell phone ready to play in times of need. She will record a daily vlog to be uploaded by her support team so others can follow her progress.

Nonetheless, spending more than six weeks alone in such tough conditions will be Chandi’s biggest challenge yet. But the belief that she can inspire others will help to drive her forward.

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

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

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

“There was a time ago that I probably wouldn’t have thought or realized how much representation does matter,” she told CNN. “It’s probably the last few years and also going through this journey that I realized how important it really is, how there are other young girls out there called Preet, because Preet’s a common Indian name, or with my middle name Kaur.

“They see somebody that might be from the same background, or just looks a little bit different to what they expect, and how powerful that is.”

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

On her return from Antarctica, Chandi plans to set up an “adventure grant” for women using half 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 is pushing some kind of boundary. It doesn’t have to be a polar expedition. And I really hope that this is something that will continue, year after year after year.”

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

Top photo courtesy Preet Chandi