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NOV 2010 TO JANUARY 2011

By Colonel Anand Swaroop

The Indian Army launched its and the nation’s first ski expedition to the southern-most frontier of the globe, the South Pole, in 2010-11. A journey to the South Pole, beset with impending peril at every step, is considered to be one of the toughest on earth. Having scaled many of the towering peaks of the Himalaya, the Indian Army sought a tougher challenge to quench its thirst for adventure. The idea of a Coast-to-South-Pole expedition was, thus, conceived in February 2010 by the Army Adventure Wing, Military Training Directorate.

Volunteers were sought from the various arms and services of the Indian Army, and 34 personnel finally assembled at the High Altitude Warfare School, Gulmarg, in April 2010, where the selection was conducted. The month-long selection trials saw the volunteers attending classes on skiing, navigation, survival in polar conditions, maintenance of equipment and clothing besides tests for physical fitness, survival skills, endurance treks and written tests. The outcome of this gruelling phase was the selection of a twelve-member team - three officers and nine other ranks who were then put through further psychological and fitness evaluation tests at the Army Sports Institute in Pune.

Pre-expedition training began in Delhi. A rigorous two to three hour routine of physical activity alongside documentation at the Integrated Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence (Army) became the order of the day. The members, in an attempt to develop the physical strength to pull sledges carrying enough fuel and supplies to last the duration of the expedition, lugged heavy truck tyres harnessed to their bodies, for varying distances. Apart from physical fitness, their taste buds, accustomed to rich and spicy Indian food, had to be tamed to bland preserved food. The team resorted to cooking their own meals and gradually developed a taste for the food they would be consuming over the days they would be out on the remote polar reaches. Since the team had no medically-trained member, they were given training in emergency medical aid and life-saving techniques at the Special Forces Training School, Nahan.

The final and the most intensive phase of pre-expedition training was carried out in Greenland. They were seen off by the Director-General Military Training, Lt Gen Ramesh Halgali, SM on 28 Aug 2010. Greenland, with conditions most akin to that of the Antarctica, was voted the most favourable for the kind of training the team required in building up their knowledge of terrain, survival techniques and most important of all, the importance of meticulous planning. It was over a period of four weeks that the team attained optimum physical and mental toughening so essential for an arduous journey to the southernmost frontier of the earth. During the training, the team learned the use of specialized equipment, most effortless or rather economical use of skiing, packing, maintenance and optimal way to pull heavy sledges over long hours and varied terrains, effective use of limited space in tent, safety factors and safe ways of negotiating crevasses with sledges. The now confident team returned to India on 29 Sep 2010 to begin its final preparations for the main expedition.

During this interim period the members worked on improvising and making changes to their clothing and equipment in an effort to cut down on load and weight. The team was well aware that the element of luck could still play tricks on them. In addition, broken equipment, unusually bad weather, sudden illness and hidden crevasses could all prevent a successful outcome of the expedition. It was on 01 Nov 2010, that the Chief of Army Staff, Gen VK Singh PVSM, AVSM, YSM, ADC flagged off the team from New Delhi.

The team flew to Toronto and Santiago, en route to Punta Arenas, the southernmost city in Chile, from where the final preparations were made under the supervision of guides from the Antarctica Logistics and Expeditions (ALE), an agency hired for the purpose. The weather held the team back in Punta Arenas for two frustrating weeks and it began to look as though the expedition might never be launched.

The team often covered distances of up to 30 km per day.

The excruciating delay gave a golden opportunity to prepare ourselves both mentally and physically for the uncertainties and challenges ahead. After two false starts and remaining on two hourly standbys, it was only on 24 Nov 2010 that the weather cleared and the team was flown to the Union Glacier Base Camp near the Ellesworth Mountain Ranges, in a chartered Illyushin aircraft. The flight over the scattered islands of Patagonia, Drake Passage (the narrow strait linking South America with peninsular Antarctica), sinewy arm of peninsular Antarctica and Ross Sea took almost five hours before the aircraft touched down on the icy surface of a natural airstrip on the Union Glacier. Since this was the first flight of the season, there was a lot of speculation in the minds of crew and the organisers. Luckily the Kazak pilots were confident. Stepping out of the aircraft onto the icy surface with the ever prevalent gale and the sudden exposure to temperature of 20 below was a feeling forever etched in our minds. After a day well spent in packing of sledges, testing and trying out everything that we had carried, the team bade goodbye to the international Antarctican community at Union Glacier and was flown in two batches aboard a Twin Otter aircraft to the start point at Hercules Inlet from where we embarked on our 1170 km journey to South Pole.

Averaging a speed of about 2.5- 3 km/h in the first week, the team was able to glide on for 5-6 hours every day. The first week was the worst due to the steep climb towards the surrounding Patriot Hills and the adjustment our bodies had to make to the unfamiliar pulls and aches. Things got better with time. From the second week onwards, the team was able to maintain the momentum and covered distances of up to 30 km per day. Battling the high-speed winds blasting on our faces and white-out conditions, we made stumbling progress, often almost falling asleep while on the move. Fatigue was not the least of the worries because the team had other physical elements such as wind chill factor and the risk of hypothermia to contend with. The sun did little to help us, as each time it emerged through the white-outs, we would instantly become hot and begin to sweat. The hole in the ozone layer atop Antarctica did little to protect us from being sun-grazed. At places, the long tiring stretches of snow, glaciologists call firn or névé retarded our progress. Rare good winds and visibility permitted us to make headway over the next few days and by Day 25, the team had reached midway but the final destination was still a long way off. The mid way point is characterized by a prominent landmark in the form of Theil mountains. There also exists a natural airstrip that has been suitably levelled by the force of winds over ages while humans have added an automatic weather

station and created a fuel dump. All the smaller aircrafts flying to and fro from South Pole refuel here and the place is aptly named as ‘Theil International airport’. The team camped near the International Airport at Thiel Mountain Range where wind-blasts struck our tents all through the night. The airport is managed by the ALE without any human presence. It is a funny site to see an aircraft land on skis, pilots get out, move drums, transfer fuel and fly out. In this barren and often featureless landscape, where the only human beings we saw were each other, the members shared stories and listened to music.

Skiing over the sastrugis, gliding over the firns and consuming bland but nutritious food would have been daunting enough but that was not all the team had to worry about. There were still masses of ice debris forming insurmountable barriers, moraines and crevasses awaiting us. Often the temperatures dropped so low and the winds blew so hard, we had no recourse but to retire to the safety of our tents. To keep ourselves entertained, we listened to music and taught one another English. Although every step had been a battle, none of us suffered any major health problem apart from various aches and pains. We tried as best as we could to sustain each other’s morale and willpower for the remainder of the journey ahead. After a day of recuperation-repair-restitching, the team resumed its journey across the polar wilderness.

The mountain peaks appeared to pass by infinitely slowly. Often our eyes were but mere slits despite the goggles we wore. On Day 49 we saw what we thought were human settlements far beyond what the eye could see. Our eyes did not deceive, for it was on the next day, after a day long and weary trek that we reached the Amundsen-Scott American Station at the South Pole. The day was 15 January 2011 which was also the Army Day. Elation aside, the team was relieved having made it to one of the extremes of the earth without any major mishaps. We were taken on a guided tour of the American Station before retiring for the evening.

The following day, we flew back to the Union Glacier Base Camp. Once again, as if in a repeat act, the weather packed up and our return was delayed until 23 January, when we were finally able to fly back to Punta Arenas before returning to India on 29 January 2011. The successful team was flagged in by the Defence Minister, Mr AK Anthony on 01 Mar 2011.

Today, despite the uncertainties brought in by weather, equipment, illness, terrain and luck, the reality of a journey to the poles is within easy grasp of more and more people. This premier expedition of the Indian Army to the South Pole was successful not just due to the physical and mental conditioning of the team members but also because of it meticulous planning and systematic execution. Such trips are exorbitantly expensive and difficult to organize and therefore require unstinting support of organizations, family and friends. The success of this expedition will, undoubtedly, spur other adventure-enthusiasts into venturing out and exploring more of the earth and its frozen frontiers which not many are yet fortunate to see.