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Our pole stars

Seven Indian Army men completed a difficult expedition to the South Pole. Let's not forget their journey merely because it was a quiet victory. Gopalkrishna Gandhi writes.

india Updated: Oct 22, 2011 14:32 IST
Gopalkrishna Gandhi

Indians walk, trek, climb, swim, navigate, pilot — all as to the manner born. But skiing is not a movement that comes naturally to our joints, nor sledge-driving to our aided propulsions.

And yet, when seven young men from the Indian Army, led by 44-year-old Colonel Anand Swaroop of our Corps of Engineers, accomplished a skiing feat of global interest on January 15, 2011, it did not get the notice it deserved. We were understandably agonised at the time by the Sabarimala stampede and worried over a spike in vegetable prices. But surely events such as the one-day Test then on in South Africa should have yielded spotlight to the news that was of the order of the first ascent of Mount Everest in 1953. But no, our obsession with the willow obscured this signal event. Reading Rudraneil Sengupta’s re-enactment of the extraordinary feat (Mint, March 19) was, therefore, a huge perspective changer, beside being a descriptive enchantment. The army team completed a remarkable trek from Antarctica’s coast to its centre, the South Pole — a distance of 1,170 kilometres — on skis. No one else had done anything quite like this before. Not since the plucky Norwegian Roald Amundsen and four others became the first human beings to stand on the South Pole on December 15, 1911.

Swaroop and the seven men, all in their 20s, inched their way forward for 50 days against winds so strong that their flapping clothes sounded like helicopters. Each hour on the 'frozen choppy sea' was broken by a 10-minute break for nutriment and rehydration. And advance was not a matter of progress with the help of compass needles but of extreme caution, for subterranean crevasses and snow-ridges could, in one moment, lead to tragedy. The men knew, though they may not have dwelt on the fact that a few days after Amundsen's success, the British team led by naval officer Robert Scott had perished on its return journey, trapped in a blizzard. When the team reached its destination, Swaroop said: "The first feeling was… relief." And rifleman Showkat Mir said: "It was like rebirth!".

Their reactions reminded me about the narratives of the 1911 endeavour I had read some years ago, in Norway. Amundsen was no push-over. 'Junior' in every sense to his fellow Norwegian the explorer, scientist, diplomat, humanitarian and Nobel laureate Fridtjof Nansen, who had reached the North Pole himself, Amundsen had taken Nansen's Fram for the sea-journey from Norway. Telling Nansen and Scott (obviously to mislead the latter) that he was headed to the North Pole, which would have been a feat, but not a first, Amundsen instead turned southwards, to the Polar opposite. Using his knowledge of sled-dogs he took 52 of them to do the heavy duty of pulling the sledges and — to the post-facto horror of many — to serve as food for the men and dogs.

Amundsen and his men were models of physical fitness. So much so that (it is said) when Amundsen went to a doctor for a check-up before setting off, the doctor was so amazed by the perfection that called in his medical interns to see the specimen in human physiognomy that lay before them.

Standing at last on the Pole, the 39-year-old and ever-taciturn Amundsen was prayerful and brief. He simply said: "God be thanked." But one of Amundsen's colleagues Helmer Hanssen said something almost identically practical and honest, like our own Swaroop. Hanssen said he was "… relieved… that I should no longer have to stare down at the compass in the biting wind…"

Like our team now, the Norwegians raised their national flag on the polar ice. Olav Bjaaland wrote in his diary: "So now we have attained the goal of our desires, and the great thing is that we are here, the first men, no English flag waves but the three-coloured Norwegian…"

On returning home, they were feted. And they went to Britain as well, a journey of some delicacy since not just England but the world mourned Scott and his men. Lord Curzon, fresh from his Indian viceroyalty, was by then President of the Royal Geographic Society. The body invited Amundsen and his party to a felicitatory event in London. But the tug of human emotions can be irresistible. At the end of a handsome tribute to the visitors, with Scott's memory goading his thoughts, Curzon could not help propose a toast that must rank among the most ungracious ever to be proposed: "And yes, three cheers to the Norwegian dogs." There is no record of how Amundsen responded. Amundsen's frenzied will-power was matched only by a shrewd sense of preparedness. He described good luck as "the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it" and said of "bad luck": "Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time… this is called bad luck."

A national hero next only to Nansen, Amundsen wanted to become the only man to have stood on both poles and with Umberto Nobile tried an air landing on the North Pole. The attempt did not succeed. Later, when Nobile's plane, the new airship Italia, vanished mysteriously in that region, Amundsen took off on a rescue mission with some others. He disappeared on June 18, 1928, while flying on that rescue mission. Amundsen's body was never found.

The high drama surrounding the 1911 South Pole expedition of Amundsen and his later tragic career have lent themselves to legend and to lore. Failure, trauma, tragedy make it to news, to comment. Success is neither equally acclaimed, nor found half as interesting. But it needs to be, when the odds that attend victory are as tough as when they mark defeat. Our January 2011 South Pole expedition ought not to be forgotten merely because it won a quiet victory. And that, without canine help.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor. The views expressed by the author are personal.