It’s one of the toughest summits to reach in the Pyrenees. At a mighty 2784m above sea level combined with a 20m final sharp ascent, stunning views and a test of nerve, few mountains can rival the excitement of the Pic du Canigou in southern France.
After 15 months of planning and fundraising, a team of nine cadets and staff from 2344 (Longbenton) Squadron have succeeded in their mountaineering challenge to climb the Canigou – and it only took 9 and a half hours!
The expedition, partly supported by The Ulysses Trust and the Cadet Forces Trust, gave the youngsters the chance to enjoy French culture, mountain etiquette, and gain life skills.
The team undertook a 12km walk on the first day in Carnaca Gorge and enjoyed visiting Ville Franche, Fort Liberia and market day in Prade and Perpignan before making their way to the base of the Canigou.
Cadet George Ferguson, 15, of Forest Hall, said, “It was the best time of my life! The gorge walking was great fun and taught us to be responsible and safe when out in the mountains.
“Visiting the towns was good fun as we got to explore Catalonian culture before heading to a mountain hut at the base of the Canigou. We spent the night there before heading up to the summit – it was pitch-black and amazing” said George.
For 16-year old Nathan Horner, from Longbenton, it was his first visit overseas venture. “It was one of the greatest experiences of my life,” he said. “Climbing the Canigou was just incredible. I never thought I’d have the chance to do something like that and I enjoyed every second of it.
“The last 20m is a very steep climb and it’s called ‘The Chimney’ because you have to scramble up the side of the mountain on all fours. When you get to the top you feel an immense sense of achievement.”
“It was tough but I learnt that if I persevere and work hard then I can achieve,” said Nathan.
The ambitious team began their ascent at 7:25am for what was thought to be a 12 hour round expedition. However, so great was their teamwork, resilience and vigour the team completed the journey in 9 and a half hours!
International Mountain leader, Flight Lieutenant Will Close-Ash said, “I was very, very impressed with the group. Their attitude, work ethic and humour were unquestionable and they were one of the best groups I’ve ever worked with – they’re certainly the quickest cadet group I’ve led in the Pyrenees!”
After their Canigou climb, the team then went on the next day to climb another mountain – Rock Colom which stands at 2500m high. During this expedition the team took a route to the Spanish border and followed the footsteps of many downed airman from World War Two who fled into the Pyrenees to make good their escape into neutral Spain.
Cadet Thomas Bell, 15, of Killingworth said, “The overall experience was something else! We learnt so much about history, the outdoors, mountaineering and how to be self-sufficient. It was a great confidence boost. We even cooked and cleaned for ourselves.”
“We had to buy breakfast from a local Patisserie too which was quite nerve-wracking having to go into a small French shop but it was a good feeling when you managed to buy what you went in for,” added Tom.
Officer Commanding, Flight Lieutenant Gary Richardson said; “I thoroughly enjoyed seeing first-hand the progress the young people made and how much they gained from the experience at such a young age.
“The skills and knowledge learnt will provide unique qualities that can be taken forward and I am tremendously proud of the team, their characteristics and achievements.
“The young people gained entrepreneurial skills to raise funds for their expedition which made them value it even more.
“However, on behalf of us all, I must sincerely thank the generosity of the Ulysees Trust and Cadet Forces Trust for their support in making this expedition happen,” added Gary.
On behalf of the Ulysses Trust, Amanda Butcher, Director of the Royal Air Force Charitable Trust said, “This is one of two grants awarded recently by the RAF Charitable Trust to Longbenton Squadron. The Trustees were most impressed with the range of activities offered to cadets and also with their involvement in the local community and were pleased to help them with this ambitious expedition (and with their STEM project). Trustee Alan Smith is very much looking forward to attending the annual awards ceremony and seeing the cadets’ activities at first hand next month.”
Lieutenant Colonel Iain Clyde, Deputy Chief Executive at the North of England Reserve Forces and Cadets Association, added, “The Viscount Ridley Cadet Forces Trust is delighted to have been able to support Air Cadets from 2344 (Longbenton) Squadron in undertaking a life-changing trekking expedition in the Pyrenees.”
Photographs taken by personnel of 2344 (Longbenton) Squadron © Crown Copyright/MOD. Other photographs are available on request. [email protected]
Film made by Pyrenees Hardrock 2015 Team © Crown Copyright/MOD.