Antarctic fire angels: Female firefighters brave South Pole

Two women from South Wales skied from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole in freezing conditions. How did they battle physically and mentally in the white desert and inspire other women?

Georgina and Rebecca skied 37 kilometers on the final day and arrived at the South Pole, exhausted but pleased.

Just 11 kilometres from the South Pole, the two female firefighters from South Wales were utterly exhausted and drained. Enduring temperatures as low as minus 41°C, with nothing but vast white horizons around them, they had reached their physical and mental limits.

They saw the pole and forced themselves to reach it. Finally, they touched the sign marked “Geographic South Pole”. Georgina says, “It was disbelief. Are we seeing this? It was quite surreal. We were exhausted and emotional. And you’re so pleased that you’re there because not many people get to go there. We got there. We did a big expedition.”

Georgina Gilbert, 49, and Rebecca Openshaw-Rowe, 42, had been preparing for this moment for many years. Over 52 days, they trekked more than 745 miles from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole.

Hoping to encourage women to think about what they are capable of, the two women launched their expedition. “We want to inspire other people and be good, strong and visible role models,” Georgina says. “We want to prove that women can do something extraordinary. Gender isn’t a barrier.”

They dragged heavy sledges across the Antarctic continent, surrounded by a vast expanse of white snow.

Pulling a 120 kg sled across the icy desert and always facing the cold, they were constantly under the threat of frostbite. “If you take your hand out your glove, you’ve got maybe about 10 seconds before it gets too painful. You really do feel like you’re surviving,” Georgina says.

It was not only physically difficult but also mentally difficult. Georgina described the expedition as “groundhog days”. They suffered from the monotony and missed home. “There’s only so much training you can do for the mental aspect of it,” she says. “We were just one ski behind the other. We weren’t communicating with each other. So, you’re very much on your own.”

They also received some bad news during the expedition, which made it harder. “When my dog passed away on the 23rd of December when we were out there, that was a particularly tough moment. I cried into my ski goggles for that day. I felt guilty,” Georgina says. “You feel like you just want to get the expedition done and just need to get home. But you cannot travel any faster.”

At the early stage, they were quite buoyant and excited, feeling it was a privilege to be there. But as the expedition progressed, they started to feel the hardship. They motivated themselves by saying, “We’re one day closer, 25 kilometers closer than we were yesterday”, according to Georgina.

Georgina still remembers that when she got to the sign at the South Pole, she didn’t want to touch it because that meant it was the end.

They set up the tent and made sure it was safe enough to withstand the storm.

They wore layers of clothing, including merino wool, high salopettes and waterproof parkas. “It’s important not to sweat because the salt freezes inside your equipment, and when you stop, you instantly get cold,” Georgina says. They also wore harnesses nearly 2 metres long, connecting them to their sleds, which carried all their supplies.

They skied for ten hours a day and took a 15-minute break every two hours. They didn’t stop for lunch. “We ate during the day. We ate dried meat, cheese, and lots and lots of chocolate just for the calories,” she says.

After ten hours, they would stop and set up camp for the night. One person was outside to make sure the tent was secure against storms, while the other in the tent dug snow and ice to melt for rehydrating their food.

They brought a tablet with downloaded films, trying to relax and enjoy their evening. “We wanted things like that, for maybe an hour, just to try to escape, remove ourselves from the situation because the expedition was extremely hard,” Georgina says.

They dragged tires on the beach for training, simulating the tough and tedious trek across Antarctica.

For Georgina and Rebecca, the journey to the South Pole began long before they set foot on Antarctica. It took them four years to plan.

“You cannot just wake up and say, ‘I’m gonna ski across Antarctica.’ We have done X amount of training,” Georgina says. “And there is always the element of uncertainty, with lots of things that are out of your control. Keeping the momentum going over four years was quite difficult.”

They pulled tyres at the beach to simulate pulling sleds. “It was designed to be as boring and monotonous as possible because that’s how it would be out in Antarctica. There is nothing to see there. It’s like staring at a blank piece of A4 paper,” she says.

They also trained in Norway and Sweden, pulling heavy packs on mountainous terrain. “That was quite harsh training because we were getting through the physicality of it. We challenged ourselves. Nobody likes to do hill after hill after hill, going up and down, up and down,” she adds.

The two women are planning another adventure for next October, The Great World Race, which involves running seven marathons on seven continents in seven consecutive days. “Neither of us are outstanding ultra runners. So, it’s going to be quite interesting,” Georgina says. “We’re continuing with the visible role model theme.”

Georgina has been a firefighter for nearly 26 years. In addition to firefighting, she responds to road traffic collisions and performs swift water rescues around Cardiff Bay.

They also plan to establish the Fire Angel Foundation, where young girls embark on mini expeditions and learn to support each other in times of adversity. 

Georgina and Rebecca hope to get girls into more male-dominated jobs. “We still have a very low percentage of women across the UK when it comes to the fire service,” Georgina says. “Looking at the broader picture, it’s about getting girls into, not just emergency services, but also STEM-related jobs, like engineering.”

Their project is about building confidence. Georgina says, “Young women tend to lose confidence because half the time they just don’t see themselves represented. It’s like ‘I can’t do that job because there’s no one that looks like me there’, which is sad.”

They suffered both physically and mentally but finally completed the expedition and inspired other women.