After nearly two years of planning, cadets and staff of 633 (West Swindon) Squadron celebrated achieving squadron status with a special expedition to climb some of the highest peaks in the Pyrenees. At the same time, they also raised money for two charities.
The trip began with an idea to widen the cadets’ expedition experience and complete a 5 day trek in the Pyrenees. The trek was open to those who had completed the Bronze, Silver or Gold expeditions of the Duke of Edinburgh Award. It was also an opportunity to complete the celebration of squadron status given to us on 1st December 2009 at over 10,000ft and to raise money for charity.
The 10 cadets taking part and the squadron came up with different ways to raise money for the trip, this included applications to different trust funds for adventure activities for young people, letters to local companies, car parking duties, bag packing, cake stalls, laser quest evening, night hike and cadet contribution. The cadets chose a local and national charity – Wiltshire Air Ambulance and RAFA where we hope to raise £1,200 to share between them.
On Sunday 3 July 10 cadets, two staff from the squadron and our guide for the trip Keith Gault of www.hillways.co.uk arrived at 0900 at the Squadron to travel to Bristol Airport for the short journey to Toulouse. All went well and we arrived in Toulouse to some 32 degrees of enjoyable heat starting the week off with a good feeling. We spent the evening and next morning in Toulouse purchasing any last items required, practising our basic French, taking in the sights of Toulouse and culture of France. In the afternoon the group travelled south to a small town called Gavarnie where we were met by our hosts for the evening, Bernard and Roselyne Fillastre, who gave us a warm welcome, and cooked us a typical French four course meal. In the morning we had a plentiful breakfast and our last shower for a few days.
Day One(7km/1300m climb/6hrs) of the trek started very warm. With an easy walk up to L’Hotellerie du Cirque we had our first break and surrounded by the amazing view of the Cirque de Gavarnie and the largest waterfall in Europe Grande Cascade de Gavarnie or Gavarnie Falls, coming from Glacier de la Cascade of 422m, it was an opportunity to use the toilets again and enjoy an ice cream. It was then time to work our way across the bottom of the Cirque to take up the HRP – Alta Ruta Pirenaica (Pyrenean High Route), working our way up the L’Echelle des Sarradets “the ladders”, which proved to be a challenge for some in the group, but for most an opportunity to enjoy the view of the waterfall, eat our fresh baguette of ham and cheese from the hotel and a welcome sight of our accommodation for the first night Refuge de la Roland – 2587m, looking up to the Brecha de Rolando. Whilst waiting outside the hut we relaxed after our 6 ½hr walk, with a book, chess, watching Marmots and taking in the surrounding views.
Cdt Sgt Moore: ‘The best part of day one would have to have been having lunch high up on the rock face looking over Europe’s tallest water fall which we had just climbed. It built up a big appetite’.
Cdt Hornbuckle(f): ‘Today was also the day that we had our first encounter of snow, unbelievable seeing as it was July! We also saw a Marmot for the first time today which was nice!’
Day Two (8km/6 hrs) started with breakfast at 0730. We had very little sleep having shared a room with 24 people, many of whom seemed to snore all night. We set off at 0800 continuing along the HRP route, on to the Spanish side of the Pyrenees. The route on the whole took us down hill to the River Ara where we stopped on the Spanish border to take photos. It had been a windy day to start with, but by lunch at the river the weather started to improve and sun came out. Whilst having lunch a small party of Spanish students arrived and instead of using the bridge, they were marched through the very cold river with bewildered spectators looking on. We continued our journey over the bridge and along the road to our rather luxurious accommodation for the evening, Camping y Refugio Valle de Bujaruelo. This gave everybody an opportunity to have a shower, wash some clothes, have an ice cream, eat some chocolate, go down to the river, play hide and seek, or just chill out reading or catching up on some sleep!!. Evening meal was spent in the restaurant with great company and the host for the evening who became our second mother. If we didn’t finish our meals there was a look of death so a few meals were passed between us enabling us to give back empty plates!
Cdt Battman: ‘We crossed the French/Spanish border into Spain, it was a fairly cold morning considering the hut we stayed in was surrounded by snow but as we walked into Spain, the shorts were out and the sun cream was on!’
Day Three began after a good sleep and a packed breakfast ready for the 22km to Refugio de Goriz Hut – 2200m. We continued on the road from day two and saw some impressive views of the Vale de Bujaruelo and the River Ara, we then picked up the GR11 (which runs from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean Sea) to Pradea de Ordesa which enabled us to have a short break – toilet, ice cream and cold drink. We then had our main height climb for the day of 600m in an hour and half. Zigzagging our way up Senda de Los Cazadores, Keith made the decision to let the three CWO’s of the trip take control and lead the way up to the view point. This was an opportunity to have lunch, take in the route ahead of us, walking along Faja de Pelay towards the Circo de Soaso. The weather was overcast for most of the day, but this helped with the traverse along and up to the Goriz Hut, a very busy one at that with everybody’s aim to walk up to Mt Perdido. On arrival at the hut the sun made an appearance which lightened the atmosphere and one which gave a better outlook for day four. We found our rooms and continued with making ourselves at home as we would be there for two nights.
Cdt Hornbuckle(f): ‘Day three was the day I was dreading most as I was told it would be the longest day, with a climb similar, but not as high, as the one we had done on the first day. But it turned out to be my favourite day of the trip.’
CWO Parker(f): ‘There were some high points but also some lows; it was just the consistent uphill, downhill climb that bugged me. We put all the effort in to come back down; it would have been nice if there was a flat path or maybe a bridge between the two. I kept thinking about how my legs were toning in order to keep my morale levels high.’
Day Four (7km/1200m climb/7 hrs – round trip) started with the now normal routine of the huts and to be ready for walking at 0800, to “venture adventure”, the air cadet motto, up to Mt Perdido (3325m). We walked the well-cairned path to a small lake – Lago Helado. Unfortunately due to a late snow fall in April, we were unable to continue on the intended route up to Mt Perdido, but did make it a little further to a col at 3050m (10000ft), 300m short of the mountain. We were defeated by snow and ice which blocked our way to the summit – we would have needed ice axes, crampons and the cadets are not trained in the use of them. This didn’t spoil our day as everyone was pleased with their achievement.
Cdt Sgt Christopher Moore: ‘The sense of achievement came from everybody as we took the group photo. I don’t think there was a bad bit to this day I did not find the climb hard and we were back by two o’clock so a nice short day.’
Cdt Sgt Christopher Wilson: ‘the sense of achievement I felt on the Thursday when we had all the photos taken near Mount Perdu/ Perdido was fantastic’
CWO Parker: ‘Standing at the top I felt a sense of achievement not only for me but for the others around me, together we had made this happen, together we were at the top of the Pyrenees. Team photos and hugs were definitely needed as everyone was relieved to have accomplished our major challenge.’
Day Five (21km/400m climb/9hrs) we started walking at 0730, leaving behind the experience of mountain hut culture, along a path leading across mixed ground over two cols before climbing over boulder ground to the Brèche de Roland (2807m), a huge gash in the frontier ridge between France and Spain. The path descends on the French side but on this occasion the path was tricky due to the snow conditions for about 150m decent. Care was taken to descend until we reached the Refuge de la Brèche de Roland, where we had a much needed break, before descending steeply into the grassy Vallée des Pouey Aspé and continued the final 45min walk back down into Gavarnie. We were met by our hosts Bernard and Roselyne Fillastre. The cadets enjoyed a final team photo, the opportunity to have a shower and over evening meal to talk about their experiences and sense of achievement of the last 5 days.
Cdt Sgt Cordas ‘The trip to the Pyrenees has given me so many memories that it’s impossible to write them down on a sheet of paper. But one thing that this has taught me and that is – that nothing is ever impossible to do! ‘
Cdt Sgt Cordas ‘But this expedition would never have been possible without donations from John Thornton’s Young Achievers Foundation, The Ulysses Trust and Mini Swindon. Without their support I’m pretty sure that the trek would not have been able to take place. So a very big thank-you! But not only that a big thank you has got to go to all the staff that helped this expedition take place – Helene, Dave and Keith!’
‘We had an amazing 5 day trek, with great views, fantastic weather, but above all seeing all cadets overcome their personal fears of heights, walking on snow, above all achieving 10000ft a first for all of us, the cadets worked hard throughout the 5 days and I’m sure they all have many stories to tell and experiences to draw on over the next few years’ Well done to you all, another 1st for 633 Squadron”