Walking the high road

12th August 2005 at 01:00
It was all right on the night, Martin McGovern of Drumchapel High found

School trips are probably the daftest thing teachers ever do. If it all goes well, a quiet thank you from one or two of the kids and maybe a wee nod from the heidie is about all you can expect. If on the other hand things go pearshaped, then it's time to change job or at least school.

Each year, Drumchapel High runs a fun day on the last Wednesday before the summer break. In the last couple of years, we have extended that a bit and taken pupils on overnight trips in order to walk up Ben Nevis and then Goat Fell. This year, we stretched the whole thing about as far as it would go, and went trekking in the Pyrenees.

We started, not very sure what precisely we wanted to do, by consulting commercial adventure companies. Their prices soon had us, if not put off, then doubting the viability of taking 20 kids from Drumchapel anywhere - or at least anywhere exciting At this point, we started to get lucky. Helen Lennox, one of our music teachers who is an organizational genius, was appointed the active school coordinator, a position with no financial reward but some non-contact time.

We were soon using all of that and more. Our luck continued in discussion with Archie Waters, the director of the Drumchapel Adventure Group, a local charity offering adventure training. He had working for him Rafael who, like Archie, is a winter mountain leader but comes from the Basque region of Spain. Helen and I had newly acquired the Cat2 mountain leader qualification. With all of that, we just might have the skills.

The first major decision was made. The northern Pyrenees was our target area. After some serious research, we approached the head and the International Office. The office were very keen to help, and without them the expedition would certainly not have taken place. But they balked when we asked for the four leaders to carry out the reccy trip. We argued that several remote routes had to be assessed and that, to ensure the safety of staff, this should be carried out in pairs. They insisted that only one teacher could be freed and that, with two winter mountain leaders going, there was no need for any more people. This was a mistake.

The reccy took place during the October week just when the Pyrenees experienced an early snow fall. The walkers had to be split into a pair and a single; everyone was caught in a whiteout. They had arranged to meet in a high valley but, with visibility down to less than a metre, they missed each other. Only by tracing footsteps in the snow for several hours were they able to meet up. Although Archie, Helen and Rafael play this down, I feel that they were all put at an unnecessary risk.

That aside, the reccy trip was the most vital part of the preparation, rendering us a perfect youth hostel set above the town in a park with wonderful views over both bays of San Sebastian - near enough to walk to, but far enough to discourage illicit excursions. They selected which mountain huts we would use, reversed the previously planned route and Rafael set up a fabulous deal with a Basque bus company to transport our luggage between mountain huts. All we needed now were some kids and some cheap flights.

Feeling confident that we could pull this off, we called a parents'

meeting. The expedition would be open to all regardless of year group or present level of fitness, but there would be a training programme. We also made clear that the food throughout would be native Spanish or Basque; chicken and chips would not be on offer and no alternative would be available.

For our kids, this might be the biggest hurdle. We got our 20 kids - from hyper fit fifth years to small determined first years, tall ones, short ones, thin ones, thick ones. By the end of the training programme, they had transformed from a bunch of pupils into a spectacular team. The seniors took over the catering for the weekend away. Parents joined us on the walks. Local employers joined in, Mortons with free rolls and Distillers with money for T-shirts. The kids started sharing equipment, supporting each other, helping each other and working for the common goals.

Maybe the nod from the heidie wasn't the reward we were looking for after all.

We booked our cheap flights. Then the paper chase started. Acquiring passports for my own three kids took several visits to the post office. 16 needed passports plus E111s and, for good measure, a couple of surprise deed poll name changes. We visited the P.O. more than once; all I can say is that we now meet regularly with the post office counter staff on a social basis.

By the time June arrived we had most of the money in. But some hard decisions had to be made. Two of the kids didn't make the cut. They hadn't trained hard enough and could have put us all at risk in the remote mountain areas. Our party was now 18.

The expedition turned out to be beyond our wildest expectations. Hostel staff asked: "Who are these polite children from Drumchapel?" The kids shreiked with joy trying their Spanish on the Spanish.

Our tired hungry mountaineers shared their food and water. Kids who before only drank the "Bru" enthused over the flavour of mountain stream water.

The senior boys climbed Bisaurin, a 2600m summit. Pupils gave their own equipment to others who needed it more. We all sat in awe on a knoll for over an hour in a remote valley, having lunch and listening to the mountains.

For me, the reward came when I told the seniors the bad news that I would be coming with them to attempt the summit and they cheered. For Helen, it was the whole thing.

Perhaps school trips aren't so daft after all.

Martin McGovern is principal teacher of behaviour support in Drumchapel High.

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