Skiing to South Pole
Reena Kaushal Dharmshaktu,
the first Indian woman to reach South Pole, recounts her
historic feat. Seema Sharma reports
A group of seven feisty women from different parts of the world skied relentlessly for 38 days in the vast, icy wilderness of Antarctica
70-kg sledges to cover 900 km in the vast, icy wilderness of
Antarctica while facing hostile blizzards, winds blowing at 140
km/per hour, in a temperature hovering at minus 40°C, a group
of seven feisty women from different parts of the world skied
relentlessly for 38 days.
extraordinary women, who participated in the South Pole
Kaspersky Commonwealth Antarctic Expedition to mark the 60th
anniversary of the founding of Commonwealth, Reena Kaushal
Dharmshaktu was the only Indian woman, who took the Tricolour to
South Pole. The group had reached South Pole on December 29 last
Reena, a freelance instructor based in New Delhi, with National
Outdoor Leadership Schools (NOLS) having headquarters in the US,
has become an`A0icon for the youth and women all over the
Both Reena and
her husband Loveraj Singh Dharmshaktu created individual
milestones last year. Loveraj, a mountaineer and an officer with
the Border Security Force, scaled Mount Everest for the third
time in May, while Reena created history by making it to South
Pole in December in the same year.
about her remarkable feat, Reena says that she never
contemplated achieving such great heights while growing up in
the mountains of Darjeeling. Though she did not know about her
future career at that point of time, but she was sure it would
entail vigorous travelling around the mountains.
graduation, she did various odd jobs, but was soon disenchanted.
A course in basic and advance training in the Himalayan
Mountaineering Institute at Darjeeling came as a boon to her. It
helped her find a suitable job as an outdoor instructor with the
Indian Mountaineering Foundation in Delhi.
something she liked, her talent began unfolding and she started
achieving one feat after another. She says, "I would take
students and individual groups for trekking and
mountaineering`A0deep`A0in the Himalayan ranges. Meanwhile, I
would also satiate my own adventurous urges by joining
scaled seven Himalayan peaks, including Nun and Stok Kangri in
Ladakh, and other peaks in Garhwal Himalayas. Ladakh
Argan-Kangari peak has a special place in her heart as she and
three other team members were`A0the first ones ever to reach
But destiny had
charted her course for bigger things as it was during one of
these expeditions; she met her husband Loveraj, a mountaineer,
who had conquered Kanchenjunga and Mount Everest by then. Their
common interest was one of the reasons behind their marriage in
hails from Uttar Pradesh, is all praise for Loveraj, who belongs
to Kumaon. "It is my husband who`A0has always encouraged me
to push beyond my boundaries and attain tough goals. Had I not
married him, I might not have made it to South Pole," she
In 2008, an
advertisement in a newspaper`A0for women aspirants, interested
in representing India for the commonwealth expedition, aroused
her curiosity. She applied for it and, proving her mettle, edged
out 116 compatriots. In February 2009, Reena went to Norway for
a two-week training in skiing. There were seven other women from
Cyprus, Ghana, Singapore, Brunei, New Zealand, Jamaica and the
training, we all left for our countries to pursue the training
module there. It was during this period Loveraj climbed Mt
Everest for the third time. Hugely motivated by this, I decided
that I, too, would not come back from South Pole mid-way
unsuccessful," says Reena.
For the second
part of the training, Reena went to New Zealand in September for
10 days. In October final preparations for the expedition began.
The members were taken to Chile and London to shop for dried
food, attire and instruments for the expedition.
The first day
started on a foreboding note at the base camp at Patriot Hills,
which shook the confidence of the team. Reena remembers,
"The team was celebrating at the base camp with champagne
without knowing about the impending storm. Within minutes, a
turbulent blizzard ripped apart our tents and wetted each
article. The whole night we kept assembling tents and drying
things. The celebratory mood vanished in a jiffy, and we learnt
a lesson about the unpredictability of nature."
persisted. Their teammate from Jamaica had to return after just
eight days of acclimatisation training at base camp even before
the expedition started as she was inflicted with frostbite.
Reena remembers with a shudder, "It was
heart-wrenching`A0to see her going back after overcoming
numerous hurdles. The episode made us wary of our own physical
susceptibilities. Every now and then we would examine our
fingers and toes." The group of eight was then reduced to
seven, which eventually made it to South Pole.
But their luck
changed and soon the nature’s fury calmed down and the team
began its expedition. Says Reena, "We were lucky to have a
good and timely start as many a time, expedition teams keep
waiting for weeks altogether for the weather to clear. This
timely start put us in good position to begin and end our
expedition by January 1, the date when the Commonwealth came
into existence in 1950."
religiously followed its tightly chalked-out schedule to be able
to meet its deadline. As it did not have a guide, the team
movedwith the help of GPS (Global Positioning System) handset
for navigation. "We would ski for 25 to 30 km everyday and
take a seven-minute break after covering one and a half km. When
we stopped, cold would creep in, so we would get up fast to
resume skiing so as to warm up our bodies. Barring a day, when
our hands, feet and nose got excessively cold and we had to halt
midway — but we covered up the next day — we remained
steadfast on the schedule," adds Reena.
What kept them
going was their superb physical stamina, high-calorie diet and
regular sound sleep. According to Reena, "We had
to`A0consume 4,500 calories every day. For this, we would drink
five litres of protein shake, eat loads of chocolates, buttered
popcorn and boil dried meat mixed with chocolate powder and
cooked rice. Though we got tired of eating the same food
everyday, there was no other option but to consume the calories.
A good sound sleep was also equally needed. Since the sun does
not set in South Pole for six months in summer we had to sleep
at scheduled time by covering our eyes," remembers Reena.
among the members grew during the free time of three hours in
the morning and three hours at night that the team got. Smiles
Reena, "We would get up at 6 am and leave by 9 am. We would
come at 7 pm and sleep at 10.30 pm. This gave us enough time to
bond with other members. Since we all knew English, so
communication was never a problem."
The group had
become an extended family. It was only on Christmas, they talked
to their respective families. Says Reena, "It was only on
Christmas we talked to our family members. Otherwise we
preferred not to talk to our family members so as not to get
swayed by emotions and, dilute the resolution for our
my husband but he was unavailable as he was away to his native
village in Munisyari, Uttarakhand. Then I talked to my mother
and sister, which made me quite emotional," she adds.
Other than this
Christmas gift they had no contact with anybody and only
remained connected`A0to the outside world through the satellite
phone. The team kept informed its headquarters in London about
its well-being and whereabouts. This information was then pasted
on the official website for others and family members to see.
This was their only link with their families. "It was
indeed difficult to live so far away from our families in an
environment where you do not even see vegetation and wild life,
only hostility of weather and insurmountable difficulties. But
then, we were focussed on achieving our aim. More than physical,
it was a psychological battle," says Reena.
On December 29,
the last day of the expedition, they were to`A0conquer the last
stretch of their expedition to reach South Pole. Reminisces
Reena, "Since we were to be interviewed by the National
Geographic Channel at 4 pm, we altered our schedule by sleeping
in the morning and leaving for the last leg of`A0the expedition
at 9 pm. We reached South Pole after three hours and our joy
knew no bounds.`A0 We hugged each other out of sheer ecstasy,
tears ran down our cheeks, we clicked photos, talked to our
family members breaking the news to them."
The team then
began its journey back to the base camp to acclimatise itself
for the journey back home. On January 15, Reena reached Delhi,
where she was welcomed by a huge crowd of fans and her relatives
and family members.
became a celebrity overnight, wants to use her position to
spread the message of environment protection. "I want to
spread the message of protecting`A0and safeguarding`A0the
environment. A strict ban on polythene is a must as it is
eroding our environment. Even in Antarctica, we left nothing
polluting behind, not even human waste which we carried back on
Back to her
normal life, Reena now wishes to scale Mt Everest like her
husband. She is looking for a sponsor, as she says, "An
Everest expedition needs an estimated Rs 25 lakh to Rs 30 lakh.
For Antarctica expedition, I got 85 per cent of the funds from
the Kaspersky Lab-anti-virus software company of Russia and the
Bajaj Group. The rest we arranged by taking loans. The Rs 5 lakh
reward money given by the Delhi government was a relief for us
to some extent."
But for the moment, the future
dreams can wait as she is fully enjoying each moment of her