Eirliani Abdul Rahman is a diplomat turned activist. To raise awareness for survivors of sexual child abuse, she is setting out for an expedition to Antarctica in December. Eirliani will be documenting her inner and outer struggles as she is preparing for this trip, pulling a sled with 200 pounds in food and gear, in temperatures dipping to minus 48° Celsius.
This is a series about Eirliani’s personal leadership journey.
If you had told me a year ago that I would one day be leading a small team across the barren Arctic ice pulling our food supplies and gear in sleds, in gale force winds and under total white out conditions, in temperatures ranging between -27 to -48 degrees Celsius, fending for ourselves against polar bears by learning how to shoot a rifle, and throwing flares, and seeing my first wild (albeit, dead) polar bear, I would have laughed in your face.
In March 2017, I did all that and more. I jumped into a polynya, an area of unfrozen water surrounded by an ice pack, thinly encrusted by ice. My team-mates bet that being the lightest of the lot, I would fall into the ice after five steps. Like them, I fell in after only two. The water was -3 degrees C, much warmer than it was outside at -30 degrees C. But then I realized that my dry suit had a leak so I did a leopard crawl onto the ice pronto, and changed into dry clothes on the ice. I had never seen my instructor so worried.
Eirliani Abdul Rahman
Eirliani Abdul Rahman is preparing for a 700-mile ski trip to the South Pole in December 2018 to raise awareness for child sexual abuse survivors. She is not new to dealing with harsh conditions, having already trained in gale force winds in Arctic Canada. Eirliani is the co-founder of YAKIN (Youth, Adult Survivors & Kin In Need), an NGO working on children’s rights and child protection, and a member of Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council. She serves as director at the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation and is a member of the Global Diplomacy Lab. She won the BMW Foundation Responsible Leaders Award in 2015.
Training for the South Pole meant quite literally saying “never say die.” But it was also about lessons in eating the proverbial humble pie. And those pies I ate a-plenty.
Like learning how to answer the call of nature while on skis. And about wind direction.
Like how to be smart when battling winds of up to 45 miles per hour so that you don’t end up chasing after your mittens when taking a toilet break.
Like learning to separate my food rations into candy/main meals/snacks, rather than having one mixed bag for daily rations so that melted M&Ms do not smear onto the cheese cubes and dye the color of dry sausage meat an unappetizing brown or worse, green.
We had to consume 5,000 calories a day on such an expedition, and so every calorie counted. For those two weeks that I was winter camping on the frozen Frobisher Bay and on the Hudson Strait, I literally did not take my skis off, except to set up tent, cook food inside and sleep. I learnt how to do everything with my gloves on, including lighting a stove and tying a figure of eight into my harness.
"It is unnerving training on Howelsen Hill, as it is the stomping ground of the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, which sends the highest number of Olympians to the Winter Olympics."
I was lucky in that my stints living and working in Russia and Kazakhstan helped prepare me for the cold. It got down to -40 degrees C in Astana and where I lived in Almaty, the temperature in the winter regularly hovered around -20 degrees C. When I was studying in Moscow, the flat that I was sharing with a woman and her daughter did not have central heating until mid-October and so for the first two weeks of that month, I tried to keep warm as best as I could. Winter came early that year.
I moved to Colorado in January 2017. My friends here are exceptionally kind. Fascinated by this islander’s desire to learn how to ski, they took me under their wings, and spent as much time then as they do now teaching me the techniques. It is unnerving training on Howelsen Hill, as it is the stomping ground of the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, which sends the highest number of Olympians to the Winter Olympics.
Antarctica is the coldest, driest, and windiest spot on the planet. The lowest temperature ever recorded on Earth was recorded there: -54°Celsius. Antarctica is larger than Australia. It makes up 8.9% percent of the earth's land, almost 98% percent of it being solid ice. The Antarctic was finally considered a continent in 1840. However, it has no capital city, currency, or official language. Today, it has active territorial claims submitted by Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom.
There is no official population, but governmental research stations are populated with groups of scientists at all times. Antarctica is inhabited by penguins, whales, seals, albatrosses, and other seabirds.
Last winter, I would be found most weekday afternoons like one of those wind-up toy frogs going round and round the baseball diamond or the snowed-over rodeo ground for hours on end, trying to perfect my techniques so I could push off my ski poles more efficiently and glide faster. At least two hours a day, oftentimes more, and up to six hours on Saturdays.
If anything, I possess steely resolve, probably borne of sheer stubbornness. When it got exhausting in the Arctic, I just said to myself, “Just ski till the next break.” And after a swig of hot vegetable soup from the flask and munching on some chocolate, I felt ready to go again.
For the next one hour.
This winter, as I’ve become more confident in my skiing techniques, I spend the weekends skiing with my girlfriends in the mountain pass quaintly known as “Rabbit’s Ears” about 20 minutes’ drive from the town where I live.
It is indescribable, the sheer pleasure of skiing in a quiet spot as the snow-laden evergreen tower above you in seeming protectiveness, ensconced, as you were, in their embrace.
My own secret garden.
Previously in this series: Quitting the Foreign Service to become an activist.