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At the world's edge

Poles apart Last year, one intrepid Indian woman made history by skiing across the Antarctic to the South Pole against all odds. This is her story

travel Updated: Mar 07, 2010 11:38 IST

Apart from 38 year old Reena Kaushal Dharmshaktu, the few Indian women scientists and one sky diver who have travelled to the South Pole, have done so by air or have skied the short distance from
89 degree latitude to the 90 degree latitude in Antarctica to reach the South Pole. 

But Dharmshaktu is the first Indian woman (and the second Indian) to ski the 900 km long route from the edge of Antarctica to the South Pole, which she achieved in a little over a month, last year. What was that like? She tells us about her thrilling 38 day icy expedition.

Of the two months that we spent in Antarctica, the worst was the night of the storm November 14-15, 2009. The wind was like a whiplash, driving straight into our faces despite our hooded parkas. It roared around our ears and battered the tents. We had two tents, for eight of us. It was an 80 knot wind and the tent fabric flapped furiously. One tent collapsed as its pole broke. The second tent got a long rent in the fabric. We ran helter skelter through the biting wind to the safety of the permanent tents at base camp.

Our base camp in Antarctica was at Patriot Hills, on the Union Glacier. Due to the shifting of the glacier, Patriot Hills has become windier now, a reason why they decided to move the base camp site in 2009. The 2009 season was the last at this site and we could understand why, after the nightmarish experience of that night!

Actually, there was no "night" as we know it. It was summer in Antarctica, when the sun never sets. So there was 24-hour daylight and we had to keep track of day and night with our watches. Was sleeping a problem? Not for me, but some of the others would use the neck gaiters to cover their eyes and block out light or else they couldn't fall asleep.

There were eight of us to start with from Brunei Darussalam, Cyprus, Ghana, Jamaica, New Zealand, Singapore, India and the UK. But, on the actual expedition, there were seven. The member from Ghana fell ill before the expedition and an experienced British adventurer took her place.

For all of us, our Antarctica adventure began in the summer of 2008 when we learnt from the British Council that an Englishwoman, Felicity Aston, who had studied climate change in the Antarctic, was organising a team of women from Commonwealth countries to ski to the South Pole. The expedition would highlight climate change, environment preservation, women's empowerment and also mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Commonwealth on January 1, 1950 by reaching the South Pole on December 31, 2009.

There were 130 applications from India. Two of us got through. In February 2009, the 14 candidates were called to Norway for a selection camp and ski training. After a week, the final team was announced and the eight of us spent another week there, beginning to gel as a team.

Before the expedition
To prepare, I exercised in a gym and followed instructions to eat like a pig to put on weight. I even turned nonvegetarian after 18 years!

By October end, we gathered in London. Purchasing, checking, labelling and packing gear seemed endless. We had a mountain of food dehydrated meals packed into bags labelled "breakfast", "lunch" and "dinner". You opened the bag, poured in hot water and ate. The four bags that made for each day's meals equalled 4,500 calories!

Finally, we flew to Punta Arenas in Chile and then crossed the Great Southern Ocean in an IL-76 plane to Patriot Hills. From there we flew in a cute Twin Otter to a point on the ice shelf of Antarctica called the Messner Start.

On thin ice
We skied from here to the geographic South Pole and covered 900 km in 38 days. Every day, we would start skiing by 9 am after having breakfast. We travelled in a single file.

Every 90 minutes, a halt would be called and we would eat snacks and drink hot nutritious beverages.

We navigated with our compasses set through the GPS. It was always so cold that our breath would freeze in long icicles on our face masks and, at each halt, we had to break the icicles in order to be able to eat and drink. In the evenings, we would call it a day between 5 and 7 pm. We brought back all our garbage, including human waste, leaving nothing but our footprints on Antarctica. We used poop bags and took to jokingly calling them Louis Puitton bags (because you scooped out a small pit in the snow and placed your bag to do your business).

Good humour and fine weather helped us reach ahead of schedule. We reached the South Pole on December 29, 2009 at 23:09 hours and whooped with joy in spite of the 30 degree Celsius temperature.

It was the trip of a lifetime. The most wonderful memory I have is of the feeling that we were in the arms of a supreme life force, omnipresent in Antarctica.

You can choose from two ski routes to reach the South Pole. One is the short 'The Last Degree' trip, which drops you at 89 degrees latitude and you ski to the geographic Pole, situated at 90 degrees latitude. The other is the long traverse from the coast to the Pole, which is what Dharmashaktu's expedition, called the Kaspersky Lab Commonwealth Antarctic Expedition, did.

The traverse has different categories, depending on assistance and support used. The Kaspersky Lab team was assisted (because a resupply caché was dropped for it halfway en route) but unsupported because it pulled its own sleds and did not use snow scooters or dogs.

How to prepare
The biggest challenge one faces at the South Pole is the cold. The wind chill factor lowers the temperature by several degrees. To stay warm, the body burns more calories. It first uses calories available in the daily food intake and then digs into its fat reserves. That is why, in the run-up to the trip,skiers eat a carbohydrate-rich diet to create fat reserves.

Cross-country skiing needs strong legs and pulling the sleds requires a strong lower back. Therefore, gym exercises to strengthen the legs and lower back are very useful. Pulling a tyre to strengthen the lower back is a favourite exercise among those doing the South Pole trip.