In May and June of 2017, several members of staff and senior cadets from Plymouth & Cornwall and Dorset & Wiltshire Wings, Royal Air Force Air Cadets , spent 8 days in the Cairngorm National Park, residing at Feshiebridge Lodge, Aviemore.
With assistance from the Ulysses Trust, the aim of the week was for all participants to sample what mountain walking is like in an area unvisited by most people on the trip, and develop themselves as both leaders and mountaineers. The participants were all split into pairs for cooking and groups for walking for the week, with qualified staff to supervise, but were changed around frequently so as to give everyone a chance to get to know the others on the development week – cooking skills were also put to the test each day!
After arriving on Saturday morning and spending the day settling in, the next 5 days were spent out on the hills – ‘classic’ mountaineering areas covered were Cairn Gorm, Sgór Gaoith, the Chalamain Gap, Ben Nevis and two shorter walks around the Glenmore Lodge area.
Every attendee was able to develop a variety of skills useful in both a mountain situation, as well as within the Air Cadet Organisation. These included, but are not limited to: personal leadership skills; micro-navigational techniques; self-preservation skills (e.g. thinking ahead and preparing oneself for different weather conditions, such as packing enough water or warm layers); rope work; and consideration for route planning.
These skills are all vital for completion of what is the ultimate goal for most staff and cadets on the week, which is obtaining their Mountain Leader (ML) qualification. The ML qualification allows holders to take groups out and instruct on all mountain ranges within the UK, and this qualification follows on from the Lowland Leader and Hill & Moorland Leader. In order to complete the ML, participants must complete a minimum of 20 Quality Mountain Days (QMDs) – a mountaineering day consisting of a minimum of 5 hours, in which the participant actively works towards developing any skill required for the ML – before undertaking a training week and a further 20 QMDs.
Overall, the group was a mixed ability, with some having completed their ML training and looking to go forward to their assessment, and others holding other outdoor qualifications but having never climbed a mountain before. Due to the mixed ability of groups, every participant was able to take away something different but equally as valuable from the week. This report includes several statements from participants of varying age and experience.
Helen, a cadet from 2443 (Okehampton) Squadron, had never been involved with mountain climbing before, but her love for the outdoors and hiking manifested in her completion of the 55 Mile route of the Ten Tors event in May 2017. “I found the week really fun, especially being able to develop myself and to learn so many new skills – in particular, I have really built up my independence and enjoyed learning different bits of the rope work. Meeting new people on different levels has really inspired me to aim towards my ML, and given me a real sense of respect for existing Mountain Leaders and the work they have put in, as it’s given me a much wider pool of knowledge and experiences to draw from.”
Will, a cadet Sergeant from 3 (Helston) Squadron, has been pursuing QMDs for almost 2 years, with the intent on completing his training week within the next year. “Overall this week has been brilliant fun. I would say the thing I enjoyed most was working on my technical skills on a variety of different terrains, and am now much more confident in my own navigational skills. I think the reason this week has been so beneficial for me personally is because I’m currently a student in Cornwall, so struggle finding both the money and means to secure QMDs usually – there are no mountain ranges in Cornwall unfortunately, so travelling as far as Scotland is really difficult to do by myself, especially on a budget.”
Kev, a Pilot Officer and 2397 (Devizes) Squadron’s training officer, is a well-seasoned mountain climber, although this week was his first in the Cairngorms. Having completed his ML training and well on the way for his assessment, Kev was able not only able to use the week as an opportunity to develop his technical mountaineering skills, but also to take charge of his group periodically and work on his leadership skills in situ. “Looking back, this week has been a really good opportunity to not only meet new people, but to gain a sense of fulfilment from helping them reach their own objectives as well as my own. I have been slightly out of practice on the mountains recently due to other commitments, so this has been a wonderful chance to ‘blow the cobwebs off’ and get out and about again, refreshing all my old skills. It has definitely been rewarding seeing the younger course members developing themselves under my own instruction – after all, what is knowledge without being able to pass it on?”
Andy, a Flight Lieutenant and OC of 2443 (Okehampton) Squadron, is a qualified ML and working towards both the Winter and International qualifications too, and was responsible for the organisation and undertaking of the week’s exercise. “For me, this was a week about putting back into the Air Cadets what I have got out of it, and in a way helping to guide and inspire the Mountain Leaders of the future. I speak for all of us when I say how geographically challenged we are, coming from the very south of the nation, so opportunities for an uninterrupted period of mountain walking such as this, particularly in Scotland which are much more challenging and crucial for an aspiring Mountain Leader, are fantastic. I can’t stress just how difficult the journey is for someone looking to complete this particular qualification, so for the course members who are only just starting their ML journey in particular, this is a fantastic head start.”
Opportunities such as this are fantastic not just for the personnel involved, but also for the organisation they are all a part of – the RAFAC. By sparking interest and offering training courses to those who wish to become adult instructors, squadrons and Wings will see an increase in qualified staff available to run activities, an increasingly important concept. This brings a multiplier effect into play – the more staff there are to run events, the more activities are implemented, leading to a higher level of cadet participation. This will then lead to a higher number of cadets gaining outdoor qualifications, either as senior cadets or as junior members of staff, and thus creating a cycle to benefit everyone involved.
As the week drew to a close, it was refreshing to see just how well everyone had bonded through the shared activities, both within the centre and on the hills, and it’s an exciting prospect to see what fantastic work is done with the skills picked up this week.
I speak for the entire group as well as myself when I give thanks to the Ulysses Trust for making such an unforgettable week possible.
CWO Meg Hansen