Following nine months of intensive preparation, eight cadets and two instructors from Durham Army Cadet Force set off for a challenging Gold Duke of Edinburgh Expedition in the Pyrenees.
The project was initially conceived to stretch the planning and organisational skills of a group of senior cadets all working towards their Gold Award. As well as planning the venture, the cadets also needed to raise thousands of pounds to fund it, all under the watchful eye of 2Lt Craig Ryan, who mentored the group throughout. After some initial setbacks the group pulled together under considerable time pressure to hit their deadlines for the venture to go ahead.
On 4th September, they set off for Gatwick Airport and their flight to Barcelona, and then travelled onwards by bus to Panticosta, high in the Pyrenees; a journey of almost 24 hours.
The first day in Spain was spent shaking out, checking all of the kit and equipment for the expedition, planning menus and buying the food needed for five days of trekking and wild camping in the mountains.
Day one – the “acclimatisation day”, turned out to be more of a test of Darwin’s theory – survival of the fittest! Going from temperatures of 15 deg in England to over 25 deg in Spain was already a shock to the system. Add to that the effect of the altitude; the steep and rocky terrain and carrying all the food and equipment over a route that covered many kilometres with a climb of over 1,000m and by the end of the day everyone was definitely feeling the need for a good night’s sleep. The location we had selected for our campsite was in the valley, down a very steep hill, with loose rocks; Griffiths lost his footing and hurtled off down the slope; once we established he wasn’t broken we all managed to have a good laugh about it. It took us a further three hours to get down to the bottom and set up camp and the next big challenge; cooking an edible meal.
It turned out that everyone was a chef, or a least thought they were! Dobson and Griffiths attempted to cook 8 rashers of bacon in a mess tin – one after the other – which took an hour and a half and by the end of it they were hungrier than when they started. Definitely not their most successful effort! Never to be outdone, Martin and McCluskey decided to go one better and attempted to cook rice with almost no water. The end-result had the teeth-shattering consistency of crushed granite and certainly not the “Pyrenees Pilaf” that had been planned. Eventually, everyone managed to produce a passable meal and then crawled into their sleeping bags for a well-earned rest. Day one had definitely been a day to remember!
Day two dawned bright and clear; following a cold night under clear skies, it was obviously going to be another hot one. This set the pattern for the next three days – the main difference being that the planned routes did not involve so much gaining and losing altitude so we were really able to enjoy the stunning scenery. Day two was made even more memorable by the fact that our trek involved us walking from one country into another and everyone could say that they had walked from France to Spain.
The evening of day four was also a truly memorable one. We camped near to a beautiful stream and took advantage of being able to swim and relax in the cool waters at the end of a hard days trek. The final day was the route back into Panticosta and the first shower for five days.
Despite thorough preparation and practice expeditions, this venture was a massive education and taught us all the importance of forward planning and making sure that we were fully self-reliant. Things that we would take for granted in the UK, like being able to get water almost anywhere, just didn’t apply and we quickly learnt to collect water at every opportunity and make sure we kept our bottles replenished.
This was a challenging exercise, both in the planning and execution and everyone involved has gained a huge amount from it both in terms of skills and the self-confidence of gaining those skills.