Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s 1922 book, The Worst Journey in the World, is regarded as a travel classic. The travel memoir, which documented the harrowing time faced by Robert Falcon Scott’s disastrous Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole — Cherry-Garrard was a member— begins with the following line: “Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised.”
The Oxonian is one of Akshay Nanavati’s heroes. In December last year, the 38-year-old Indian-American became one of less than 50 people in the world to successfully ski up the Axel Heiberg glacier in Antarctica. Nanavati and his group flew from Chile to the Union Glacier, in Antarctica, and then on to the Ross Ice Shelf, after which they began skiing for over 42 days to the top of the glacier. The deeply crevassed glacier, which falls over 9,000 feet, has a section called Devil’s Ballroom, and was discovered by Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen. Amundsen, the first person to reach the South Pole in 1911, named the glacier after his compatriot and patron of polar exploration.
Born in Mumbai, Nanavati is a former United States Marine, ultra runner, speaker, and author, and is best known for his book Fearvana (2017), which encourages the reader to see fear, stress, and anxiety as allies, and leverage these negative emotions to transform themselves.
In the words of the Dalai Lama: “Fearvana inspires us to look beyond our own agonising experiences and find the positive side of our lives.” Nanavati’s own story is an inspiring one. He moved to the United States when he was 13, and slid into a life of drug and alcohol addiction. Then, he watched the movie Black Hawk Down (2001), and decided he wanted to be a Marine. “I was tired of my selfish, worthless existence. I wanted to do something more, serve in an institution where the good of the group matters more than individual well-being,” says Nanavati.
He enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, despite suffering from thalassaemia and ignoring his doctors’ warning that he might not survive boot camp. While in the Marines, Nanavati says he searched for different ways to confront his own fears. “I had led a sheltered existence, but now I wanted to explore the edges of my fears. I went mountaineering, rock climbing, and caving — nature kind of became my playground. Being a Marine taught me the beauty of suffering and what we can tap into once we learn to transcend it.”
In 2007, Nanavati was deployed as an infantry noncommissioned officer to Iraq, where one of his jobs was to walk in front of vehicle convoys and alert them about the possible presence of IEDs. When Nanavati returned to America after spending seven months in Iraq, he struggled to adjust to a normal life. He started drinking again and was diagnosed with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression. In 2013, he says he came close to slitting his wrists. “That was the turning point, a trigger for change. I started working on a road map to get out of the abyss,” says Nanavati, who began writing the book after attending a seminar by Jack Canfield, the American motivational speaker and co-author of the best-selling Chicken Soup for the Soul series. “I asked him what he would have done differently if he had a chance to go back in his career? And he said, ‘I’d have written my book sooner.’ That’s when I knew that I wanted to share my transformative experience with the world, leave something behind that transcends you.”
In Fearvana, Akshay Nanavati mixes research in neuroscience, psychology, spirituality, and his life experiences. The fundamental ethos of his philosophy is that fear is not the antithesis of Nirvana. Rather, it is the access point to it. “We demonise fear, suffering, struggle, stress, anxiety — but I don’t see them as negative emotions. Fearvana is designed to help people transcend their fears and suffering and access bliss.” Since his return from Iraq and subsequent resurrection, so to speak, Nanavati has undertaken a ski crossing of the vast Greenland Ice Cap, climbed 20-thousanders in the Nepal and Indian Himalayas, done a 157-mile run across Liberia to raise money for charity, and participated in week-long polar expeditions in Norway. His expeditions are partly funded by his speaking assignments and sponsors.
In August 2022, Nanavati is scheduled to head to Iceland; October will see him ski across the Patagonian Ice Cap; and in November, he will embark on a 50-day, 1100-km solo expedition via the Hercules Inlet, which lies on the edge of the Antarctic continent, to the Geographic South Pole. If successful, Nanavati will become the first Indian-born person as well as the first American to achieve the feat. He also says that he has found his metier in polar exploration — of the solo kind. “Mountaineering is more challenging any day and more dynamic— but there is an extra challenge that comes with being solo, psychologically and spiritually, in the polar regions.
In Antarctica, especially, you will be one of the most isolated human beings on the face of the planet, and you have to confront the depths of that solitude while skiing through empty white nothingness day after day after day. It’s much more suffering,” says Nanavati. He is quick to clarify that he is not, as several Catholic saints of yore, a masochist. “Suffering is the means but not the purpose for why I go,” he says. “You are opening a doorway into the human soul where you can find treasures, but only if you battle the dragon.”