Just the 1900km trip across the knuckle-whitening landscape of Antarctica. Nothing major then.
Words by Max Kilham
This is the adventure that Rebecca Rowe and her firefighting colleagues will embark on in November 2023, all in the aid of mental health.
A ridiculous feat by any stretch of the imagination, there can be little doubt that crossing this glacial desert is one of the most painstakingly difficult activities to complete.
Rebecca, who is a former professional rugby player, is leading her band of firefighters and is fully aware of the challenges they are facing. She explained exactly how tough the mission is expected to be:
“We will be traversing the Antarctic continent on skis, pulling pulks using muscle power alone.
“The expedition route is 1900km long and starts at Berkner Island where we then travel to the South Pole and resupply before then heading towards the Titan dome, Axel Helberg glacier and will finish on the Ross ice shelf.
“It will just be the five of us female firefighters on the journey facing winds of over 60mph and temperatures of -50.
“We hope to complete the route in around 70 days which means we will need to cover 27km a day.”
Ever since Norwegian explorer Ronald Amundsen traversed the pole in 1911, many have followed in his footsteps. Rowe and the Antarctic Fire Angels will hope to add their names to that list.
An underestimation of the challenge ahead would be dangerous, as Rebecca is well aware of this fact. The potential physical and mental strains are there to see, with the threat of frostbite, extreme fatigue and hypothermia all a possibility in the freezing basin of ice and snow. Rebecca conveyed this when discussing the potential stumbling blocks of the expedition:
“Fatigue from the physical effort as well as mental fatigue from the riggours of the same routine everyday.
“Physically we will be pulling 85kg to 100kg pulks for up to twelve hours a day and this will take a huge toll on our bodies as well as the extreme cold and wind.
“Mentally seeing the same scenery, however beautiful, will start to become difficult and also coping with missing home and loved ones.
“There will always be pressure to stay in the routine as this can be the difference between being successful or not, staying healthy and on course.”
Rowe is no stranger to physical and mental strain. If anyone is to achieve this feat, a former world title holder in surf lifesaving and former Welsh international rugby player has a fantastic shot at doing so. Rowe has also won national swimming titles, which will hopefully aid her endurance across the white plain.
These trials and tribulations endured throughout a long sporting career, along with her experiences under pressure as a firefighter, will undoubtedly serve Rowe and her colleagues well when setting out on this journey. This is something had known as soon as plans were put in place to begin preparation for the trip:
“My experience of being able to achieve a goal by living your life for that very thing will certainly help! Making sacrifices, pushing myself when I don’t want to, knowing my body and listening to it will all definitely aid me in achieving the challenge.
“I also have built up a lot of perseverance and resilience over the years which will certainly help when the going gets tough!
“Focus, determination and self motivation are all qualities that will also help in the run up to the expedition and during it.”
“I have always loved challenging myself mentally and physically and this expedition will certainly test them both.
“Antarctica is one of the worlds beauties and to be able to have the chance to go there and experience the continent will be amazing.
“The expedition is also raising awareness for causes close to my heart, inspiring others to achieve their goals and challenges is really important to me as well as getting women to believe in themselves.
“Mental health is something everyone lives with at varying levels and to make the world more aware of this and those struggling to speak out is an important message we are trying to promote. “
But why mental health? Why not another cause?
Mental health has become a hot button topic in recent years due to an increased recognition of it’s seriousness globally. With the Covid-19 pandemic restricting most people to their own homes, with extremely limited interaction with others, mental health issues have risen exponentially across the UK.
Last year, a survey conducted by the NHS discovered that one in six children now have a probable mental disorder, with levels jumping from 11.4% to 16.7% in boys and 10.3% to 15.2% in girls (aged 5 to sixteen).
These alarming statistics serve to highlight how the pandemic has negatively affected both the adult and adolescent populations in the UK. These concerns serve to explain as to why the group have chosen the selected charities:
“We are raising money and awareness of two charities during this expedition.
The Firefighters charity was the first one in all our thoughts. It supports firefighters and their families with medical support for injuries and mental health support.
“It’s a fantastic organisation that all of us have access whilst we are firefighters and after we retire.
“The Harlequins Foundation that work and support with so many young people through sport. Each of us fire angels have a live if sport and we know how good it is for your physical health but your mental health.
“Some of these young people are dealing with a multitude of challenges and this foundation changes lives for the better.”
Rebecca is by no means wide of the mark when highlighting the massive mental health crisis amongst young people. This has been compounded by a lack of support services. A Government report in 2019 highlighted that 1 in 5 children waited more than 6 months for contact with educational support services or a mental or physical health specialist.
But it is not just the support for mental health issues that drives this group. The trek will hopefully serve to inspire more young women to participate in sport. Sport England reported that 313,600 less women are regularly active compared to men.
Once again, this statistic is concerning, and begs the question and to how this can be fixed.
Rowe hopes that this expedition will go some way in correcting this difference:
“I think the fact that we are female firefighters trekking across the Antarctic something never done before by any females and are in vocation commonly thought of as for men we hope will be a real inspiration for girls and women in all walks of life.
“Rugby is also seen as a male dominated sport and by being more visible as a role model I hope will change the perception of who can play the game (anyone!).
“We are really trying to document our training and all the ups and downs of that and show that physical activity whatever it may be or for is and should be for everyone regardless of gender and that it has such a positive impact on mental health and well being.
“Females should be encouraged to take part in sport and activities with no judgement.”
Whether it be for the progress of mental health foundations and the reduction of mental health stigma, or for the progress of women’s sport, the 1900km trip across Antartica is likely to inspire masses moving forward.
Rebecca hopes that this journey will provide the inspiration needed to further change attitudes towards mental health issues:
“Awareness and education is key to helping abolish the stigma of mental health and with his becoming increasingly more accessible I hope mental health will become something that’s talked about just like physical health.”
The sheer brutality of the journey is plain to see. There are few guarantees when it comes to safety, wellbeing and ultimately success in a barren wasteland such as this. The risks being undertaken are admirable at the very least. 1900km across Antarctica will be the journey of a lifetime.