“The biggest lesson I have learnt is not to ever limit yourself. How do you know what you are capable of? Take things one step at a time, even if you don’t believe in yourself, no step or boundary is ever too small.”
Those are the inspirational words of Captain Harpreet Chandi MBE, who trekked 700 miles across the Antarctic wilderness to the South Pole. Completing the expedition in 40 days, seven hours and three minutes, the British Army officer and physiotherapist became the third-fastest woman to complete the challenge solo and unsupported.
And now Harpreet, or ‘Polar Preet’ as she also goes by the name of, has embarked on phase two of her expedition, which will see her undertake a solo, unsupported crossing of Antarctica, a journey covering more than 1,000 miles.
“With all of our experiences, I believe the more we do, the more we realise we are capable of achieving,” says Harpreet. “Looking back at my teenage years, I didn’t have as much confidence but now I tell people to just keep going; nothing is impossible.”
Born in Derby, Harpreet grew up in Sinfin and attended Sinfin Community School. From the age of 14-16, she was based at a tennis school in Surrey before heading to the Czech Republic to continue her tennis training. But when she turned 19, Harpreet moved back to Derby to consider her next steps.
“I remember feeling a bit lost and not sure what I wanted to do,” she recalls. “I didn’t have many GCSEs because I hadn’t been studying much as I’d been playing tennis.
“I remember seeing an advert in Derby city centre for the Army Reserves, which looked interesting, so I signed up. I used to go to the Army Reserve Centre in Sinfin and really enjoyed it. It was something different and it was opening up different doors for me.
“I also decided I wanted to study physiotherapy, so took up an access course at the University of Derby. I volunteered at a hospital in Derby and got a job at Burger King; I was basically doing as much as I could to ensure my chances of getting onto my degree course.
“At the time, I felt like I was really behind other people. I remember being told I wasn’t smart enough to get on to my university course and that I didn’t have enough experience, so when I got into university, it was a huge achievement for me.”
Harpreet stayed in the Reserves while studying for a degree in physiotherapy at St George’s, University of London. Following that, she worked in the NHS as a physiotherapist, before taking up a six-month position in Kenya as a full-time Reservist, where she worked with doctors to help get military personnel back to full fitness.
At the age of 27, Harpreet secured a position in the British Army.
“For someone who didn’t feel that academic, I didn’t think I’d be an officer in the British Army, especially as it’s so competitive. I still remember the phone call I received telling me I had got in.
“Sometimes when we look at certain roles or things in life, it’s easy to think ‘that’s not for me’, or ‘I could never do that’ but there is no limit to what we can achieve. I think from having had a lot of people tell me I couldn’t do certain things, I have learnt to not listen to other people and try and continue to do what I want to do.”
Over the years, Harpreet has dabbled with exploration, undertaking a half and full marathon, before completing Marathon des Sables – six days of running across the Sahara Desert – in 2019.
But where did the idea for a 700-mile trek to the South Pole come from?
“I started to realise that I quite enjoyed the long slog with these challenges,” Harpreet explains. “One of my strengths is mental resilience, so when you’re in positions where you just need to keep on going, mentally I can do that. This comes from a variety of things – being in the military and put in positions where you’re in a field, you’re tired, it’s raining and then when you get through it with your team, that certainly helps with mental resilience. I was also called stubborn a lot when I was younger, but I think I’m just determined. Being told I couldn’t do something also spurred me on.
“I had spoken to friends and told them I wanted to do a big challenge. When Antarctica was mentioned, initially I ruled it out because I didn’t know anything about it, but it was like a seed had been planted in my mind. I literally went on to Google and searched ‘how do you get to Antarctica?’. I looked for polar explorers and didn’t see anybody that looked remotely like me, and that was part of the appeal.
“I didn’t know anything about the place but at the same time if a Punjabi girl from Derby can go and do something like this, then anyone can go on and achieve anything. I felt like when I started planning Antarctica, my world just started opening up.”
From the physical and mental training to the funding and logistics of such a monumental trip, the amount of preparation Harpreet underwent in order to complete the expedition was nothing short of phenomenal.
“Don’t get me wrong, it was so hard. I had this idea but couldn’t get any money or funding, I couldn’t get people interested, and to top it off, we were in a global pandemic. I was working to support with Covid vaccinations, and I was doing a part-time Masters degree at the same time, which I was also funding myself. I handed my dissertation in a few weeks before I left for the expedition.
“Physically, I was training six days a week – getting into a routine of going to the gym, dragging tyres to simulate me pulling a sled, hiking, and biking for cardiovascular fitness.
“Two-and-a-half years it took me in training. But it’s like with anything, if you really want something, you will do anything to get it.”
Trekking the South Pole
On 7 November 2021, Harpreet began her trek. She spent 40 days on her own on the ice, pulling a sled weighing 90kg holding enough food and supplies for 48 days.
To keep her motivated, she listened to audio recordings from friends and family members.
“The thing that kept me going was that this expedition wasn’t just about me. My sled had my niece’s name on it, so I would look back at that, and my skis had my nephew’s name on too.
“I had voice notes from friends and family that I had downloaded on my phone, which I would listen to during the dark moments. I was doing a daily blog via voicemail that my partner typed up every day and I remember asking him if anyone was following along as I felt so cut off.”
Harpreet says some of the more challenging moments of the trip were down to the cold conditions.
“The low points were when the weather was really bad, with the wind coming at me. There were a lot of wind shaped ridges which I fell in a few times too. Luckily, I had no serious injuries, but they were taller than me, so coming out of those were quite hard. I just took it a step at a time. I think that’s all we can do in any difficult situation.”
But the end goal was worth it, she says.
“I remember getting to the South Pole; it was an incredible feeling to have finished and to see a few people who had come to meet me there.”
Harpreet became the third-fastest woman to complete the challenge solo and unsupported – meaning she completed the trek alone and although had supplies with her, she didn’t pick up any further supplies en route.
She also made history by being the first woman of colour to complete a solo expedition in Antarctica.
“I think this is really important,” she says. “It’s not a term that I used that much before, mainly because I was nervous about how it would be perceived. When I got back to Chile, which is where I finally had internet, I saw comments on news outlets like ‘why does it matter?’, ‘are we not all equal?’, ‘great story but ruined by the fact that you mentioned the colour of her skin’, but I think for me equality is never about ignoring our differences, it’s about embracing our differences. Nobody had questioned the fact that I was British or an Army Officer, which are also differences, instead they had picked out the colour of my skin.
“The best thing for me this year has been seeing young girls dress up as me, I don’t think you can beat that. You cannot imagine what it is like to see somebody that looks like you, doing the kind of things you didn’t think were possible. Representation is incredibly important.”
Harpreet has now embarked on phase two of her challenge – something which will have taken her three-and-a-half-years to plan and complete.
This time, Harpreet, who has taken leave from the Army, is aiming to complete a solo, unsupported crossing of Antarctica, travelling over 1,000 miles. This will make her the first woman to cross Antarctica, solo and unsupported.
Battling temperatures of -50c and wind speeds of up to 60mph, she anticipates the journey will take around 75 days.
“This is the expedition I have wanted to do all along," says Harpreet. "I was rejected by the logistics company initially because I didn’t have enough experience, so that’s when I created phase one, which I completed on January 3, 2022. Now I have enough experience to go back and do the crossing.”
Such is the magnitude of this challenge that her efforts have been recognised by the Princess of Wales, who is formally backing Harpreet by becoming Patron of her expedition across Antarctica.
Commenting at the time of the Royal announcement, Harpreet said: “My aim for this expedition has always been to inspire people to push their boundaries. I want to bring people on this journey with me, to help them believe that nothing is impossible. It is an absolute privilege to have the Princess of Wales as the patron.”
In June 2022, Harpreet was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE). In July, she was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Derby in recognition of her outstanding achievements in endurance performance and her determination to inspire future generations.
“To receive an honorary degree from Derby was great, especially because that’s where I did my access course and also because I’m from Derby,” says Harpreet. “I remember going into my access course feeling nervous and not very academic, so it’s a real privilege to get it from Derby.”
Advice for budding explorers
So, what advice does Harpreet have for budding explorers who are wanting to pursue a career and life like hers and break boundaries?
“Just take the first step – and that first step could be anything; it could be searching on Google or telling one other person something you’re going to do,” she says. “Don’t wait for the right time and remember, we are capable of achieving anything we want.”
The University of Derby wishes Harpreet the very best of luck on her expedition and will be following her progress with great interest. Readers can follow Harpreet’s journey through her website.
Written by Kelly Tyler