The first Ladakhi's expedition to Antarctica

By Sonam Tamchos Leh, Oct 17, 2014
Leh :
At the pinnacle of the world of adventure sports, lies the ascent of Mt. Everest and close at it heels is a ski traverse to the geographic South Pole (Antarctica), which is equally challenging task than that of climbing Mt. Everest.

Logistically, it was certainly much more complex, coupled with the fact that cross country skiing, using Nordic Telemark skiing technique, faces some of the most hostile and inhospitable terrains and weather conditions in the world, while manually pulling sleds weighing around 80-100kg. The expedition involves active walking for 10-12 hrs each day, facing temperature from -20 to35 degrees with winds averaging 50knots with occasional gust and blizzards of 80-100knots covering a distance of over 200km to the geographic South Pole, where the base of US Amundson-Scott located.   

Antarctica is the earth's fifth continent. It is the core of Gondwanaland, the first land to form on earth. Mountain ranges the size of the Alps in Europe are buried in her ice, with only the summits exposed. The area is covered by thick ice, at places pushed up to 2000ft (600m) below sea level. The ice sheet, at places thicker than 2.5 miles (4km), averages 1.7 miles (2.7km) in thickness with an area of 5.2 sq miles (13.5 million sq km).

To begin with, the team needed extremely courageous members with strong physical and mental strengths. They then train them so hard that they could be skiing in their sleeps, if necessary. Normally, any polar adventurer trains for at least two years prior to doing what they intended, even if one is an already accomplished skier.

In April 2006, we were called as Volunteers, after a conditioning camp in Delhi, followed by a 30-day long training expedition into the Arctic region of Greenland icecap in July, I was declared the best performer of the team. After an amazing trip to Greenland, where we skied for over 400km through some of the most isolated terrains in the Arctic, the final Antarctica team of ten members were chosen and I was one of them.  

The expedition to Antarctica began on November 22, 2006 following an extremely long route via Paris, New york, Lima, Santiago and Punta Arenas, the southernmost region in South America. With our spirits soaring and hopes buoying high, we boarded the IL 76 without a shudder and landed on the blue ice runway at the Patriot hill base camp in Antarctica. We were then at 80 degrees South Latitude. The temperature hovered around 15 degrees below zero. At the base camp we met many of our fellow adventurers, dressed in all sorts of fleece and down clothing, from different nations, cultures and traditions. Although, we were a group as diverse as possible, what united us was a dream we all shared: a dream to do something nearly impossible, something that very few had ever done.

Within few weeks of setting up our tents, the infamous Antarctica weather hit us in full fury. The air became white, temperature plunged to 20 degree below zero and the blizzard threatened to uproot our tents. Over the next couple of days, the storm raged and we could not embark on our journey. We finally board the tiny twin otter aircraft on Dec 16th, which would drop us at 88 degree South around the 086 W median, from where we would managed to land on an extremely uneven ice surface. We landed amidst huge Sastrugis waves. A 40knot wind howled with the temperature hovering around 30 degree Celsius below zero. The air was riddled with fine snow dust. We planned to ski 8hr each day in periods of 1hr at one go with 10 min breaks in between each hour. To meet our deadline, we had to keep an average around 25 km everyday and this did not cater for any loss of days due to bad weather, injuries or accidents.

We were on a very tight schedule. The terrain and the weather was really against us. Within the initial days itself, each one of us suffered cold burns on our face and nose. The skiing was very laborious through the soft powdery snow and the Sastrugi waves. It needed all our efforts and determination along with perfect techniques to proceed. It is very difficult to keep up the speed for such expeditions as we are a large group of twelve members. Normally, a polar expedition does not comprise more than four to five members, including the guide. We were carrying much larger cache of food, equipment, tent, fuel, etc and were much heavily loaded that normal. All these only added to our woes.

Days gone by, but nothing else in sight, and often with frost frozen ski goggles, through which we could barely see. We pulled the heavy sleds uphill, following the needle of the compass and the shadow of the sun, heading due south. While we skied; no one spoke. We all kept scout heads down and lost in our own thoughts, did our best to keep up with the guy ahead. We needed every bit of our strength to make it to the pole on time. On the 5th day, one member had to be evacuated by air as he showed symptoms of High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema (HAPO). After his departure, we picked up the speed. We lost more day due to heavy storm and blizzard.

The ice played tricks with our eyes and we saw strange phenomenon all around. Perihelion, the round circle with four bright spots around the sun, was an amazing sight. No signs of any life anywhere, it seemed as if we were on a different planet altogether. I felt like the early explorers invading a strange and unknown land where we had no idea what could happen. Even as I looked up at the sky and marveled at the stark deep blue above, I also knew that we were walking under the large ozone hole in the world and our skins were being bombarded by countless number of extremely dangerous UV rays. This primitive continent has remained unchanged for millions of years and still hold unimaginable number of mysteries that man has only began to unravel now.

The sun always remained above our horizon, restless, harsh, unforgiving and surprisingly cold. No matter how much we covered up, we were perpetually cold. The arid freezing air burnt our lungs. We could never dare to take off our ski goggles for the fear of becoming blind due to the glare of the ice. The only reason why we pulled our sleds like possessed was that we wanted to get over with it. We skied as if we were chased by death itself. Our average increased day by day and so did the distance covered each day. Even our guides felt that we needed to go slower, but my team pulled on regardless.

Finally, on 27th Dec, I was leading the team during last 1hr stretch. Suddenly I saw something different and pointed my ski pole to the horizon and gave a joyful cry. Lo and behold, a tiny white dome sprouted from where I pointed. It was the satellite dome of South Pole. We were now 22km from the pole. We camped but barely sleep that night.  The excitement of reaching the pole next day kept us all awake, full of anticipation.

Next day, we were up earlier, stretched ourselves and started skiing with renewed gusto. The distance was deceptive. Even after several hours of skiing, the dome and the structures barely increased in size. The horizon seemed to be receding. The ice stretched endlessly wherever we looked. We were now at around 12,000ft and we had to go slow. Eventually, the distant shapes started taking definite forms and color.

At exactly 0200hrs on 28 Dec 2006, we proudly unfurled the national flag at the South Pole and it fluttered so beautifully in the morning breeze. The pole station follows New Zealand time hence, it was around 10 am local time. We shrieked and jumped. We sang the National Anthem and hailed the Indian Navy. Millions of pictures were clicked. As we overcame our initial euphoria and all members walked away to pitch tents, I wondered if our journey and our dream had really concluded or was it only half done.

The Indian Navy team of nine members have become the member of the exclusive club of those who have skied to the South Pole that has less than 300 members in the whole world. And I am the youngest Indian to ski to the geographical South Pole. I felt proud, that I have held Ladakh's name high in Ski world.

I am Sonam Tamchos, born to mother Tsering Chondol and father Phunchok Angchok in 1986 to the Palu family form Changspa, Leh. I did my early schooling from Moravian Mission School Leh and high school from Kendria Vidyalaya, Leh. In 2004, I joined the Indian Navy and served in it for past eight and half years.