Skiing to South Pole
Reena Kaushal Dharmshaktu, the first Indian woman to reach South Pole, recounts her historic feat. Seema Sharma reports from Dehradun

A group of seven feisty women from different parts of the world skied relentlessly for 38 days in the vast, icy wilderness of Antarctica
A group of seven feisty women from different parts of the world skied relentlessly for 38 days in the vast, icy wilderness of Antarctica

Towing their 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 40C, a group of seven feisty women from different parts of the world skied relentlessly for 38 days.

Among these 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 year.

Thirtyeight-year-old 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 country.

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.

Reminiscing 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.

After 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.

Having found 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 professional groups."

Reena has 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 there.

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 2004.

Reena, who 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 says.

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 UK.

"After 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."

Bad luck 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 natures 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."

The team 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.

The cordiality 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 mission."

"I called 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.

Reena, who 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 our sledges."

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 historic accomplishment.