“Sir, I really didn’t think I could do that.”
by Mr Smith, Mountain Leader and Languages Teacher.
It’s eight thirty and soon the failing light, combined with thick hill fog will render the boulders underfoot hard to make out. It’s time to stop and take out the head torches that we carefully checked had fresh batteries before leaving school. The walk in to our remote coire camping site has taken longer than planned as one student has been finding it hard to move confidently on such rough terrain. The group of girls are mostly quiet; they may not believe me but I know we are close to flat, grassy ground, where we’ll be comfortable for the night. Sure enough, it isn’t long before tents are up and hot chocolate is being brewed. Laughter rings out in the fog as the students start to master this new and daunting environment.
For some of the new Year 12s this is their first night wild camping and one or two have rarely set foot outside a city before. It’s no surprise that what seemed to me a gentle slope on the walk in induced a fear of heights in some, while others were keen to show their enthusiasm for the next day’s objectives, asking what height we would reach, how many kilometers we would cover and whether it was more than the boys’ route.
The forecast for Saturday is less than ideal; high winds, low temperatures and almost constant rain or even snow. The group have shown that they can listen to advice and they are all well-equipped. My briefing consists of two points; stay dry and look after each other. The girls are getting used to spotting when a hood has come down or hair needs tying back to prevent any rain from soaking into their waterproofs. With what they have learned already we judge it safe to venture briefly up onto the Cairngorm plateau. As we start upwards, I can see the lead pair of girls glancing back over their shoulders and I’m pleased that they have taken on board our request to keep the whole team together and ensure we don’t get split up in the mist. For the next leg of the walk they are responsible for navigation and for managing the group. They do a much better job than I could of motivating the team as we head into the chilly rain and cloud.
The more experienced and confident girls get a chance to test their advanced navigation skills, walking on a bearing to keep us away from the cliff tops at the edge of the plateau and taking us along a dog-leg path to the summit of Cairn Lochan. I’m impressed by their accuracy in such poor visibility and encourage them to sign up for winter skills expeditions later in the year. They can’t wait to learn how to use an ice axe. At the same time, some of our group are finding the going tough. It is cold and the ground is steep. The pace has slowed and the sense of humour that has been keeping them going is temporarily lost by some. With encouragement though, they don’t give up.
These really are challenging conditions for the season and, as leaders, we are having to make minute to minute decisions to ensure the trip is safe, while also pushing the girls out of their comfort zones. It is demanding work and concentration can’t lapse until everyone is back in a dry tent.
Our only tangible reward at the summit is a small cairn in the fog. The wind-chill must be near freezing but the smiles have returned and the team have arrived together. It might seem a strange way to spend a weekend and so often before setting off the students ask why we are doing it at all. As we descend back to our camp, K sums up our reasons and inadvertently puts our well-used motto into her own words; “Sir, I really didn’t think I could do that.”