EXPLORER POLAR PREET VISITS REPTON PREP
Pupils at Repton Prep gave Polar explorer Polar Preet a warm welcome to school when she came to share the story of how she became the first woman of colour to trek alone to Antarctica.
Preet Chandi was born and brought up in Derby and joined the Army when she was just 19 years old, to the surprise of her family. When she turned her attentions to trekking to the South Pole she met many barriers but said that being told that she didn’t ‘look like a polar explorer’ was the thing that spurred her on the most. Addressing Repton Prep pupils she said: “No matter where you’re from you can achieve anything, irrespective of the colour of your skin or your gender there should be no barriers. The more we do the more we think we’re capable of.”
She opened by explaining that the word Antarctica comes from the Greek ‘arctus’ meaning bears – so Antarctica literally means ‘no bears’, and that this continent is the largest desert on earth.
Her preparation for the 700-mile solo trip took two and a half years and saw her train with mentors in Norway and Greenland, navigating dangerous cavasses and acclimatising to the icy polar temperatures that promised to dip to -50 with wind speeds of up to 60mph. She said: “I still have a mark on my cheek where my facemask slipped and frostnip started to set in. Thankfully I felt there was something wrong – in the Army we are used to having a buddy system where your buddy checks you over to make sure you’re OK, but out there on the frozen ice I had no one so I had to stay alert.”
Ahead of her trip she cut all her food into tiny cubes, so it was palatable when frozen and cut all of the labels out of her clothes and even cut her toothbrush in half to reduce the weight of the pulk that was laden with 49 days of supplies. She also asked friends, family and loved ones to write messages of support inside her tent, on her food packages, and to voice memos on her mobile phone to keep her motivated during the trip.
Her talk had pupils captivated and when Preet invited questions hands flew up across the theatre with fantastic questions, including:
What was your most memorable moment? Arriving at the Pole – there are actually two sites; the geographic pole, where the earth’s axis meet but which changes every year, and the Ceremonial South Pole where the flags are located.
Who gave you the most encouragement? It wasn’t one person, but all of the mentors who already had experience were really encouraging.
What was harder – the physical or the mental challenge? Definitely the mental challenge. On the most difficult day I had to concentrate on every step I took – just willing myself to put one step in front of the other. That night I reflected that if I could get through that day I could do anything.
Were you cold the whole time? I had really good base layers and I had to be careful not to sweat as sweat freezes so it’s important to wear all the right clothes and cover every area of your skin to avoid frostbite.
How hard was it putting your tent up each night? It just became part of my routine. It’s important to anchor the tent with a shovel so it doesn’t blow away and then I had to dig a hole in the entrance. It took around half an hour. Then I would light my stove which provided some warmth, roll two mats out and I had a cosy sleeping bag so it was pretty comfortable.
What did you eat? I had freeze dried food so just added boiling water and my favourite was pork pasta. I had carefully prepared rations or food and fuel for 49 days and I completed the trek in just 40 days so if I did it again I wouldn’t take quite as much – probably around 45 days worth. I had to eat around 5,000 calories each day, but by the time I got home I had lost 10kilos.
How did you keep clean? I rolled my feet in the ice, but I didn’t wash my hair for the whole time I was there! However, I brushed my teeth twice a day every day.
Did you get injured? No. I was very careful. But I had a satellite phone so I could be in contact with the logistics company each day to confirm I was safe and if I had needed their help they would have air lifted me out.
Did you ever hop on your sledge and sledge down hills? No – it was all up hill!
How did you stop yourself getting bored? I listened to audio books and talked to myself all the time.
Did you ever feel like stopping? Never. I had put in two and a half years of work to get there so I never felt like giving up. This was about more than just me – so many people had helped me get there and I also wanted to prove to all the people who doubted me that the colour of my skin and my gender were not barriers.
What will your next challenge be? I am planning to cross the whole continent of Antarctica, so when I get to the South Pole keep on going. It will be much harder but I believe in myself.
Did you always want to be an explorer? When I was a child I wanted to be a tennis player, a journalist, a ballerina – but never imagined I’d be an explorer!
She finished by saying: “I’m so glad that I didn’t listen to the people who told me no – that I couldn’t do it. Their doubts were almost entirely because of my skin colour. Equality means embracing our differences and my skin colour and gender are a huge part of who I am so I wouldn’t ever want to change that.”