British Army medical officer, physiotherapist and explorer Preet Chandi, also known as “Polar Preet”, has conquered one of the most unforgiving corners of the world alone.
The Army Captain completed her expedition across Antarctica in January 2023, and recently broke the records for the longest solo unsupported one-way polar ski journey by a female and the overall longest solo unsupported one-way polar ski journey ever.
Her appetite for adventure also made her the first Asian woman to complete a solo expedition to the South Pole with her first expedition in January 2022.
“It feels amazing,” Preet says about being a record holder. “I knew about Guinness World Records when I was younger, I never thought I would be in it!”
However, she is so much more than a record-breaking name in the headlines.
She is a headstrong woman with her eyes set on the prize, an adventurer, an inspiration.
She is a woman of colour who has faced boundaries and limitations because of who she was, and who never allowed anybody to tell her who she could (and couldn't) be.
Polar Preet's expedition (phases one and two)
Stretching between 13 November 2022 and 23 January 2023, Preet's route was divided into two phases and covered a whopping total of 1,484.53 kilometres (922.44 miles).
Her long journey unfolded across the inhospitable Antarctica continent from the Hercules Inlet (a narrow inlet that serves as a common starting point for Polar expeditions) to the majestic, over-160 km (100 mi) long Reedy Glacier.
She travelled for a total of 70 days and 16 hours with just the company of her Pulk, a type of sledge often used to transport supplies, using a satellite phone to communicate with her loved ones.
That means more than two months withstanding harsh weather conditions and unspeakable difficulties all on her own.
This adventure is a testament to Preet’s strength, both physical and mental, and to her will to challenge herself.
“I wanted to do something that pushed my boundaries and inspired others to do the same,” she revealed.
“I did not know anything about Antarctica but I thought how amazing would it be if I could go and do something that I don’t know anything about. And, hopefully, show that we can go and achieve anything and it is ok if you haven’t followed the same path as others or even if you don’t know anything about the subject to start with.”
However, she didn't always see herself as an adventurer: “When I was training, I don’t think I thought of myself as an adventurer, it was something I did in my spare time outside of work.”
The challenges she faced
Initially, Preet was set on becoming the first woman to ski across the Antarctic continent from coast to coast.
Sadly, the weather conditions posed an unexpected challenge, delaying her daily schedule and ending her journey about 160 kilometres (100 miles) inland.
“I struggled with the conditions for this expedition, so I was always behind time.” - Harpreet Chandi
“I never completed the daily mileage that I wanted, which was mentally tough. The sastrugi (wind-shaped ridges) were a lot bigger this year and my Pulk felt heavy dragging it through the soft snow. I just told myself to keep going.”
“The school expedition I was running was really close to my heart, I had an idea that I could bring logos with me and invited schools all over the UK to join in," she says, recalling what fuelled her motivation to complete the journey.
"Students submitted logo entries and 100 words about why their logo should come to Antarctica. I picked 11 winning logos and turned them into stickers which went on the side of my Pulk and I got to announce the winners on my blog each week."
Preet also completed research with Ultra Sports Science and raised money for the Khalsa Aid charity during the expedition.
As it often happens, the biggest challenge that Preet faced during this extreme expedition wasn’t entirely due to the nature of the journey itself and didn't stem from the outside environment: it bloomed from inside her.
What scared her wasn’t the cold, or the ice, or the loneliness – it was failure.
A bone-deep, quintessentially human fear of letting herself and her loved ones down.
“I was worried for most of the expedition because I was always behind time,” she says, “I knew I wasn’t going to make it after the South Pole since I was not getting the daily mileage I needed. I honestly felt like I had failed and I had let myself down.”
“I was in Antarctica alone speaking to my partner on the satellite phone as my daily check-in call and I remember telling him that I had failed.”
But she was also aware that she was doing everything she could: she never took a rest day, skiing continuously for up to 15 hours a day and averaging five hours of sleep a night.
In the end, despite the adverse weather and the extreme fatigue, Preet looks back knowing she couldn’t have done anything differently.
“Although I did not reach my end goal, I’m glad I travelled as far as I could, I pushed my boundaries and I think that did inspire others. It is also ok to change the goalpost which is exactly what I needed to do.”
“I would tell my younger self that it is not going to be easy and a lot of people will not believe in you at the start but that is ok, you have got this. Take it one step at a time, you can do it. Don’t give up.”
Training to face Antarctica
Adaptability, preparation and strength were the key ingredients for Preet’s success without any space for naysayers.
Among other things, she completed the six-day long ultramarathon Marathon des Sables and occasionally took unpaid leave from her day job in the British Army to complete training trips.
Even more incredibly, for three years, she prepared while scheduling her training around her day job as a physiotherapist. Preet joined the British Army at the age of 27 and, today, she works primarily at a Regional Rehabilitation Unit in Buckinghamshire, United Kingdom.
“I often felt as though I had two full-time jobs because the expedition preparation really does consume your life,” she confesses.
“I spent two years training before going to Antarctica for phase one (700 miles to the South Pole) and then had just under a year to train for phase two (922-mile expedition in Antarctica).”
Overall, she averaged a training regime of six sessions each week. That included a mixture of gym workouts and exercises to simulate the effort of pulling her Pulk.
“The training has consisted of a mixture of strength and conditioning, cardio and dragging tyres to simulate dragging my Pulk. Plus, I took training trips in Norway, Greenland and Iceland.”
“I worked with Pete Swaile, my fitness trainer, to improve my strength since my Pulk weighed 120kg at the start of the second phase of the expedition.”
“I find it harder to train for the mental aspect of the expedition but I had things to help me along the way. I had voice notes from those closest to me that I had saved on my phone before leaving and I would listen to them in my darkest moments, it helped me to hear their voices when I was down.”
Her never-give-up mentality and the words of her loved ones allowed Preet to thrive in one of the most harrowing corners of the planet.
In the coldest, harshest and windiest continent in the world, the results of her training bloomed into a flourishing triumph.
A woman of colour in a man's world
Even today, a little girl dreaming of exploration hears about the fantastic journeys of Marco Polo, about modern-day heroes like Andrzej Bargiel, Colin O'Brady and Nirmal Purja. She will likely be presented with films and franchises about intrepid heroes like Indiana Jones.
The common denominator? Men. They are all men.
It's quite disheartening to notice that 90% of the names when looking up “explorers” will be male ones (try it!).
Thankfully, together with other female explorers, Preet is shaking the obsolete gender standards of what is "proper" for a girl - as if aspirations can be gendered, as if a woman can't dream of the adrenaline of challenging the unknown.
Preet offered young girls all over the world a new role model to shout that, yes, exploration is not a male prerogative.
Sadly, however, challenging gender barriers and preconceptions was far from easy.
“To be honest, I felt as though a lot of barriers came from my own community,” Preet explains, looking back to the challenges she faced as a woman in a non-traditional career. “I often did not tell a lot of people when I was training for this expedition.”
“Often, people would just ignore it if I had mentioned what I was training for and just ask me when I was getting married instead because this was seen to be the most important thing to them.”
Luckily, however, Preet also met kindred spirits who showed plenty of support toward her journey.
“Everyone I came across in the Polar community was so willing to help and it is a really amazing community to be part of.”
For now, Preet plans to spend a lot of well-deserved time with her family and friends. She'll also go back to her day-to-day job, taking care of the rehabilitation of injured soldiers.
“I took unpaid leave from work to do this expedition and don’t think I can afford to do that again currently, so I will be back in my full-time role in the Army soon so whatever I want to do next, I will just need to manage it alongside work.”
Every day, however, Preet is inspired by those who push their boundaries.
"My niece who is now 11 years old inspires me every time she tries something new or pushes outside of her comfort zone."
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