Why This Woman Is Going to the South Pole

Erik Boomer
Responsible Leadership

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 2018. Eirliani will document her inner and outer struggles as she is preparing for this trip, pulling a sled with 190 pounds in food and gear, in temperatures dipping to minus 48 degrees Celsius. She is not new to dealing with harsh conditions, having trained in gale force winds in Arctic Canada in March 2017.

This is part 5 of Eirliani’s personal leadership journey.

A question I’m often asked is: “Why the South Pole?”

It is not a strange question to ask of a skinny, native islander born and raised in the Asia Pacific. The question is often accompanied by stares as said questioner regards me skeptically, mentally calculating as to whether I would be capable of pulling a 190-pound sled on skis for an interminable number of days.

Eirliani Abdul RahmanNGO Yakin

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 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 Safety & Trust Council. She serves as director at the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation and is a member of the Global Diplomacy Lab.

In 2015, she led a successful campaign of the NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan (“Save the Childhood Movement”) founded by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kailash Satyarthi called #FullStop to #childsexualabuse in India, which reached 16 million people over 6 weeks. Eirliani is co-author of the book “Survivors: Breaking the Silence on Child Sexual Abuse.” She won the BMW Foundation Responsible Leaders Award in 2015.

I am five foot four (1.66 m) and currently weigh in at a paltry 113.5 lbs (51.5 kg), despite desperate attempts to ingest huge amounts of fatty foods.

“You wouldn’t be able to do it,” one 70-year-old man snorted. Bless his old soul.

“I can too,” I shot back, like a rebellious teenager.

I do it because I’m a romantic at heart: All those stories of admittedly white men braving it out there in the early 20th century on Antarctica held me in thrall as a 10-year-old.
Tales of courage, derring-do and sacrifices, especially that of British Captain Robert F. Scott’s epic race against his arch nemesis, the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, to the South Pole in 1912. Scott and his team, unfortunately, perished one by one, 17.7 kilometers (11 miles) short of a food depot.

Today, women have skied solo, or in teams, to the South Pole. Having never been an athlete my entire life, I hope that what I aim to achieve on Antarctica will serve as an inspiration to other women. For me, the main goal is to raise awareness on child sexual abuse. If just one child’s life has been saved, then, to paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, this life has been worth living.

"If just one child’s life has been saved, then this life has been worth living."
Eirliani Abdul Rahman

We raced against the setting sun, the dull thuds of our laden sleds slapping against the sastrugi as we honed in on Loge, locally known as Dog Island, 2.5 kilometers (1.6 miles) ahead of us. We had been circumnavigating the frozen Frobisher Bay, skiing 101 kilometers (63 miles) over the past five days, pulling a 190-pound (86-kilogram) sled each.

Canadian Artic
Eirliani hauling her sled across rough ice on Tarr Inlet, off the frozen Frobisher Bay. Erik Boomer

We had an hour of daylight left. If we didn’t make it to the island by nightfall, we would have to make up for it in the morning. The only thing was: we had a plane to catch in the early afternoon.

As we continued skiing at a furious pace, much faster than during the previous days, my eyes were drawn to the windows of the buildings nestled on the main island, Baffin, to my right, where the capital of Nunavut, Arctic Canada, is located. “Iqaluit” means the “place of many fish” in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit people.

To my left, and beyond Loge Island, was a vast white expanse. The setting sun lit up the horizon. It is hard to describe, but it felt as though we were literally on top of the world with a 360-degrees, all-around vista, fiery orange sunset included. The windows in Iqaluit glinted molten iron. The houses looked like they were on fire.

Aurora borealis
The Northern Lights Hubert Neufeld

As we neared camp, I let my thoughts drift. My friend Ruta Sidlauskaite, sturdy as an ox, surged ahead.

She was my climbing partner when I was living in Delhi. We were roommates for a couple of months before she left India for good for her native Lithuania.

She had grown up in the post-Soviet era, a time of food rationing and long queues. There were only bread, alcohol, and tomato juice in the shops. (“Why tomato juice?” we asked, mystified. “To make Bloody Marys,” came the quick reply.)

I was never more glad than when Sarah McNair-Landry, a seasoned polar guide in her early 30s with several world records under her belt, called for the final stop for the day.


The Antarctic

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.

Extraordinarily fit, she would typically ski ahead, seemingly unencumbered by the weight of her sled, to scout for a suitable spot to camp for the night. This meant a flat enough space to fit two tents with enough deep snow for us to pitch our tents, although in the worst case scenario, we had ice screws to work into the thick ocean ice.

We also needed a source of clean and recent snow, so we looked for snow drifts atop ice formations – oceans form rough ice especially in the inlets near the shore.

We would scrape off the first inch using a shovel, avoiding the lower layers as the sea salt would have percolated upwards through the snow. We would melt the snow in our kettle and pot for cooking and for drinking water. As Sarah always points out, no one wants salty tea.

I forgot sometimes that we were on an ocean, with some of the tallest tides in the world, rising and falling some 42 feet (12.8 meters) daily. The occasional reminder would come as I skied past kelp-covered rock.

Polar Ice
The inimitable and unflappable dog Gloria. Sarah McNair-Landry

It is always a little bit of a shock to see the colors brown or green in the form of seaweed, so out of place amidst the pristine white and blue ice. These reefs were marked on the map and also served as useful landmarks in an otherwise vast white nothingness.

I’m often asked how we kept safe. We are trained to use the rifle and flares in case of polar bears. 35,000 of them live in the region, so I am told, but they tend to congregate near open waters. Sarah also had one of her sled dogs, Gloria, with us whose main duty was to warn us against any approaching polar bears. Fortunately, we didn’t see any this time.

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