Voices: Preet Chandi is a trailblazer – exploration is no longer just for the Old Etonian elite

·3-min read
British army officer Chandi wants to smash the glass ceiling ‘into a million pieces’  (British Army)
British army officer Chandi wants to smash the glass ceiling ‘into a million pieces’ (British Army)

Trekking 700 miles in 40 days, battling temperatures of -50C, winds of up to 60mph, all the while pulling a 90kg sled. The obvious question is: why?

After reaching the South Pole on foot, British army officer Preet Chandi – thought to be the first woman of colour to complete such a mission – has an answer. “I have been told ‘no’ on many occasions and to ‘just do the normal thing’, but we create our own normal,” she says. “You are capable of anything you want. No matter where you are from or where your start line is, everybody starts somewhere. I don’t want to just break the glass ceiling; I want to smash it into a million pieces.”

It was somewhat more expansive than George Mallory’s answer to the question of why he wanted to climb Everest: “Because it’s there.”

Some latter-day explorers have been energised by his devil-may-care adventurism. To others, those famous three words are redolent of the arrogance of a sport rooted in imperialistic ambition.

Chandi, though, is one of a new generation of adventurers who offer fresh inspiration. This May, a team of nine black climbers will try to reach the summit of Everest. One member of the Full Circle Everest Expedition, Rosemary Saal, points out that when Edmund Hillary first got to the top of the world’s tallest peak nearly 70 years ago, black people couldn’t even vote in America. Scaling Everest would be a powerful image of social change.

Class barriers are being dismantled too. Pete Casey is several years into a madcap plan to walk the entire 4,300 miles of the Amazon, from sea to source. This week he told The Times that risking drowning and enduring “thousands upon thousands of mosquito bites” was only half the battle. Raising sponsorship funding was nigh-on impossible, he reflected. “Explorers tend to be upper class. I grew up on a council estate,” he said. “This is a really hard industry to make contacts in.”

But it’s high time that exploring was opened up far beyond Old Etonians like Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Bear Grylls. It can’t be right that climbing Everest is just another box to tick on a corporate-sponsored bucket list, to the detriment of the environment (littered with abandoned tents, gas canisters and human excrement) and the local population, with the sherpas carrying heavy gear their inexperienced clients can’t manage.

And while ex-royal marine Matthew Disney may have had a noble cause in mind – raising money for veterans – by carrying some weighty gym equipment up Mont Blanc, he incensed the French when he left a rowing machine near the summit as the weather closed in.

Don’t get me wrong: I marvel at the derring-do of all these chaps, just as I did Maurice Wilson’s eccentric expedition – brilliantly recounted in Ed Caesar’s The Moth and the Mountain – to reach the top of Everest by flying himself there in a Gypsy Moth.

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But it’s time to bust open the exclusive little adventurers’ club and put some distance between mountaineering and its imperial past. We’re no longer living in the 1950s, when scaling the peaks was to strike a blow for national pride.

The Full Circle Everest team have launched a GoFundMe page to raise money, pointing out that “as of 2020, there have been more than 10,000 summits of the mountain. To our knowledge, only 10 black climbers have stood on the top of Everest. This expedition will permanently change the future of mountaineering on a global scale”.

So yes, “because it’s there”, but it’s there for all of us. And most importantly of all, it’s there for future generations. They should be able to feel pride in a sport that no longer shuts people out, and one that takes its rubbish home too.

Cathy Newman presents Channel 4 News, weekdays, at 7pm

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