Travellers need to be aware of the dangers in high adventure, but they shouldn't be afraid of them, writes Phil Revell
Outdoor adventure is a no-go area in many schools. Teachers worry about the risks and the possible court cases. At Budmouth Technology College, Dorset, vice-principal John Hegarty knows all about the cotton-wool culture - he's dealt with the paperwork.
But last year Budmouth ran 45 trips, including some that would cause the average health and safety officer to lose sleep. For instance, how many schools take their students parachuting?
"We do," he says. "And then there's the skiing and the Duke of Edinburgh gold expeditions. We have a kayak club and mountain-biking is big just now, and we do the annual TenTors walk on Dartmoor. " He has been leading adventure activities for 30 years, and has led more than 50 expeditions, including trips to Bolivia, China, Canada, Ecuador, Iceland, India, Peru, Thailand and the United States. He is a Churchill fellow, a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and a member of the National Council of the Young Explorers' Trust.
His career as an adventurer began in the 1970s, and he has developed outdoor education in most schools he has worked in. He has been at Budmouth for 16 years, and with help from his colleagues and a supportive head he now co-ordinates a range of activities that rival those offered by some professional outfits.
"With some exceptions, such as the parachuting, we lead these activities ourselves," he says.
When new staff join the school, CVs are scanned for qualifications related to the outdoors. If there is interest but no qualifications, the school helps with training to prepare staff to lead activities.
This is where the Dorset Expeditionary Society (DES) comes in. John Hegarty and a few colleagues in Dorset set up the charity in 1985 to give young people more opportunities to enjoy adventure. It pays teachers' training costs and supports experienced leaders and various expeditions. These are not school trips, but many leaders are teachers who lead outdoor education in their schools.
Young people can apply to the society for a place on one of its expedition programmes. This year, John will lead a trip to the Andes that will involve attempts on several peaks above 16,000ft, and some mountain-biking and river exploration. It will be the DES's 12th expedition to Ecuador.
But young applicants are not guaranteed a place. They must attend a training course, at which some are turned down.
"They may have the fitness and skills, but they have to be able to work in a team," says John.
The successful ones must find more than pound;2,000, but the society offers help with needy cases and advice on fundraising. Students from Budmouth often go on these expeditions, but so will students from other schools - including independent schools - as far away as Scotland.
The exploring arm of the DES recently changed its name to Leading Edge expeditions. "Many from outside Dorset were put off because they thought it was a county-exclusive organisation," says John.
The DES is still the governing body, but fundraising is limited to applying for grants from the many organisations that support outdoor adventure.
The society's administrator Keith Eagleton says: "We don't run coffee mornings. The money is spent on training leaders and support for the expeditions, some of which have been incredibly challenging, given that they are open to 16-year-olds.
"Leaders have taken groups to almost every continent. Students have donned crampons to ice-climb in the Himalayas, and they have taken malaria jabs in preparation for rainforest exploration in Indonesia."
John adds: "We don't carry satellite phones and we can't offer the same level of support as a commercial provider. But our leaders are very experienced - they have paramedic training and we use local guides."
Nine expeditions are planned for 2005, some of them "peer led". "These are adventurous young adults, and they would be out there without us," says John. "Things can go wrong. But the way to deal with that is to prepare properly. Always use experienced people who know the area. And be aware of the risks, not frightened by them."