Antarctic Fire Angels: Frost, fire and fortitude

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Georgina Gilbert explains why the Antarctic Fire Angels expedition goes beyond the plains of Antarctica

When I sat at the back of a conference room at the Women in the Fire Service Conference nearly four years ago in Moreton on the Marsh College, little did I know that my life was about to change.

A lady from the British Army held the floor, sharing her Antarctic expedition experiences. Her words, together with the breathtaking visuals, were mesmerising. The sheer beauty and challenge of Antarctica called out to me.

The most striking revelation was that anyone – even amateurs firefighters – could embark on such an expedition, provided we armed ourselves with the right training and an indomitable spirit. And so, with some advice and guidance, the dream of the Antarctic Fire Angels was born.

But why would a group of female firefighters want to endure the harshest conditions on Earth, facing temperatures that plummeted to -50°C, battling fierce winds, and hauling heavy sleds for 1,130 km? For me, the mission goes far beyond the physical challenge.

I grew up in a time when girls were boxed into categories, bound by stereotypes, and often told, “you can’t do that, you’re a girl.” It’s a narrative I’ve vehemently opposed all my life.

No young girl, filled with dreams and hopes, should ever be constrained by such limiting beliefs.

Our Antarctic expedition aims to obliterate this narrative, to show the world that the spirit of adventure isn’t gendered. It’s universal.

I feel we should steer the conversation towards inclusion. Inclusion promotes open dialogue, understanding, and fosters positive mental health.

If everyone feels valued and included, society will naturally progress. By breaking barriers and setting out on our Antarctic journey, the Fire Angels and I want to establish that anyone, regardless of age or profession, can dream big and chase after those dreams.

It’s about leading a life without regrets. Life is unpredictable – it can change in a split second. I’ve witnessed colleagues who had so much more to give, depart from this world unexpectedly.

Friends, younger than I, have been diagnosed with life-threatening diseases out of the blue. Such experiences constantly remind me that we shouldn’t take life for granted. Every moment is an opportunity, every day a gift. Why then should we box ourselves into mundane routines and never challenge our limits?

Our Antarctic expedition isn’t just about traversing the icy landscapes; it’s about sending a strong message. It’s about telling every individual – young or old – to not define themselves by societal constructs or age.

Just because you’ve reached a certain age doesn’t mean you’ve hit your expiration date for adventure or learning. We can always redefine our boundaries, learn a new skill, and most importantly, pursue our passions without reservations.

The Antarctic Fire Angels’ mission is to light the path of fearless ambition. It’s an invitation to the world – break free from your self-imposed constraints, embrace the vast possibilities life offers, and let your spirit soar. Because every one of us has a fire within, waiting to be unleashed. Don’t let that flame dwindle; let it blaze fiercely, lighting up not just your path but also inspiring countless others to chase their dreams.

Inspiring future generations

In our run-up to the expedition, connecting with the youth was paramount. Through our Schools initiative, over 10,000 students have been engaged, with a significant portion of that engagement happening virtually due to COVID-19’s untimely interruption. With the assistance of the University of West England, we’ve not only reached out but also ignited the spark of possibility in young minds.

Our collaboration with fire cadets has always been vital. When we interact with them, our conversations are twofold: we talk about our expedition, but also about our experiences as firefighters.

As women, and as minorities in the field, we carry tales of challenges and triumphs that can inspire them to venture beyond societal expectations. Through these conversations, we aim to erase the antiquated idea of what women can or can’t do.

Recently, we began to envision our legacy – what do we leave behind? The result: A foundation (though we’re still finalising the nomenclature) aimed at engaging and uplifting young girls.

Beginning with fire cadets and extending our outreach with partnerships like girl guiding, we’re laying the foundation for a programme that goes beyond mere inspiration. This programme, culminating in mini expeditions in Norway or Sweden, is designed to foster leadership and decision-making skills in challenging environments.

However, our vision isn’t just about teaching survival in the wilderness, but also resilience in life. Many young girls struggle with body image and self-esteem, exacerbated by societal pressures and social media. By offering them experiences where appearance is secondary to skill and decision-making, we hope to instil a sense of self-worth independent of looks. If they can make crucial decisions in the wilderness, why not in their everyday lives?

Addressing the disparities in how female leadership is perceived is equally crucial. We live in a society where a man’s assertiveness is lauded, while a woman’s similar traits are often mislabelled and derided.

Our mission is to challenge and change this dialogue, celebrating the unique qualities women bring to the table and empowering them to say, “I am good at this, and I can do it.”

With the support of organisations like the Fire Chief’s Council and our forthcoming collaboration with the Fire Service college, we’re poised to make our vision a reality.

Our journey goes far beyond Antarctica – its impact will be felt far and wide, creating ripples of change for generations of young women to come.

The journey before the journey

The vast icy plains of Antarctica may be the final frontier for us Antarctic Fire Angels, but the journey before the journey – our three-week expedition in Norway – was equally enlightening.

We began our final training trip for Antarctica on 22nd March by flying to Oslo. The journey from Oslo to Drammen was a reminder that adventure comes with its fair share of logistics: challenges with luggage, preparing pulks, and early morning train rides with 70kg of gear in tow. The snowy landscapes of Norway we witnessed through our train window were just the beginning.

Once in Finse, the real training began. We skied directly from the station into the mountains. Week one brought beautiful weather, with temperatures hovering around -10°C.

One of the most exhilarating experiences was climbing an altitude greater than Ben Nevis in just a day. But with week two, isolation crept in. We braved extremely cold temperatures, and dealt with a looming storm and even an emergency evacuation due to frost nip. By the third week, we adjusted our routes and tactics, and returned to Finse ahead of schedule, rewarding ourselves with a restful night in a hotel.

Back in the UK, the grind didn’t stop. We jumped back into our roles as firefighters, continued our rigorous training routines, and collaborated on exciting projects, including partnerships with The University of West England and Cardiff Met.

With less than three months to go I’m filled with respectful excitement. As we count down to our departure on 10th November, I reflect on the trials and triumphs of our Norway trip.

Facing plummeting temperatures in the dark was an experience that made me question my life choices. Yet, it readied us for the Antarctic journey.

In Antarctica, we expect round-the-clock sunlight. While the days won’t always be sunny, the 24-hour light is a psychological booster, contrasting the dark challenges in Norway.

However, the remoteness of Antarctica is intimidating. There, the gravity of our decisions becomes magnified. Every choice can have repercussions.

Routine, as I’ve come to realise, is our salvation. Yet, this trip is not just about enduring. We intend to savour every moment. The harshness, strangely, brings its own form of joy.

In Norway, even when things got tough, we found solace in laughter. We learnt that hardships don’t necessarily equate to misery. With routine and discipline, enjoyment comes naturally.

This journey is a testament to our resilience, our spirit, and our belief that challenges, no matter how daunting, can be met with grit and a smile.

As we approach our Antarctic expedition, we are as prepared as we can be, and we look forward to the adventure with anticipation, hoping to find joy even in its toughest moments.

More than an expedition

As the Antarctic Fire Angels prepare for our upcoming expedition, there’s one thing we need from our supporters more than ever: visibility.

The simple act of sharing our story and our JustGiving page can make a huge difference. While we appreciate every like and click, our primary aim isn’t to become ‘clickbait’.

Our goal is to bring about change, both on the ground (or snow!) and in perceptions about what women can achieve.

We’re not your typical polar exploration team. For one, we’re women. Second, our team boasts a diverse range of body types.

Unlike most expeditions, where teams comprise of individuals of similar physique – making it easier for nutrition and gear preparations – our team’s diversity makes our planning more complex. But it also showcases that there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ model to success or endurance.

Our roles as firefighters further set us apart. We are the first emergency services team gearing up for a world record expedition to Antarctica. Despite these unique elements, we have often found ourselves overshadowed by male counterparts in the sponsorship realm.

Companies, based on traditional perceptions, feel more inclined to support male teams, presuming a higher chance of success.

For nearly four years, as we prepped for this expedition, we’ve constantly been met with doubts and subtle undermining, especially from male counterparts.

Phrases like ‘make sure you’ve done this’ or ‘are you sure you want to do this?’ have become a common refrain. While women tend to ask us for advice, inspired to perhaps take on similar challenges, men often question our preparation.

Yet, evidence shows that women have an impressive track record in endurance sports. We excel in ultra-running and other rigorous challenges. However, these achievements, for some reason, don’t translate into a universally acknowledged recognition of female prowess in the minds of many.

What we ask of is not just financial support – although contributions towards equipment and expenses are always appreciated – but an understanding and belief in our mission. An acknowledgment of the work we’ve put in. The dedication. The hours of training. The sacrifices.

So the next time you hear about our expedition, don’t just passively scroll by. Share it. Talk about it. And remind everyone that women are not just capable, but exceptional, in the realm of endurance, tenacity, and perseverance.

Find out more about the expedition and how you can support it here:

This exclusive article was originally published in the September 2023 issue of International Fire & Safety Journal. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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