The intervening months between our UK1 and UK2 training flew by, and in September 2015, we found ourselves back, with our kit prepared and bags packed, ready for our second training weekend. Unfortunately, we were minus our leader Sarah as she had, sadly, shattered her shoulder in a biking accident. So now we were in the very capable hands of Lucy instead.
Whilst the group had seen each other at meetings and knew one another’s names, it’s fair to say that, by and large, they didn’t really know each other. They segregated themselves in to their year groups when we first gathered, even when Lucy sat them all in a circle to go through their kit and went through the basics of camp craft.
At the UK1 training weekend the girls were tasked with buying lunch for 17 people; this time they had to buy 18 people food for the whole weekend, including two evening meals that they had to (gulp) cook. This stretched them even more in a budget management sense, and the stress of working to an even tighter budget was their first real taste of being pushed out of their comfort zone.
Apparently, putting up a tent is a deed worthy of celebration!
A four hour drive from London to South Wales later, and we were pitching tents, and also joined by Becky, another expedition leader who came along to help for the weekend. The girls were split in to two groups: one to prepare dinner, one to plan our route for the trek on the Saturday, and they would rotate cooking/other duties over the weekend. These groups – with the year groups mixed up – was the real beginning of the team-bonding process, and saw the whole team gradually integrate.
The four adults accompanying the girls – myself, the two Wilderness Expertise leaders, and Anne from my School who is accompanying the trip – did not hold out particularly high hopes for the meals. After all, how often do teenagers cook for adults? But whilst no one could argue that the food the girls produced was of Michelin Star quality, the outcome was reasonable and edible. The same couldn’t be said about the morning porridge, but you can’t have everything…
Whilst half the girls were cooking the other half got on with the business of planning the route, which required them to learn map and compass reading skills…ready to be employed for the 10+ mile trek through the beautiful Brecon Beacons in the morning. Because, yes, it was they who would be leading the trek; and the trek wasn’t going to be easy.
The Brecon Beacons have a beauty to them that is in turns rugged and pastoral, but don’t let its lush green terrain fool you. The SAS conduct their training exercises here for good reason: the landscape can be tough and unforgiving at times. As an experienced climber, I found the trek moderately difficult. The girls, it won’t surprise you to hear, found it much tougher.
It was a warm day, and once we hit the steeper parts of the climb a few of the less physically fit began to suffer and struggle. A couple of girls had to stop, hunched over, to catch their breath on the steeper inclines, but they powered on. Unfortunately, Annabel was really struggling, having to stop to take a breath every several paces, unable to stand sometimes and slugging huge amounts of water. In short, she was showing real signs of exhaustion.
This was the first real test of team spirit: how would the others react to her struggling? Well, to their eternal credit, not a single one of the complained, tutted or rolled their eyes. They were incredibly supportive, with some slowing their pace to walk alongside her, and all cheering her with each mini milestone she passed.
Ultimately, though, she decided to turn back and returned to the campsite with Becky. The rest of us pushed on to Pen-Y-Fan, the highest peak in the Beacons. Reaching the top really pushed them, but we all made it to the top for some obligatory photos with panoramic views behind.
We didn’t stop there though. Once again, this was all about pushing them out of their comfort zones, so we pressed on to summit another peak. One or two started to shed tears, but they kept going, whilst one or two also came in to their own. I was particularly impressed with Jasmine, who helped one of the other girls who was petrified at the steep descent off Pen-y-Fan’s summit, staying with her all the way, reassuring her and providing guidance on where to step and when.
With the long trek behind us, back at the campsite it was a chance to reflect. It was pleasing to see that the age-group barriers had fully dissolved, and all 14 were mingling with each other. Sat around a campfire, we played a few ‘getting to know you’ games, including a conversation on our most famous celebrity encounters. Claire, who met Colin Firth and had been allowed to hold his Oscar, was the clear winner there!
The final morning saw the girls discuss how the skills they’d learned over the weekend could be applied when out in Tanzania. Group roles – to be revisited just ahead of departure – were discussed; if they’re going to be the ones sorting our transport, food and accommodation, then they’ll need to know who is supposed to be doing what and when.
At the end of the weekend, Lucy remarked to me that they were a great group of girls, and ‘way ahead’ of most equivalent groups at this stage of the expedition. They learnt so much, bonded as a team and worked hard for themselves and each other – I cannot begin to describe how proud I am of them.
Hopefully the skills they learned at the weekend won’t be forgotten in the interim, but so impressive were they at overcoming difficulties and working as a team (that also knew how to have fun) that I have grounds for optimism that we will function effectively when we’re out in Tanzania.
Names of the girls have been changed.