Journey to Antarctica, Against All Odds

• May 14, 2022 •
Part 1/7:

Here's the most brutal, depressing, and interesting journey of my life:

About 2 years ago, after multiple interviews, I was selected to join the International Antarctic Expedition 2022 to work with global experts on climate policy and action to prevent the revision of the Madrid Protocol which currently protects the continent from human exploitation.

As you know from my previous post, I quit my job in Singapore, sold all my belongings, and moved out timing this expedition. I reached the tip of South America (Ushuaia, Argentina) in March and found out less than 48 hours before the ship's departure to Antarctica that I was Covid-19 positive. This was unlucky, because I quarantined for 3 weeks before the expedition in Singapore and flew directly to Argentina to board the ship. I might have gotten it on the flight and though I blamed myself, retrospectively, this was just random. I was denied boarding the ship (understandably), and quarantined in a mountain lodge with minimal connectivity.

Maanasa Gopal in Ushuaia/Argentina(Antarctica Against All Odds)
On my way to the test center (left), panic-tested twice followed by deafening silence (right)

I watched the rest of the crew leave and it broke me. I was stressed; ‘how am I going to answer my sponsors?’, ‘how am I going to make up for the lost time & money?’, ‘was all this effort useless? Am I useless?’

Maanasa Gopal in Ushuaia (Antarctica Against All Odds)

My health took a toll as I experienced Covid-19, food poisoning, periods, and a broken toe at sub-zero temperatures. Those 10 days were the most depressing days of my life as I spent the last two years of my life preparing for this expedition and fundraising for it only to watch the last ship of the season leave without me.

Maanasa Gopal in Ushuaia (Antarctica Against All Odds)

I told myself that others have it worse and that I’d learn a lesson from this misery but I was just coping. I felt like the biggest loser and it drained my mental health. I’m always optimistic and excited to just be alive but at that point I didn’t want to.

Journal entry from the day I internalized everything happening and felt depressed-rage.

Amidst all the crying, I kept feeling, ‘come on, there has to be a way to get to Antarctica.’ However, it was almost impossible this time of the year due to the beginning of ruthless winter.

But I never give up.

Part 2/7:

There’s no reason any of this had to happen, and I stopped blaming myself for it. I can’t control what I can’t control. I let myself recover for a week and to my relief, tested negative on the 7th day. Even though it was only a week, it felt like a few months because the room was so silent that I constantly heard my own heartbeat and the ticking of the clock. However, this gave me a lot of time to think - I didn’t mind failing as long as I give my best.

This journey was also my first time traveling with someone; that someone being my best friend Aditthya. As a close contact, he decided to stay back to prevent potentially infecting others on the ship. So, we were the only ones left behind at the southernmost city in the world - Ushuaia, Argentina.

Getting my negative test! (left), checking temperature with Aditthya in Ushuaia (right)

In the following 5 days, we contacted every single ship operator in Ushuaia to see if anyone could spare us a spot on a ship, cargo vessel, or even a sailboat to help cross the Southern Ocean and reach Antarctica.

Montage of the relentless telephone calls made; however, most were unanswered.

However, since Antarctica is in the Southern Hemisphere, its winter starts in March and none of the operators wanted to take the risk of crossing the Drake Passage (with waves as high as 40 feet) until austral summer next year.

Then all of a sudden, I had a crazy idea. If crossing the Southern Ocean using a ship was impossible; why not fly an aircraft over it to Antarctica?

WhatsApp message screenshot from me to Aditthya that day.

We began hunting down airline companies in South America. Within a day, we learned that aircrafts only fly to the exteriors during January and February every year as the wind speed could break them into pieces at other times. However, we managed to convince a Chilean company to let us take a small propeller aircraft and land in Antarctica in April. As you might have guessed, Antarctica has no airport, runway, nothing. So, we planned to land on snow and ice. While they agreed to this crazy plan, they still needed money to buy fuel and take care of the logistics.

In other words, we had 48 hours to raise $30k...

Part 3/7:

With a deadline of raising $30k in 48 hours, we had to get creative. We didn’t come this close to going to Antarctica only to give up now. As a first option, we thought we could convince another sponsor to fund it but 2 days was too less a time and also, we like our current sponsors that we didn’t want to focus on others. So, we turned to our mutual passion for years - investing.

Growing up, I loved reading and one of my favorite topics was ‘money’. I spent my undergrad understanding the principles of economics, listening to Naval, Ray Dalio, and observing why the rich are rich. This fascination stemmed from the reality that my family doesn’t come from money and I just wanted to know what it took to get there - almost like a game.

At 19, one of the first principles I learned was that no one gets rich from savings or monthly income; investing is the only way to become inflation resistant. I started investing into different assets like mutual funds, crypto, metals, etc. right after undergrad. One such asset that Aditthya and I got into when nobody even cared about it was NFTs. We were interested in the idea of owning assets in the metaverse and spent hours on Twitter/Discord every day to get better at finding the valuable ones.

So, in a rush of adrenaline, we decided to pour all the knowledge we had and started trading NFTs. In those 48 hours, I must’ve collectively blinked the same as I do in 48 minutes normally. 31 minutes before the deadline, we watched our Antarctic dream come to life because…we did it! We raised $30k. And I showered for the first time in 2 days.

For the sake of narration, this is the part where I say, ‘we couldn’t believe we did it!’ but most of the doing is really just believing one can do it.

Our happiness was short-lived because we were informed that the aircraft is Chilean and doesn’t have a permit to fly over Argentinian airspace. So now, we needed to cross borders from Argentina to Chile if we wanted to make it to Antarctica.

The only problem - the nearest land border between the two countries was closed...

Part 4/7:

The aircraft situation left us devastated. Since we can’t fly over Argentinian airspace, we had to find a way to cross the border to Chile. However, the nearest land border was closed.

At this point, we’ve been in Argentina for almost a month. Our plan was to take the aircraft from the southern town of Chile named Punta Arenas to Antarctica. To even get to the Argentinian side of the border, we needed to first travel to Rio Gallegos (a town 12-hours from where we were) and then cross borders either by a boat or bus or if we’re being fancy, a car. You bet we aggressively searched for buses that run between the two countries. But to our luck, transport between both countries have been suspended due to the pandemic…

Our potential route to Antarctica via Chile.

You may think the hurdles so far broke me, but what really broke me was what happened after this. We learned that even if we were to cross the border, we needed a mobility permit from the Chilean Government to enter and… it takes 30 days to process it.

Rejection email from Chilean government

I wanted to give up. I called my parents and stress-cried. I asked my mom if I should give up and just come home. She gave me the same advice she did when I asked her if I should quit my job last year - “Taking risks is better than having regrets.”

Recent picture of my parents and I waiting for a Luge ride in Singapore.

We applied for the mobility permit. Within 24 hours, we got an email and I rushed to my phone only to see that our application was rejected. The second time, we took a different approach, we explained our situation under the vaccination PDFs we uploaded. We got another email in 24 hours, except this one said our application was approved! We couldn’t believe it!

Although it was a convoluted route, we headed back to Argentina capital (Buenos Aires) from Ushuaia, then traveled to Chilean Capital (Santiago), and finally reached Punta Arenas after 24 hours instead of what could have been a few hours drive from Ushuaia.

First view of beautiful Punta Arenas from the hotel window.

At this point, from a narrator point of view, I want these two relentless idiots to succeed going to Antarctica but knowing what I know now, they will end up having one more hurdle in Punta Arenas…

Part 5/7:

Flying an aircraft to Antarctica is no joke, especially in April, when the ruthless winter awaits to make your journey fatal.

We did everything that we could to get here but what we cannot control is nature. In Punta Arenas, I started caring about things I’ve never paid attention to such as wind speed, visibility, height of the clouds, overcast sky, etc., because it decided if we would make it to Antarctica. The anticipation had us on the edge. Any day from now, we could wake up and see Antarctica for the first time. Or, any day from now, we would realize all our efforts were useless.

Discussing our route to Antarctica with Chilean explorer Jorge Skarmata.

Knowing that a Chilean military aircraft attempted what we were trying and crashed in the Southern Ocean kept us awake every day because our bet was on a small propeller aircraft that fits into a living room. There was now a new variable to our problem: will we make it? If we do, will we make it alive? For the first time in years, I started fearing death; especially dying in an aircraft.

Starting from April 4th, we woke up every day at 5 AM, got dressed in polar gear and met with the pilots to check the weather conditions. If the weather was favorable, we would be successful in taking off; if not, we go back to the hotel and wait for the next sunrise. Each day’s delay cost us about 13 minutes of daylight. Even if we manage a successful take-off, it is not guaranteed that we will have a good landing in Antarctica; oftentimes, aircrafts return back to Chile due to the rough conditions. Antarctica is unpredictable.

Day 1, 5th April: Wind speed > 30 knots. Visibility = poor. We tried. We failed.

Day 2, 6th April: Wind speed > 29 knots. Visibility = poor. We tried. We failed.

Day 3, 7th April: Wind speed = normal. Visibility = normal. We tried. We took off!

Filled with fear and excitement, we watched South America disappear under us…

Part 6/7:

WE DID IT! We landed in Antarctica at 10:50 AM on 07th April 2022!

Antarctica looks like another planet. It’s so disconnected from the rest of the world but you feel really alive - it’s just you and your thoughts in empty whiteness.

Once you’re here, it stops mattering what your nationality, race, religion, etc. is; in Antarctica, you’re just a human. And everyone is just excited to meet other humans and get to know their story. The Antarctic journey awakens your survival instincts by constantly reminding you that you’re alive and more importantly, that you need to stay alive.

Maanasa Gopal with Indian flag in Antarctica

We landed near the Russian base and took a Zodiac boat to travel across glaciers, land, and other military bases. With the help of Chilean Antarctic explorer Jorge Skarmeta, Aditthya and I managed to convince the Chilean Military base in Antarctica to give us internet for a few minutes. With the limited internet we had, we made a little history.

We are happy to share that we minted the World's First NFT in the seventh and last continent, Antarctica. 100% of the proceeds will go to organizations working on solving the global climate crisis and providing education to our future generations. More on this coming up!

Aditthya Ramakrishnan and Maanasa Gopal with Ethereum flag in Antarctica after minting the world's first carbon negative NFT.
Aditthya Ramakrishnan and Maanasa Gopal (pictured with Ethereum flag) minted the World's First NFT in Antarctica.

We also learned later that we are the First Exploratory Aircraft to land in Antarctica in April (March to October is peak winter, forcing all expeditions to end by mid-March). A little promise was made between us that if we made it to Antarctica this time, we would reach the South Pole by foot next. :)

We wanted to share this story with you not because we made it to Antarctica but because we made it to Antarctica Against All Odds.

Anything is possible when we don’t give up.

You may wonder, ‘if you’ve made it to Antarctica, what comes up in part 7?’

Part 7 is closure for younger Maanasa.

Part 7/7:

At 19, I decided to travel across all the 7 continents by 25. Today, I’m happy to share that my journey is complete. :)

It wasn’t easy and was full of challenges such as money, visas, safety, health, etc.; but it was worth it. I got to experience different adventures such as hitchhiking across Iran, busking in South Africa, crossing from Zimbabwe to Zambia by foot, visiting the North Korean border, living in Sumatran jungle, flying an aircraft to Antarctica to name a few. And in the process, I got to learn a lot about different places, people, history, and beliefs.

Traveling for the last 5 years has completely changed my mindset and how I view the world. I’m just a random nobody from Chennai with no family money, no network, nothing. Anything is possible. I’m eternally grateful to everyone who has hosted me, given me free food / rides, and supported this journey; it means a lot to me, thank you!

Lastly, my 17-year-old self would be happy she didn’t end her life to depression and forced herself to relentlessly follow her dreams. This one's for her.

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts, thank you for reading! :)