When she returned from a trek across Greenland last year, Preet Chandi had a mild case of frostbite on her nose. “I remember somebody saying to me they’ve never seen an injury like that on somebody of my colour skin before,” she said. “I am an Asian woman, I’m not the image that people expect to see out there.”
Later this month Chandi, a 32-year-old army physiotherapist, hopes to become the first woman of colour to complete a solo unsupported trek across Antarctica to the south pole.
During the 700-mile journey, which should take about 45 days, she will face wind chill of -50C and snowstorms while dragging a sled weighing about 95kg when she sets off.
Chandi – or Polar Preet – admits it’s a daunting expedition but says she feels well prepared after training for years. She has completed ultra-marathons, including the gruelling Marathon des Sables across the Sahara desert, and faced extreme weather conditions on a 27-day expedition on the ice cap in Greenland.
In recent weeks she has been dragging tyres around the streets near her home just outside Derby, to prepare for pulling her sled – a 2 metre-long pulk containing all her food and equipment – across the slopes of Antarctic, and she has received a number of curious questions from passersby.
“People say the outdoors is for everyone and yes, it is. But if you come from a community that is not involved in it at all, or you don’t know anybody that does outdoorsy things, or you don’t see anybody that looks like you doing it, it can be really hard,” she said, adding that a number of people thought she said she was going to Southall, in west London, not to the south pole. “It’s just so out of the norm for them.”
“A lot of us come from different communities with different barriers and boundaries. A lot of the time you’re encouraged to stay in lane and become a dentist, doctor or a lawyer, which are the key things in the Asian community, I would say,” said Chandi, who hopes her expedition will inspire more women of colour to set off on their own adventures.
“But I get that people have barriers all over the place and I hope that I can inspire people for lots of different reasons. It doesn’t matter that you are not the image that society expects to see, you can do it regardless.”
As well as the physical training and the stress of getting sponsors onboard, she has also been preparing for the mental challenge of doing a solo trek. “During a white-out it’s almost like travelling in a marshmallow, you really can’t see what’s in front of you for days, and it can be quite mentally draining.”
Her partner has left messages inside her tent, while friends have recorded voice notes for her to listen to on the journey. “My pulk is named after my niece Simran and my skis are named after my one-month-old nephew, so they’ll be waiting for me every day to get me through,” she said. She flies to Chile on 7 November and, weather permitting, hopes to set off on her trek on 21 November.
When she returns she plans to set up an adventure grant to help more women fund unique expeditions, and she said she was pleased to see change in what has typically been a male-dominated area. “There are more and more female adventurers out there. And there’s more diverse groups, which is absolutely brilliant. It’s really inspiring to see.”
Ultimately, she hopes that by seeing someone like herself pushing boundaries, more young people will consider large-scale expeditions as something to aim towards.
“Don’t get me wrong: Shackleton, Amundsen, Scott, they’re huge polar names and they’re incredible people. But they’re not names that I was familiar with, it wasn’t something that I could personally relate to,” she said.
“I am excited to add some diversity to that, and Preet is actually quite a common Indian name. I’ve had people say to me, ‘oh my daughter’s name is Preet and they’re so excited to have the same name as you’, and that is very powerful.”