Showkat Ahmed Mir, a 26-year-old rifleman in the Indian Army and a competitive alpine skier, was practising how to speak English inside a small two-man tent with the help of 44-year-old Colonel Anand Swaroop, a stocky, muscular mountaineering veteran.
Outside, the temperature hovered around minus 40 degrees Celsius. The wind screamed past the tent, forcing Mir to shout out his halting sentences.
The vast, frozen plains of the Antarctic don’t exactly provide ideal conditions for an English lesson.
For Swaroop, who fell in love with mountains and adventure as an 18-year-old in Lucknow, being part of this unforgiving landscape— where even the moisture in your breath freezes into thin icicles—was the culmination of a long-held passion.
He was leading an eight-member Indian Army team, along with two polar guides, in an attempt to traverse the coldest, driest and windiest continent in the world. The expedition was the first of its kind from India; an unsupported and self-contained team trekking on skis from the Antarctic coastline to the South Pole—a lonesome and brutal distance of 1,170km.
In 1911, when the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen beat British naval officer Robert Scott to become the first man to reach the South Pole, it was among the last truly unexplored regions on Earth. Amundsen led a team of four men and 52 sledge-dogs for a two-month journey from coast to Pole. Scott arrived a month later, but he and his team were killed during the return journey, trapped in a blizzard just 11 miles from their base camp.
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To celebrate 100 years of one of mankind’s most thrilling expeditions, the Indian army embarked on a similar journey. The team returned successful to Delhi last month.
“For the last 10 years, the Indian Army has been concentrating on mountaineering,” says Swaroop, who has been on 15 mountaineering expeditions with the army, and is a scuba and sky diver. “We’ve summitted six of the 14 peaks that are 8,000m and more in height in the world. Five of these are out of reach because they are in PoK (Pakistan-occupied Kashmir), so we were looking for a different challenge. A polar journey still counts as one of the frontiers of adventure.”
Rifleman Ram Singh is a short, compact man from a small farming village in Chamoli, Uttarakhand. His slight build belies the incredible acts of endurance his body is capable of. Before joining the expedition, Ram told his parents, without getting into the details, that he was going to a foreign country.
“The couple of times I called them from the expedition, I told them I was just walking and sightseeing,” he says. “Just like a tourist.”
Instead, he and the team were dragging 90kg sledges (packed with food rations, stoves, fuel, bedding, shovels, tents and utility tools) attached to their bodies with a rope and carabiners, following a gradual uphill gradient towards the Pole starting from 80 degrees South Latitude.
On the first day, they skied for only 4 hours to help the body acclimatize—a slow and patient quest through the last pristine landmass on the planet.
“Only my wife knew where I was,” Ram says, “and she was not happy. She had seen a documentary on Discovery channel, and she was terrified.”
Tsewang Morup, a 28-year-old Rifleman from a tiny village in Ladakh called Achinathang, was living a surreal dream.
“When I was in standard VI, I had read that in the polar regions you have six months of sunlight and six months of night,” he says. “I could never really understand that. But I never thought I will actually see it myself. It felt spiritual, seeing the sun, with a big halo around it, move in a circle around us in a 24-hour cycle.”
The army men measured their days in skiing hours, their sense of time otherwise obscured by the constant sunlight.
Most members of the team found it difficult to sleep for the first week, covering their eyes with cloth inside the tents at night to keep off the light; but that wasn’t the only disorienting experience. The featureless landscape also made travelling and navigating difficult.
“There was no visible goal before us, nothing to mark our progress,” says Swaroop, “so it often felt like we were not moving at all.”
Every day, the team skied for 10 hours, starting at 9 in the morning. At the end of the day, they set up camp, digging snow to erect waist-high walls around each tent to lessen the impact of wind. Stoves were carefully lit inside the highly inflammable tents to melt snow. Dinner was US-made dehydrated food—chicken curry and rice, salmon and pasta, chana masala and rice, soaked in hot water.
From coast to Pole: (top) The army team on the arduous trek, pulling 90kg sledges; and lunch break atop sledges on the Antarctic ice sheet.
“After the first 15 days of dry rations, I dreamt of roti in the morning and chawal at night,” says Lance Naik (L/Nk) Khilap Singh, a 27-year-old mountaineer who had shown his wife where the South Pole was on a globe before leaving.
In expeditions such as these, the army’s otherwise watertight hierarchy breaks down. Colonels and Riflemen share tents as “buddies”, cook and clean for each other. “That is a truly wonderful thing,” says Khilap. “You get to know your officers as human beings, you talk openly to each other.”
Khilap, who is married to his long-time girlfriend, had lengthy conversations with the expedition’s deputy leader—Captain R. Bala Karthik, 27 and single—on love and marriage.
On the long traverse, boredom is as arduous as the physical exertion, and personal conversations kept the men tethered to reality.
“It was the same featureless scene every day, the same faces every day,” says Karthik. “You forced yourself to think pleasant, happy thoughts. Otherwise, you start questioning everything. Why am I doing this? What am I doing here?”
The team members carried iPods for entertainment. “It was a mix of peppy Hindi music, Bollywood songs, Garhwali and Gorkhali songs,” says Swaroop. “We exchanged iPods when we got bored, but we had exhausted all music within 30 days.”
When things got really bad, they followed a meditative “one step at a time, one movement at a time” dictum to stay focused.
The Great White
Though it’s often called the “White Continent” or “The Great White”, there are shades of blue everywhere in Antarctica. Old glaciers are rinsed in aquamarine, crevasses inside the glaciers appear indigo, and icebergs are a pale blue. The strong ultraviolet rays even stain photographs in deeper saturations of blue.
“It’s a strange, otherworldly place,” says Mir. “No vegetation, no animals, just fields of ice.”
Preparations for the expedition began in May, when the army organized a four-week training and selection camp at its High Altitude Warfare School in Gulmarg, Jammu and Kashmir. Ten men were selected from a group of 62 for the next phase—three months of rigorous physical training in Delhi.
In September, the team left for Greenland for a month of specialized ski lessons under former Norwegian Special Forces officer and polar expert Svante Strand, in conditions close to what they would face in the Antarctic.
Strand and Canadian polar expert Devon McDiarmid joined the army men before they flew to Punta Arenas in Chile, the world’s southernmost city. They waited there for 12 days for the weather to clear so they could fly to the base camp at Union Glacier on the Antarctic coastline.
“We were on standby every day,” says Karthik. “Finally, we left on 24 November on an IL76 aircraft.”
The most thrilling sight greeted the team—the coastline of Antarctica. An endless white glacier shot through with veins of blue ice, seemingly frozen in the act of collapsing into the sea. “It was midnight according to our watches, which were set on Chilean time (Antarctica has no time zones),” says Swaroop. “But of course it was broad daylight at the glacier. It was just white, white everywhere.”
On 26 November, a Twin Otter aircraft dropped the team off at Hercules Inlet, 80km from Union Glacier.
“We waved goodbye to the pilots, took a group photo and set off on our journey,” says Swaroop. “It was 1.30 in the afternoon.”
The flat polar terrain, continuously bathed in light, gives the impression of a landscape with no secrets. Not so: The surface of the ice is scalloped by the wind almost everywhere. Fields of wind-blown hard snow ridges called sastrugi, that can be 3ft high, loom out of nowhere, and hidden crevasses present a constant threat.
“It’s like a frozen choppy sea—beautiful and calm, but with hidden dangers,” says Karthik.
The members of the expedition pulled their sledges for days on end on this unforgiving surface in almost ceaseless blizzard-like conditions. “On an average, we did 3 kmph,” says Swaroop. “But when the winds were high, we were doing 1 kmph. Extremely slow going.”
Wind speeds routinely crossed 100 kmph, and because the Pole is higher than the coastline, the team was always travelling against the wind, a polar phenomenon called katabatic wind.
“Eyes closed, head bent and clothes flapping so hard that it sounded like a helicopter,” says Mir, describing their daily routine. In katabatic conditions, the whole surface is active—loose snow swirls up everywhere, creating whiteouts.
“You can hardly see your own skis,” says Khilap. “People would trip on invisible sastrugi and fall. It was a huge challenge, especially for the navigator in front. The rest of us travelled blind, in close groups, trying to follow the leading man.”
The navigator’s job was to keep a constant eye on the needle of the compass, while skiing and watching the path ahead at the same time. The compass bearings were fixed with the help of a GPS at the start of each day. “It was a taxing job,” says Swaroop, “so we took turns navigating every one hour.” Each hour’s skiing was also followed by a 10-minute break for food, rehydration, and to solve any immediate problems.
A nightmare revisited
At the halfway point in their expedition, treading carefully around a rare change in the landscape, the Thiel Mountains, some members of the team were revisited by a recent nightmare.
During the High Altitude Warfare course in 2009-10, a deadly avalanche had killed 17 army men in Gulmarg. Ram and his expedition colleague L/Nk Parsuram Gurung were part of that course. Ram had been buried 5ft under the snow.
“I had swallowed soft snow just like you gulp in water while drowning,” says Ram. “I thought this is it, I’m going to die here.
“But I could hear people on the surface. I could hear everything clearly, but it was strange, like the sound was magnified yet far away at the same time. Then I thought someone will dig me out. After 15 minutes, which felt like hours, I was pulled out by rescuers.”
In the Thiel Mountains, air trapped between the soft surface snow and the compacted hard snow underneath escaped under pressure from the skis and reverberated around subterranean crevasses.
“It sounded like artillery fire below our feet,” says Ram. “I was terrified, it took me straight back to the avalanche in Gulmarg.”
“Before every step, we had to sink our ski poles to check for crevasses here,” says Morup.
As on most of the trip, they travelled single file, but here, the team increased the gap between members to prevent the likelihood of more than one member falling into a crevasse. Thankfully, no one did.
“At the beginning of the trip, all we could think of was how to cross 1,170km,” says Morup. “It was a monstrous number. But reaching the halfway point was a relief, because there (was) no going back from there.”
On the 49th day of skiing on an empty polar plateau, the team spotted the US National Science Foundation’s Scott-Amundsen Base at the South Pole, a small black dot nearly 25km away.
“I could hardly sleep at night,” says Karthik. “I thought even if my ski or sledge breaks down, I can still walk there.”
At half past midnight on 14 January, after 49 days and 10 hours of skiing, the team reached the South Pole.
“The first feeling was…relief,” says Swaroop.
At the Scott-Amundsen station, they met the scientists who live there for the summer, and a Norwegian journalist.
“It was like a rebirth!” says Mir. “We saw other people again! We hugged each other and did a little dance.”
Khilap was fascinated by the curvature of the horizon at the South Pole: “Like it really was the end of the world, and you could jump off the edge.”
After a brief tour of the scientific base, where they were served tea, coffee, chocolates and cookies (a dream after 50 days of dehydrated food), the team settled down to spend a night at the planet’s southern tip.
The next morning, they flew back to Union Glacier Base Camp in a DC-3, a vintage World War II aircraft still used for rough, open-field landings.
For most members of the expedition, it was time to return to their families to reveal the real nature of their journey.
The expedition members were a motley crew with a common passion—adventure
Colonel Anand Swaroop, 44
Corps of Engineers
He joined the army partly to take advantage of its excellent adventure infrastructure and opportunities, and is now one of the most well-known climbers in the army. He has stood on top of some of the highest peaks in the world, including Everest, Cho Oyu and Dhaulagiri, and has been leading mountaineering expeditions for a decade now.
Captain R Bala Karthik, 27
He won the Shaurya Chakra, awarded to army personnel for acts of bravery, for fighting insurgents in Jammu and Kashmir in 2008. A paratrooper, Karthik was the only member of the team with no previous experience in mountaineering or skiing. “I had nothing to fall back on,” he says, “so I just absorbed every little information during training for the expedition.”
Lance Naik Khilap Singh, 27
He joined the army at 17, following in the footsteps of his two elder brothers. The son of a farmer from Chamoli in Uttarakhand, Singh completed his High Altitude Warfare training course in Gulmarg in 2006-07, and immediately began joining mountaineering expeditions. No one in his family, except his wife, knew that he was trekking in Antarctica.
Rifleman Tsewang Morup, 28
Born in the cold desert region of Ladakh, Morup began ice-skating almost as soon as he learnt to walk. He was also the most comfortable among all his expedition teammates in Antarctic conditions. “My wife too was perfectly happy with me going for this expedition,” he says. Morup was in charge of medical supplies and emergencies during the expedition.
Rifleman Ram Singh, 26
Singh was inspired to join the High Altitude Warfare school after falling in love with mountains and skiing while he was stationed in Jammu and Kashmir. He was part of the 2009-10 class where 17 of his course-mates died in an avalanche. “It only made me more determined to learn mountaineering,” he says.
Rifleman Showkat Ahmed Mir, 26
Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry
The most experienced skier in the team, and the topper of the 2004-05 High Altitude Warfare course, Mir grew up in his aunt’s house to reduce the financial burden on his family. When he told his aunt that he might go for the South Pole expedition, she told him “to grab the chance with both hands”. Mir called his aunt using a satellite phone from the South Pole at the end of the expedition.
Lance Naik Arjun Kumar Thapa, 27
Thapa comes from the Gorkha district in Nepal, an area famed for producing some of the best soldiers in the world. He completed his High Altitude Warfare course in 2008, and has been an avid mountaineer since, climbing technically challenging peaks such as the 6,816m Leo Pargial in the Punjab Himalayas.
Lance Naik Parsuram Gurung, 25
Para Field Artillery
The first man from his regiment to complete the High Altitude Warfare course, Gurung was also trapped in the avalanche in 2009. Shaken by the incident, Gurung went on long leave, but cut it short to volunteer for the expedition. When he called his wife from the South Pole, after spending almost an entire year away from his family, he got a stern warning to take that pending long leave.