After 2 years of study, the culmination of the Extended Diploma in Public Services course is a 12 day trip to the Pyrenees in the south of France. For all of the students, who are also either cadets or PIs with Gloucestershire ACF, this is an opportunity for them to complete their final assessments in adventurous training for their college course as well as undertake their qualifying expedition for the Duke of Edinburgh Silver Award.
This year saw 17 students – of which 13 are cadets and 4 are PIs – make the 2-day long trip by minibus and ferry to Lac de Montbel in the Ariege region of southern France. Once on site, the students set up camp on the shores of the lake for the next 9 nights and started final preparations for the activities they were to participate in. The 8 days in country were structured by a training programme that included 3 days on expedition for Duke of Edinburgh, 2 days of kayaking, 1 day of mountain biking, 1 day of canyoning and a day comprised of rock climbing and a visit to a local historical town for rest and recuperation. The DofE expedition took in a roughly circular route that headed out from the lake and into the foothills of the Pyrenees. The highest point on the route was the Chateau Montsegur, a Catharist stronghold dating back to the middle ages, sat atop of the pog (the local term for the mountain) of Montsegur, 1200m above sea level. The four student/cadet groups all undertook different projects around the route including looking at the local flora and fauna, exploring the culture of the area, and creating a teddy bear holiday, with diary entries and photo evidence of their adventures. One group created a video montage of the whole trip including their project within 36 hours of returning to the UK!
The kayaking was conducted in two different locations. The first day was held in the lake and was useful for the students/cadets to brush up on their skills that they had been learning with the college at Mallards Pike in the Forest of Dean in the months running up to the trip. The second day saw them taking a river expedition on the local Ariege river which involved some white water kayaking on Grade 2 rapids. This was an activity that was very popular with the students as white water kayaking is not something they usually get to attempt in the UK and despite a fair few capsizes, everyone completed the route.
Mountain biking was another activity that the students had been practicing in the UK prior to the trip and involved a 30km expedition that took them from high up in the mountains back to the lake.
The canyoning day was the most popular day of the trip for both the students and the staff and involved a morning of abseil training in the local Marc valley followed by a half day trip down a nearby canyon. This included several abseils (one down a waterfall!), a zip line across one of the raging torrents and several death-defying jumps into the rock pools of which one was nearly 8m in height! Even the most nervous student attempted the canyon and all of them made it to the bottom in one piece and with the adrenaline pumping!!
The final day of the training programme saw the students spend the morning rock climbing on a slab situated on a disused railway line a few kilometres from base camp. This enabled them to practise skills they had developed during their training at Symonds Yat in the Forest of Dean in March and April. They then had the opportunity to explore the nearby historical town of Foix in the Ariege valley. This enabled them to take in the local shops, try the local cuisine in one of the town’s many cafes and explore the Château de Foix which dominates the centre of the town. After several hard and gruelling days of activities and assessment, this was an opportunity taken up by all and most of the staff also managed to find an excuse to be on the minibuses for the trip. And they were all back in the minibuses again the next day as the long 2-day trip back to Gloucestershire began.
There were a number of personal triumphs throughout the trip. Cadet Corporal Jordan Pritchard overcame a fear of deep water caused mainly by not being able to swim. During the day prior to her kayaking session on the lake, SSI Ashton Smith, one of the Company’s kayaking instructors, spent time with her in the lake giving her some basic swimming instruction. During the kayak skills session on the lake the next day, she was also assisted by SSI Smith and a couple of other cadets with her capsize drills and developed her skills from being unwilling to get out of the kayak at all to being able to capsize and rescue herself using a couple of different rescue techniques. This then enabled her to fully participate in the kayaking session on the Ariege the next day and successfully negotiate the river route. Corporal Pritchard readily admitted throughout the trip that she felt she had achieved a number of things that she never thought she would have before, a sentiment echoed by several of the party.
Overall the trip was a great success with all 17 of the students successfully completing the Duke of Edinburgh Expedition and the rest of the activities. The cadets and organisers are extremely grateful for the generous donation from the Ulysses Trust which contributed to making the expedition accessible to cadets who would not otherwise have had the opportunity to participate.