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Fight or flight?

Head of Outdoor Education Duncan Curry explains how the School’s Adventure Training programme encourages its pupils to develop resilience and confidence while waiting for the Covid cloud to clear…


Everything is white.

Up, left, right, straight ahead; nothing, white. I look down at the only point of reference, my boots disappearing into the snow. A welcoming colour in the bleak surroundings. Fear starts welling up inside me, rising almost uncontrollably until I force it down and focus on my situation. Losing control now is not possible. I am good enough, it is cold, but I have prepared well. I gather a ball of snow, rolling it in front of me to understand the fall of the slope. It is so white – zero visibility. I am on the inside of a ping pong ball, with the steep drop of a huge cliff somewhere to my left.

Ice climbing in Cogne, situated in the beautiful Aosta Valley, Italy

With map and compass in hand, coupled with the knowledge and skill to understand the subtleties of navigation when you have nothing, I slowly move forward. It feels like hours, counting my paces, checking the bearing, never knowing how close I am to the edge, but trusting in myself to see it through with no one there to guide me. The Cairngorm Plateau in winter can be a hard place.

Hot, it’s so hot.

The black rubber on my toes is burning. My feet are swelling up in the heat and although I can see the foothold, I can’t put pressure on it, it’s too hot. I shade my foot behind my other calf for some brief respite from the sun, the ridiculous situation becoming apparent. I watch the rope fall away to my climbing partner, the cliff disappearing below us. The precarious climbing continues, and in time the heat of the sun increases. Unconscious, my partner finds me hanging in my harness, this is bad. I look around, gathering information trying to determine where I am. A griffon vulture soars past. In the shimmering haze you can hear it glide past, its wings stretching to three metres. It turns its head and stares; I feel like I’m being sized up, cooked and ready to go.

The Verdon Gorge, one of the most spectacular climbing locations in France

This is bad. My body has let me down, the afternoon sun has taken its toll. We are 400 metres off the ground, 250 metres to the top. From the vulture’s perspective we are two small shapes in a sea of white limestone. Hanging high in the Verdon Gorge, the French sun beating down. I guess this is why the locals are not climbing; a little late to draw that conclusion. We swallow our last mouthful of water and my climbing partner sets off over the roofs above. I’m not really belaying as I struggle to stay conscious, but he knows and rises to the occasion, strong. With some rope trickery from friends far above and a lot of hard work we eventually find ourselves sat at the top. We drive down into the gorge to swim in the icy river, laughing at how foolish we were to challenge the French sun, opening a beer in relief.

Ease of access and reliable conditions, together with the Italian lifestyle makes Cogne one of the very best ice climbing venues in Europe

When you choose a life of adventure, experiences that test you in a variety of ways are routine. Fight or flight? What made me want to go back for more? What happened during my childhood to push myself into these situations? Was I wired up wrong? Did I relish the opportunity to challenge myself? I could hide behind a magazine or movie, watching others bravely finding adventure. That would be much easier. I had the confidence but also the necessary skills to deal with each experience, growing stronger each time. I was excited to have found a passion and I was ready for more.

Indian Himalaya, 5,800 metres.

It’s 4am and I’m looking at two pupils who can’t even bring a bottle of water to their lips. The altitude is splitting their heads, the pressure on their bodies far outweighing their wish to continue. They need to descend quickly. I’m there for a reason and we bid farewell to the rest of the group, watching the head torches disappear into the darkness above. As the boys stumble through the snow, I work hard to keep them on track. One falls behind and does not know who I am, he has no name for me, which is strange as we have spent the last two weeks together in India. Altitude does funny things. I guide them down, keeping them in reach over the tricky sections. Hoping that their symptoms clear as we reach base camp, I open the kitchen tent and ask for tea. The cook is not surprised to be woken; this is normal. It doesn’t feel normal! I have a sleepless night checking for a steady pulse and wondering how the group are getting on above, the summit of Stok Kangri is 6153 metres. 

A year later and the two boys had employed a guide and successfully summited Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Western Europe. Fight or flight? Their bodies had let them down in the Indian Himalaya, they had watched their friends return triumphantly. A shared experience they will never forget. They had made a decision to return, stronger and fitter, nothing would stop them. Fight.

What gives some of us this desire to challenge, this urge to strive for more? Do we protect ourselves by wrapping each other in cotton wool? Will the protection and shelter at every wrong turn shape us for the future when there is no one there to guide us. Now, more than ever, we have been shown that we should be prepared for every eventuality, strong enough to deal with the situation, physically and mentally. Who knows what may be around the corner? I am lucky enough to have found a passion. It is not the risk and adventure found in the mountains, although I did think this was true years ago. No, it is the opportunity to develop our young adults to experience a variety of situations with the strength and knowledge to stay safe. As Head of Outdoor Education and Pioneering I get to do this on a daily basis at Bryanston. 

Dartmoor Ten Tors Training

So, while in lockdown, how can we best look after ourselves in the present and prepare for our future? I put together the Adventure Training programme for some of our D and C pupils. Deciding on the content and delivery of such a programme was challenging in itself. The variety of houses, gardens, weather, time zones and varying lockdowns in different countries ensured that each pupil would have a different experience. However, the basis behind each challenge offered in the programme is the same.

OB Katia M pushing the limits on one of our weekly excursions to Portland

A remedy that I would offer to us all. Close your laptop, reduce screen time, try something new, get some fresh air and engage with the environment and those around you. Many of us have reduced horizons, so rather than letting this stifle and scare us, we should make the most of what we have right in front of us.

There will be many challenges faced, and by no way do I intend to belittle these. Each and every one of us has and will be faced with tough times. However, let us work with what we have available to us rather than wishing for more, which in a lot of situations is a luxury unavailable to us and the wishing is wasted energy. Of course, I would have wanted fresh water and some shade in the Verdon, or for the cloud to clear in the Cairngorms. I have been in worse situations where I have shouted to the skies in desperation, but after the shouting we are still faced with the reality in front of us.

We are all waiting for the cloud to clear on Covid, and in time it will. But for now, let us focus on what we can do to help each other stay positive and find a way through this together.