Col Jatinder Kumar (JK) Bajaj SM, VSM, FRGS
Col. Jatinder Kumar (JK) Bajaj, a mechanical engineer and seasoned mountaineer, was the first Indian (and the first Asian) to reach the South Pole. In 1988-89, as part of an eleven member international team, Col Bajaj skied 750 miles (1200 km) over 50 days across an uncharted Antarctic route; and on 17 January 1989, hoisted the Indian flag at the bottom of the earth.
Bajaj’s achievement was more a product of determination than destination and was the culmination of a series of events which started in 1984. Bajaj was asked to lead a small Indian scientific team to survey the area around Dakshin Gangotri, the Indian station at Antarctica and to undertake navigational, communication and logistic studies for an Indian expedition to the South Pole the following year. The proposed expedition was shelved, but Col. Bajaj was haunted by Antarctica and the unfinished task of reaching the South Pole.
The following year, Bajaj was appointed Principal at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM), Uttarkashi in the Garhwal Himalayas and while he threw himself into his new role, he continued to search for any information he could lay his hands on about Antarctica. In 1986 Bajaj visited the British Antarctic Research Centre in Cambridge, UK, where a chance meeting with Mr Leo LeBon, President of Mountain Travel, USA brought the opportunity he had been waiting for. LeBon revealed his plans for an international ski expedition to the South Pole during the austral summer of 1988-89. A team of 11, under the leadership of (then ANI owner) Martyn Williams, were to ski from Hercules Inlet, on the Ronne Ice Shelf, all the way to the South Pole. If they were successful, they would be among the first 20 people in Antarctic history to have traveled to the South Pole on foot.
Bajaj had neither the required money nor the cross-country skiing experience, but he firmly believed and still believes that ways to achieve unfold as you move forward. He spent part of his annual leave at Gulmarg ski slopes in Kashmir followed by a trip to the ski slopes in France and Italy in Jan 1988. However, raising funds and obtaining approvals (to transfer foreign exchange out of the country) were a Herculean task.
In September Bajaj attended the final selection and pre-training camp in Alaska. He then returned to India where, with the blessings of expedition greats like Sir Edmund Hillary, Leader Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1955-58, Capt M S Kohli, Indian Everest Expedition-64 leader, Shri HC Sarin, President of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF), and Sir Dr SZ Qasim, who sent Bajaj to Antarctica in 1984-85, his funding and approvals came through.
Bajaj met up with the expedition team in Punta Arenas and flew by DC-4 to ANI’s Patriot Hills base camp. From Patriot Hills, they continued by Twin Otter ski aircraft to Hercules Inlet, their expedition start point. The journey to the Pole took 50 days, hauling loads of more than 66 lbs (30kg) for 15-18 miles (25-30 km) per day. Team leader Martyn Williams and deputy leader Jim Williams navigated by sextant, compass and dead reckoning. Snowmobile support was provided by ANI staff Mike Sharp and Stuart Hamilton. At exactly 2215 hours GMT on 17 January, 1989, the team walked the final steps to the South Pole, arriving 77 years to the day after Captain Robert Falcon Scott.
“I firmly believe that one should have a dream and strive to reach it. Dreams can be big or small – it does not matter. What matters is that a dream come true can change a person in an indefinable but vital way.
One dream leads to another and another, until ultimately this act of dreaming becomes an endless cycle, a limitless horizon, as vast as that frozen sea – the Antarctic.”
– JK Bajaj
Col JK Bajaj has been decorated with the President’s Gallantry Award, Sena Medal and Vishist Sewa Medal. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, Fellow of the International Explorers Club USA and Secretary General of the Explorers Club India Chapter. He now spends his time conducting personal development, team building and leadership programs, writing, travelling and giving lecture talks to students and organisations in India and internationally. Further information is available on his website www.jkbajaj.com