Interview with Dr Ghazala Ahmad-Mear
In September last year, we were privileged to welcome Dr Ghazala Ahmad-Mear, mountaineer, surgeon and environmental activist, to our school, where she inspired students, teachers, parents and all members of our community with her adventurous spirit.
In January 2018, she carried the Tanglin flag through the icy 'last degree' to stand on the South Pole with Robert Swan. The South Pole Energy Challenge (SPEC) used only renewable energy and human effort to power the expedition. By achieving this in the Antarctic, the SPEC team's aim is to inspire more sustainable choices in everyone's daily lives.
Here Ghazala tells us about her trip, how 'Step-by-Step' we can all reduce our carbon footprint and, for International Women's Day, she gives some advice to women on how to chase your dreams.
What was it like to be finally at the South Pole?
The Antarctic is an amazing place and getting to the South Pole was almost like a home coming because it's something I've wanted to do for over half my life, since I met my husband Roger who was part of the 'Footsteps of Scott' expedition 32 years ago. That was the first unsupported walk to the South Pole and they retraced his footsteps for 900 miles. For me to be there in January was pretty emotionally overwhelming with the history of the place and with respect to Roger, and the fact it was the culmination of a dream that started so many years ago but also took two years of preparation.
The Antarctic itself is an incredibly beautiful and yet unforgiving place. When you're there, along the plateau, there's no sunset or sunrise – the blue/white horizon is fixed 360 degrees around you. The monotony of sled hauling and the unchanging scenery remain constant day after day and it fools you into thinking there's no progress being made towards your goal, other than the changing coordinates on your GPS. Yet it's the monotony that opens up corners of space within oneself to allow much discovery. It enabled me to place some perspective on what Roger and his team did all those years ago. Just in terms of communication, we had GPS, we had a satellite phone, I could call my family, send out images. How would it be to not have that security? I wanted to be part of the story by going back to the Pole with Robert Swan, but in a different era and with a slightly different message. It was a hugely humbling privilege to be there, I'm still processing it all.
When I got to the Pole, which is dominated by the US Amundsen-Scott South Pole research station, I met the base camp manager Hannah McKeand – who held, in 2008, the record of the fastest person to the South Pole – and the cook, Michel. There can be anything up to 20 or 40 people in the camp depending on who's coming in, the flights are all weather dependent, so it could be very busy or very quiet in Michel's kitchen (which is no bigger than one at home but the food is incredibly good, particularly considering where you are!). I asked how I could help Michel so he could have a rest, and I eventually persuaded him to hand me the kitchen one night as I do love to cook – and I cooked for 17 people, how often do you get to cook for people at the South Pole?!
How long did the trek take?
89 South to 90 South – the last degree – is the last 60 nautical miles to the South Pole and usually takes about a week to 10 days.
What were the biggest challenges you faced?
On the plateau, the incessant biting, stinging and wantonly damaging wind is like no other. It searches out the smallest of gaps in your cover, it is intent on taking the warmth from within you. If you have any gaps, first of all it will hurt, it will go numb very quickly, then you will be oblivious to what happens after that. So looking after oneself but also your buddies is one of the biggest challenges.
At 89 South you're at the equivalent of 3,000 metres above sea level and because the world is slightly egg shaped, the effective altitude is slightly higher. The first day we had a couple of pulls (a pull is an hour of sled hauling) to get warmed up and going and then camped because we knew we couldn't do much more. Between each pull there is a 10 minute break, in that time you sit in your sled with your back towards the wind and eat and drink, but you can't eat a lot. Within 10 minutes, although you've put extra layers on, your fingers and feet start to get cold so you know you need to move. There's not a lot of time. In the first 20 minutes of the pull you're working to get warm again but for me everything got warm except my toes. Despite the various boots, liners and hot pads I had worryingly cold toes the whole time sled hauling. It wasn't the equipment, it was my circulation.
On the fifth day, 30 miles in, I began to feel really awful. Rob could not have looked after me better but we had to take measure of this – we had a long chat about the situation and what we could make of it. To get better would take a couple of days at least and if it was a bug I would have to be quarantined. We only had four days food left, so one realises the expedition is bigger than me. There was a flight coming in the next day going to the South Pole and we were at a position where the weather and terrain would be good for landing. I couldn't stall the expedition, so the best thing was to take this flight, go on to the South Pole and wait for the rest of the team there. So I ended up being at the South Pole before the team and that's where I ended up cooking! So I did 5 days, 30+ nautical miles and then on to the Pole.
How did you spend your time when not trekking?
One is making and breaking camp, you have to have a routine with your camp partner and we had it down to a T. We practised and had a system where we didn't have to speak, we found we knew what each other needed so it was a very easy partnership. Rob was the digger doing the snow shovelling whilst I made the camp inside. I made home whilst he did the infrastructure and built the house, it was very obvious female/male roles there!
You are also melting the ice to make water, cooking, eating and keeping warm inside the tent and sleeping. You are tending to yourself, your face, hands, feet; looking for damage, mending elastics, cords that are broken. You are working a lot of the time but it's important to have a rest when you're not.
More about not leaving a carbon footprint, the biofuels, NASA sleds... how easy did these make the trek? Were there any challenges?
The whole trip was about surviving in Antarctica using renewable energies but we were also engaging a lot of technology to reduce carbon footprint and the whole expedition will, at some point in the future, be deemed carbon zero. There were some things that we couldn't make carbon zero, the technologies are not quite there for using bio-fuels in the jet that flew us into Union Glacier, so we are carbon capturing. For the time on the plateau itself, we had solar panels for charging our batteries for our cameras, phones and satellite packs and they were very efficient and easy to use. The water melting device took solar panels from NASA and the stoves, which we used heat up the water further and our meals, used biofuels developed by Shell (created from agricultural waste in Bangalore). All were a great success. The SPEC wind generator was little used.
Can you describe what you saw on the Antarctic plateau?
There is no native wildlife on the plateau, it is too cold, so the vista is pretty much the same, unless you have the high winds that pick up snow, or in extreme cold you get dry ice crystals in the air that give you wonderful phenomena like parhelions. One of the objectives for me was to see a parhelion and I saw amazing ones, these extraordinary parhelions around parhelions, sun dogs (which are the refection of the sun's image within the parhelion halo around the sun), a circle parhelion and a horizontal parhelion, it is very rare to get all those in one hit. Otherworldly, other planet kind of experiences.
You mentioned in our last interview how you felt the trip would change you as a person. What are your thoughts on this now you are back home?
Friends have mentioned I seem more relaxed, calm. I am a very active person, I don't want to be wasting my time. On the plateau, you are absorbing all that beauty and taking it in, processing it, looking after yourself, working hard, then you get into this wonderful, rhythmical pace of sled hauling that is very therapeutic. You get into yourself and I sought out those areas of my person that are restricting me. When you let go of things that disable you it is very freeing, the space they leave behind, I find, is a great source of strength in my life, beyond the physical and emotional being, almost like the web. No-one can really see it but it is hugely empowering – it's a space I call 'Beyond the Fear'.
Restrictions are usually put in place by fear and I come back finding it is easier to reside in that space beyond the fear and that I have less need. Because Antarctica is such a huge place, you come back feeling quite small and insignificant. And you realise you are insignificant unless you do something that signifies your existence. But also it's learning that you don't have to do a big thing. Telling my boys they are fantastic beings is significant because it gives them confidence. Everyone can do that.
Even the little things to reduce carbon footprint is significant in the bigger picture of things and so that perspective has changed me. I have also achieved three personal things I wanted to do before I left: to see parhelions; to experience the plateau; and to be at the South Pole on the actual anniversary of the Footsteps of Scott journey was very important to me and my relationship with Roger.
After such an amazing adventure, how are you settling back into daily life?
I returned to work three days after I arrived back in the UK. The first couple of weeks were something of a paradigm shift. Certainly physically, it was very much an out of body experience, because I was doing what I should be doing but almost from a distance above and looking down upon myself! Since then I have steadily landed. That's unlike returning from previous expeditions, when I've often had a bit of a low coming back to reality from the amazing places I've been to with my husband. I feel this time I'm less rushed, more gentle with myself and not completely immersed in my work without continuing to reflect on my experience in the Antarctic. I have written down my thoughts, that work and the journal continues, as often you don't see it all when you're there. What I find in life is that you can see something, it can be staring you in the face, but it isn't until you really perceive it that it hits you. That can be the whole game-changer, I'm very careful about trying to gain everything I can from it. So I've landed slowly and I feel totally in control.
What's next for you, how are you continuing the Step-by-Step campaign?
To ensure my trip is well used to engage anybody and everybody. Using renewables and the clean energy technologies in Antarctica allowed me to focus on energy dependency of our daily lives. It does take effort but we can all do something to engage in the renewable revolution, it's about the bigger perspective rather than the short-term reward. We can all opt for, and inspire a more sustainable choice and that's what SPEC is all about. It's thinking about how to engage bigger corporate users of energy to think carefully and choose sustainably.
I'm trying to continue the work that I've been doing through schools and clubs, in my community and in my workplace – the NHS. I am keen to spread the word about the success of SPEC and my involvement in this expedition and all it stands for – the thing about the South Pole is that it is significant in all we are, on earth. There I was, standing on three miles of ice, a huge amount of water – if you take just a square metre of that depth – if it melted. When you think about that spot, in the vastness of Antarctica, one realises the huge impact of what we are doing and what would happen if Antarctica melted. It is also significant because the South Pole is where all the lines of longitude and the time zones converge. That point is so representative of the significance of what we are all doing and how we are all connected by what we buy, sell and consume. This impact is already being delivered to Antarctica. She is telling us, she has symptoms of our global warming. Now is the time to act and we can all do something. That's the message coming out of the trip.
You are a huge inspiration not only to the Tanglin community, but to women all over the world as a female environmental activist. This International Women's Day, is there any advice you can give to women who want to trek to the South Pole, change the world, or to just chase their dreams and aspirations at home?
My message to women, is about representing women in all her roles. I'm a daughter, a mother, a Great Aunt, a wife, a worker. We're all of those things. Women have huge roles to fill, and they're expected to fill them individually, perfectly. The perfection never really comes but we strive to that and there comes a point where we all say to ourselves, "this is good enough". Good enough is good enough. I know that every woman really strives hard to achieve, it's just that we have this huge variety of roles.
I was the only female member of this expedition. I understand the gender-related mental, emotional and physical soft skills and dynamics that someone like myself can bring to a team. I am used to leading an all-male team at work and, from performing the roles we all do as women, perhaps understanding team-dynamics is something that comes naturally.
Essentially my advice is to follow your heart. That's the message that came through when I spoke to the school last year and I'm hoping my involvement in the SPEC is a model of how the most unlikely event can become real – with focus, determination and passion.
When planning strategy, have a clear and simple story and think big. I urge women not to underestimate the power of their own voice. Really be yourself, it's what you bring that creates change and inspires people. People believe in you, and they will know if you are not being you. The only way you can really do that is to speak from your heart about what's important to you. Be in love with yourself, your life and your dream. Only then will you see the magic. Be prepared to be consumed by it because otherwise it won't happen. If you do things half-heartedly you only get half the dream. And then be prepared to go crazy trying to achieve it!