CHAPTER 1: Come with Me to the South Pole

Come with Me to the South Pole
Title :
A Visit to South Pole
& Explore the Antarctic Continent :
Daring Adventures of the First Indian Ever to Winter
Over the South Pole and Circumnavigate and Explore
the Antarctic Continent
1.1 Joint Indo-Soviet Agreement
Under a joint Indo-Soviet agreement, a young Indian scientist Dr. Parmjit Singh Sehra of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) participated in a Soviet Antarctic Scientific Expedition to the South Pole and became the first Indian ever to spend a harsh winter there and circumnavigate and explore the Antarctic continent. The USSR has honored him with the prestigious Soviet Antarctic Medal, Ribbon and Polar Watch. A key figure in the Polar history, Dr. Sehra who has recently worked in the United Nations as a WMO/UN Expert gives a brief account of his most venturesome South Pole odyssey in this book.
1.2 Adaptability Certificate
Adaptability Certificate! Thinking that the Russian doctor on board the ship ‘Professor Viese’ sailing to Antarctica might be asking for my International Health Certificate, I promptly gave him that. But he smiled and remarked, "Wintering over the South Polar Ice-Cap where the temperatures range from -40 to -90*C and the winds blow with speeds exceeding 200-300 km per hour is not a joke, my friend. Your certificate is meant only for the posh cities of the world. Antarctica demands from an individual the utmost in physical stamina and mental soundness with mature judgment so that a man working there may act quickly and positively in order to survive. Prior to selection for Antarctica, we conduct a thorough medical check-up and a tough physiological and psychological screening of our expedition members and also impart them a special training. Only after qualifying all these tests and training they are given ‘Adaptability Certificate’ and taken to the harshest continent Antarctica".
I did not undergo any special acclimatisation programme or training before setting foot at the South Pole. I had no ‘Adaptability Certificate’ and the Soviets allowed me to participate in the 17th Soviet Antarctic Expedition at my own personal risk. My long Antarctic ordeal includes many unforgettable scary moments in the ice, yet I accomplished this feat with flying colours.

1.3 What is Antarctica?
In Greek, Antarctica means ‘Anti-Arctic’, i.e., the opposite of the Arctic. Including its permanently attached ice shelves, Antarctica covers about 5.5 million square miles surrounding the South Pole, and has 18500 miles of coastline. It is as big as the United States and Mexico combined. About 95 percent of the world's permanent ice is in the Antarctic, 7 million cubic miles of it. This great mass has made Antarctica the highest of all continents, its average elevation is about 7500 feet. The world's lowest temperature, about -90 degrees C was recorded in Antarctica and violent snowstorms with winds of over 250 km per hour speed are very frequent in this icy desert. It is the coldest and the windiest continent.
Although there is so much ice in Antarctica, there is almost no fresh water there. Such a cold dry area cannot support much life of any kind. On land, only 4.5 percent of which is bare, a few primitive plants exist, and there are bacteria and some insects and similar small animals. The Antarctic waters, however, abound in sea life ranging from microscopic plants, plankton, to giant whales.
The best known birds in Antarctica are the flightless penguins which walk erect and waddle along like a cartoonist's version of a man returning from a formal dinner! Wandering through the ice pack, penguins frequently encounter seals, six species of which breed in the Antarctic. There are also colonies of some flying birds such as the polar skuas and snow petrels. To the present knowledge, Antarctica has never had any native human population. Men now go to Antarctica primarily to study the earth, the space around it and the life upon it.
1.4 At the Geographic South Pole
The climax of our Antarctic Expedition came in when we reached the Geographic South Pole. I got lost in my deep thoughts while standing at the bottom of the world (90* South) on a high ice-covered plateau more than 9000 feet above sea level. The temperature at that time was -60* C and the pressure much below the normal. It was the place first reached by the great Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen about 60 years ago. On January 17, 1912 about a month after Amundsen, Captain Scott and four other Englishmen stood on the same spot who were later trapped by a blizzard and never returned home.
At this historical place there is an American station called Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station which is in operation since 1957, the International Geophysical Year. The sun sets here for the winter on March 22, not to rise again until September 21. A full year consists of only one day and one night, each of six months duration! On June 21, the sun begins its ascent marking Midwinter Day. As at all stations this turning point of the winter was celebrated with gusto. With the day marked by holiday routine, practically everyone of us slept late. The only exception was our cook who was busy preparing a lavish meal for that evening.
1.5 At the Geomagnetic South Pole
Now a desperate struggle of two months to reach the Soviet Antarctic Station ‘Vostok’, the pole of inaccessibility and extreme cold which has recorded the world’s lowest temperature of about minus 90*C. During our 1500 km trekking from Mirny station to Vostok located at the Geomagnetic South Pole, we had plenty of difficulties, we sometimes failed and we sometimes won but we always faced them and made all possible scientific observations.
Our trekking expedition comprising of heavy machines ‘towmobiles’ and dog sledges carrying about 30 tons of equipment for Vostak roared into action and slowly pulled out of Mirny during the summer. After two weeks, a heavy snowstorm began reducing the visibility to zero. Most of the route was 3000 metres above sea level with constantly low temperatures, about - 70* C, due to which our snow tractors could not move. Many of our huskies pulling our sledges died on the way and we had to eat their meat in order to survive. Snowstorms and poor visibility continued to hinder our progress. One of our comrades who became ill with acute appendicitis died on the way and yet another fell into a deep crevasse and buried alive. Despite all these difficulties, we traversed 1500 km in two months and conquered the pole of inaccessibility. I can forget anything in my life but not these tough experiences. I must add here that one who has not travelled deep into the South Polar Ice-Cap cannot know Antarctica!
The coldest place in the world ‘Vostok’ at 78.45* South and 106.8* East lies at an altitude of 3488 metres on approximately 3700 metres of ice. The air is perpetually drier then in the world’s worst deserts. During the polar night, temperatures drop so low that they would normally freeze carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere which condenses at -78.5* C. The altitude starves lungs of oxygen, and the normal rate of heartbeats nearly doubles. Here 15 of us wintered over, isolated from contact with the outside world for more than one year, half of this time in utter darkness. I must say that six months of continuous darkness followed by six months of daylight at the South Pole were the extremely boring phenomena of nature I experienced there. When I returned home, I found that a 12-hour day followed by a 12-hour night were, indeed, a great blessing.
During our 1500 km sledge odyssey between Mirny and Vostok, we made snow measuring observations and set up new automatic stations for the continuous recording of magnetic variations and meteorological data in addition to our other field work on geodesy, glaciology, and so on.
1.6 Circumnavigation of Antarctica
A complete circumnavigation and exploration of the Antarctic continent by an Indian ! Yes, I am fortunate to have done it by sailing on board the icebreaker ships ‘Navarin’ and ‘Ob’ during the 17th Soviet Antarctic Expedition. Circumnavigating all around the Antarctic continent and its complete exploration was the most thrilling voyage of my life which recalls me of Captain James Cook who between 1772 to 1775 first sailed around Antarctica and brought to an end the dream of an inhabited southern continent.
During the Antarctic circumnavigation and exploration, our ships re-supplied all the Soviet coastal stations, viz., Mirny, Leningradskaya, Bellingshausen, Novolazarevskaya, Amery and Molodezhnaya, and relieved the old staff with the new expedition members. We sailed all along the Antarctic Circle and chose the site of a new Soviet station ‘Russkaya’ on the shore of the Amundsen sea. We took fuel and fresh food provisions for our ships and for the Soviet Antarctic stations from the port of Punta Arenas, Chile. But, unfortunately, the station Molodezhnaya could not be given sufficient food supply due to which we had to face a number of problems there. I visited several other stations operated by the Antarctic Treaty member-nations in order to collect maximum possible scientific data.
1.7 Wintering over the South Polar Ice Cap
I worked for more than a year at the station ‘Molodezhnaya’ which is the continental headquarters for the Soviet Antarctic Expeditions. During the harsh winter, an emergency was declared at our station due to the acute shortage of food stuff and other essential provisions. Both the quality and quantity of food were utterly poor. Our tinned food also got exhausted during the extremely cold and stormy polar night. As a consequence, we had to live on the Antarctic seals, penguins and fish. I still remember my days in Antarctica when we also had to eat the meat of our favorite huskies in order to survive. Smokers at the station were often found searching for the used cigarette butts. When the ‘Vodka’ liquor was also finished, many of us started drinking pure spirit mixed with tea-water, called ‘Antarctic whisky’ !
Besides this, we faced innumerable number of other difficulties while wintering in Antarctica. Comrade Evanov developed appendicitis trouble and had to be operated. Two of our expedition members became mentally ill due to long isolation and had to be closed indoors. During the winter, we encountered several violent blizzards with speeds exceeding 200 km per hour. Some of our houses were blown off alongwith the inmates and our unfortunate comrades died for the cause of science.
1.8 Rebirth in Antarctica
Rebirth ! Yes, in a way I was reborn when I fell into a deep crevasse in Antarctica on 14th March. I was hardly an inch away from my death when I was pulled out of the ‘death pit’ with long ropes by a timely rescue party. In another accident, I fell down from a 200 metre ridge due to a helpless blind-walk in a violent snowstorm and lost few teeth and suffered a fracture in my legs. In November, I undertook an independent trekking to a distant iceberg which was about 150 km far and named it as ‘Indian Elephant Iceberg’. On my return journey from there, misfortune followed my footsteps.Growing weaker each day from the exertion and the lack of food, I also encountered violent storms and blizzards and lost my way. I met with several hair-raising accidents during my South Pole odyssey, but fortune ever smiled on me and I always had a narrow escape. God always saves me ! Thanks to the Almighty God.
1.9 Antarctic Project Scientist
In Antarctica, I was the Project Scientist for carrying out the upper atmospheric meteorological rocket soundings from the main Soviet station Molodezhnaya by using M-100 rockets which could carry 67 kg payload upto about 100 km altitude and were launched twice in a week. My research and investigations showed for the first time that sizeable perturbations occur in the South Polar atmospheric structure during the winter. The findings of my work have been published in many international scientific journals of repute, and the Gujarat University has awarded me the Doctorate degree ‘Ph.D. (Science)’ for my research work discussed in my Ph.D. thesis entitled “Atmospheric Structure: Exploration over Antarctica and Interhemispheric Comparison”.
1.10 Inspiration for participating in the 17th Soviet Antarctic Expedition
My participation in the 17th Soviet Antarctic Expedition from 1971 to 1973 was made possible through the efforts of Prof. P.R. Pisharoty, Prof. P.D. Bhavsar and the late Prof. Vikram A. Sarabhai under an agreement between the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the Hydrometerorological Service (HMS) of the USSR. My parents Sardar Mohinder Singh Sehra and Shrimati Satwinder Kaur right form the beginning induced into me a great inspiration and cultivated a keen interest for scientific adventures and exploratory work which took me to the South Pole at the risk of my life.
1.11 Recognition and Awards
I accomplished the most venturesome odyssey to the South Pole during my participation in the 17th Soviet Antarctic Expedition and became the first Indian ever to spend the harshest winter over the South pole and circumnavigate and explore the Antarctic continent. The USSR has awarded me the prestigious Soviet Antarctic Medal, Soviet Antarctic Ribbon and Soviet Polar Watch in recognition of my Antarctic explorations. The New Zealand Antarctic Society has also honoured me. Based upon my excellent achievements and Antarctic explorations, I have also been elected as a Member of the American Meteorological Society(MAMS) and a Fellow of the Royal meteorological Society (F.R.Met.S.) and a member of the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society (MCMOS) which are highly learned International Scientific Societies of the U.S.A., U.K., and Canada, respectively.
Great God ! My daring South Pole odyssey was an awful experience and terrible enough for me to have laboured to it without any national reward. However, it sparked tremendous interest in India for further exploration of Antarctica, including opening of Indian Research Bases in Antarctica, e.g., ‘Dakshin Gangotri’ and ‘Maitri’, with the launching of regular Indian Antarctic Expeditions since 1982, which is in itself a great reward for me as it was my most cherished dream coming true!

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