Staffordshire and West Midlands (NS) Army Cadet Force deployed a 21 strong expedition to Altea, Costa Blanca, Spain to conduct mountain biking and rock-climbing activities.
Sat 27 Oct. Exercise participants arrived at MOD Stafford at a blurry eyed 0130hrs on Saturday morning, after checking documentation, equipment and luggage weights we departed for Manchester airport on a self-drive basis. For two of our Cadets this was a great adventure as they had never travelled abroad before. After the usual hassles of air travel, we settled into a 2 ½ flight down to Alicante on the Costa Blanca. After collecting our baggage and hire buses we departed for Altea via Alicante Train station to collect a van to move our mountain bikes which are not available from the airport. After a little google maps magic, we arrived our accommodation on the outskirts of Altea.
The afternoon was then spent settling in sorting kit, shopping for food and collecting mountain bikes from a local supplier.
After a short briefing, participants were split into two groups with half climbing for the first half of the week and mountain biking for the second half. This would also be the group that were used for cooking and shopping which was a very alien thing to many of our young Cadets.
Sun 28 Oct. Following a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast the groups headed off for to start their activities. The climbers headed for the coast at Sierra de Troix which provides a great single pitch teaching venue in a stunning location. We spent the day concentrating on all the basics, movement on rock, belaying, knots and rope management. Although it wasn’t warm, we had no rain and managed a full day of activity which developed the climbing team’s confidence and trust in each other.
The bikers headed further east along the coast towards La Lluca from ware they completed a 47km ride taking in many of the local villages which were linked together by undulating single track trails, woodland and dried up river beds which provided a mobile class room for the development of skills which would prove to be invaluable over the next couple of days. However, the biggest lesson and something that should not be forgotten is that the brakes on European bikes are the opposite way around!
On completion of a very successful first day’s activities it was back to the villa for a quick dip in the pool before preparing evening meal for everyone which was quite a challenge for some of the Cadets but after a little guidance and encouragement from the adults, proved to be very tasty, well organised and which only got better as the week went on.
Mon 29 Oct. The climbers headed into Echo valley which has a hidden gem, a single pitch teaching crag called Echo 1.5 which is becoming more popular as it an addition to the latest climbing guide for the area.
This provided the teams with the opportunity to hone their climbing skills on slightly harder route before learning the skills required to operate as seconds climbing in series in a multi-pitch environment. Climbing calls were practice, gear placement and removal, anchor selection belay building and stance management which would all be put into practice the next day.
This was a big learning curve for the teams, the realisation they would be responsible for each other and that there was no return once they had started their ascent unless an emergency occurred, this would all required bags of self-discipline, courage and determination on their part and a little patience on behalf of the instructors.
The bikers headed inland starting their 32km ride from the reservoir Guadalest and peddled to the sea loosely following the Guadalest river which provided many kilometres of muddy downhill fun and challenges followed by ice cream upon completion of their day which proved to become a theme for the week. The participants were not used to the distances involved but dug deep each day and with lots of determination and supporting each other worked as a team to complete the route each day.
Tue 30 Oct. This was the start of a big day for the climbers and there was a nervous tension at breakfast that morning. We headed back to Sierra de Troix as it offers fantastic multi-pitch climbing in a spectacular location at a suitably challenging grade.
My team made the decision to ascend Oma Suis which is 4 pitches of grade 3/4 with a spectacular grade 5 finish with a multi-pitch abseil to escape. All the teams were in the same area tackling similar suitably routes.
We geared up and tied in, standing at the bottom of 150m of rock can be a little daunting, but the team stayed calm and started their ascent. After the first few moves, everything we had practiced the day before fell into place. The teams made quick work of the first couple of pitches but the last pitch of grade 5 proved practically challenging, it is exposed slab with small holds and 130m of nothingness below, a real mental test and also remembering what goes up must come down which provided the next challenge.
We made ourselves safe, recovered all our gear and rigged ready for a stacked multi pitch abseil, one by one from stance to stance we made our way back to terra-firma for a cheese and ham sandwich and to reflect on our achievements. The good news was we had ascended quicker than expected so we had time for another route although a little shorter. The day really tested the team’s commitment, courage and determination but they all exceeded their expectations.
The bikers made a brave decision heading back over to the coast for a final 52 km of downhill bliss. The bike hire company had suggested what turned out to be a fantastic route with kilometres of fast single-track trail with burns, switchbacks, drop-offs and plenty of mud. The route was ideal for their last day of biking as it provided bags of opportunity to practice all the skill that had been taught over the last two days whilst be very physically and mentally demanding but well worth the effort.
Now half way through our exercise and with some very tired people it seemed like a good idea to have a night from cooking and head into town to one of the many restaurants. After a little discussion we decided up on a Chinese buffet which proved very popular and give the Cadets the opportunity to try a vast array of sea food which by would not normally get. Oysters and squid are definitely off future expedition menus.
Wed 31 Oct. Change around day, after recovering, cleaning and re-issuing kit the previous night we were keen to get an early start as the weather forecast was for rain from lunch time on which is not ideal when climbing especially on limestone.
The bikers decided on the Guadalast river route which was great for developing skills in readiness for their final ride next day (and of course ice cream).
Not wishing to break the mould the climbers headed back into Echo Valley and Echo 1.5. Although these teams had more experience it was going to be a busy day as we had to prepare these teams ready for multi-pitching the next day as this group only had two days. The weather was kind, the rain didn’t materialise and the Cadets worked extra hard to ensure we were in good order ready for the be day.
Thu 01 Oct. Our final day climbing started steadily as we waited for the rock to dry after overnight rain which provided a good excuse to have coffee and cake whilst waiting, we finally headed to Troix east which provides a fine selection of long easy graded routes. We all geared-up on the coastal path and wandered up to the climb, flaked out our ropes and started our ascent. Four pitches of grade 3+, 4 make with big belay edges make Epsilon Arta a great multi-pitch introductory route. The team battled their way to the top before staring a mammoth stacked abseil. After spending five hours hanging around in a harness, there was only one thing that could make the day better, ice cream!
The mountain bikers once more headed down the coast towards Lluca for one final day in the pine forests on some formidable single-track trails covering 54km. Their new-found skills and determination carried them all the way back to the hire shop and of course the café next door for more ice cream.
The last supper was a very good BBQ prepared entirely by the Cadets and provided a great opportunity for a little reflection and discussion about what people had learnt, both hard and soft skills and of all the feedback given the one comment that I will remember is:
“I can now go home and cook diner for my Mom”
02 Nov. After breakfast, in true military fashion, we cleaned everything, packed everything away and headed for the airport, dropping off our van in Alicante on the way before flying back to Manchester and onward home to Stafford for final post exercise admin and home.
Staffordshire and West Midlands (NS) Army Cadet Force and the expedition members would like to thank you for your very kind donation, it has without a doubt helped to provide the participants with a fantastic opportunity which I’m sure they will not forget, but also it developed their interpersonal skills, bonded them together as a team and most importantly has shown them that with a little hard work and determination they can surpass their expectations.
A J Lester
The expedition aimed to expose the Cadets and adult volunteers from across Staffordshire to the Spanish mountain environment, its culture and history, develop the Cadets existing rock climbing and mountain biking skills through the Joints Services Adventure Training Scheme (RCF/MBF) APC Expeditions syllabus and DofE framework whilst providing a platform for Instructor development and CPD.
Training was designed to develop the participants inter-personal skills, their physical ability increasing their climbing and mountain biking skills whilst encouraging them to consider the journey they have made as an individual and as a group measuring this against the organisation’s values and standards.
Altea was chosen for the expedition as it provides a concentration on excellent climbing areas and mountain biking trails with convenient transport links at an affordable price. Many of our Cadets come from working class or under privileged backgrounds and for some this was the first time they had travelled abroad and was only made possible by the financial support provided by the Cadet Forces, ATGA and the Ulysses Trust.
Impact on the unit.
Staffordshire ACF have always been great supporters of adventurous training and appreciate the inter personal development opportunities it can provide. As is common across society, our Cadets are very dependent up on their CFAVs as everything is done for them. Removing them from their normal home life with its many distractions and creating an environment which encourages them to be self-sufficient, use their initiative and have the self-discipline to take responsibility for their actions can be a life changer. This new-found sense of independence promulgates through our general ranks helping us to instill values and standards, deliver the ACF charter and move our Cadets and CFAVs towards independence whilst enhancing their leadership skills.
“I’ve learnt to cook”
LCpl White, Rugeley Detachment
“The best thing I have every done in Cadets”
L/Cpl Gleeson, Aldridge Detachment
“First time I’ve flown”
Cpl Drane, Uttoxeter Detachment
“The hardest thing I have ever undertaken”
Cdt Hickman, Stafford Detachment
“An amazing experience I will never forget”
Cdt Hope, Stockton Brook Detachment