Blog|From Scotland to the South Pole
Guest writer Polly Bennett braves the biting winds of the snow-capped Scottish mountains to meet some of Scouting’s boldest pioneers
‘Ooof…’ I fall flat on my face for the twentieth time, my head resting on a patch of ice while my legs are buried under a pile of snow. Sighing, I untangle my limbs and launch myself back up the hill, but the wind has other ideas. With unbelievable force it slams me to the ground again. The rest of the group are already small dots high up the slope, but I have only walked 700m. I can still see the van in the car park.
A hand grabs the top of my rucksack, keeping me steady as I start again. This is just one technique that 21-year-old Joe Doherty uses to get me up the mountain. He’s very patient, never making me feel weak for struggling to hike just two miles. But this is no ordinary hike. We’re in the Cairngorm mountains in Scotland and the February wind is beating down the slopes at 60mph, so I don’t feel too guilty about needing so much help from Joe. After all, dragging me up this mountain is nothing compared to the unbelievable endeavour that he is here to train for: skiing to the South Pole and back as part of the first Scout-led expedition to Antarctica in 2018.
Practice makes perfect
I’m spending a few days with Hampshire Scout Expeditions (HSX) – a group that specialises in taking Scouts, Explorers and adult members on adventurous trips in the UK and abroad. They spend a week in the Cairngorms every year, practising winter mountaineering skills. As well as being essential preparation for big expeditions like Antarctica, the trip introduces younger Scouts to new activities and experiences.
On this, the group’s first day, we head for a corrie nestled within a crease of the mountain. Carved into dramatic lumps of granite by ancient glaciers, the Cairngorms are an ideal location for winter expeditions. Steep snow fields are the perfect place to practise using ice axes and crampons.
‘This week is ideal training for Antarctica, physically and psychologically,’ Joe tells me as we continue our ascent. ‘We want to undertake an expedition that has never been done within Scouting and to do that we need as much experience of winter conditions as possible.’ On the slope above us, Dave and twin brothers Ollie and Tom, also members of the Antarctica team, are already practising their mountaineering skills.
School of survival
After much huffing and puffing, Joe deposits me with the rest of the group. There’s cheery applause as I slump against a bank of snow, grinning at having finally made it to our outdoor classroom. Today is dedicated to lessons, or a re-cap for some, in basic winter mountaineering. Wasting no time, we gather eagerly for our first task: ice axe arrests.
Ice axe arrests are one of the most fundamental mountaineering skills. They can stop your fall if you find yourself sliding down a mountainside. In short, they can save your life. Nick, a seasoned mountaineer and HSX member since 1988, shows us the technique. We take turns to slide fast down the slope, on our backs, our fronts, head first and feet first, in order to practise. It’s incredible fun and an element of friendly competition encourages everyone to perfect their skills.
Feels like family
The close-knit group of 13 are a truly friendly bunch and range from 15-year-old Scouts on their first trip to Scotland, to leaders in their 20s preparing for Antarctica, to the HSX founders (age carefully not divulged) leading the way.
Russ, a qualified mountain leader and retired police officer, founded HSX in 1985 after Hampshire Scouting began a county-wide initiative to organise overseas expeditions. He’s taken Scouts, Explorers and older members to Nepal, Belize, Gambia, Sri Lanka and many more countries on six-week expeditions. As well as big adventurous challenges, such as trekking to Everest Base Camp, all expeditions involve a community project, such as building a school or re-painting a monastery, and working with a local Scouting Group where possible.
However, Russ is proud that HSX doesn’t just give young people fun experiences but trains them to become expedition leaders and create a Scouting family that will provide lifelong support to its members. ‘We’ve taken around 600 young people through our programme, many of whom have stayed on in a leadership role or who come back periodically, like Nick this week, to train the younger members in certain skills.’ Russ was awarded an MBE in 2009 for his services to Scouting.
It’s this camaraderie, as well as technical training, that sets HSX and its members apart from others and gives them the experience and resources to organise ambitious expeditions such as Antarctica 2018.
Over lunch on the mountain, Joe tells me more: ‘We’ve done a lot of great things, but we’ve never been to Antarctica and so we decided to be the first Scout team to ski to the South Pole and back, unsupported.’
Just the beginning
For the rest of the day we carve into the mountainside with our axes to make bucket seats and use various techniques to climb near-vertical sections of the slope.
Josh, a 16-year-old Scout from Hampshire, has a great time hurtling down the hill. He’s gotten pretty good at ice axe arrests after the morning’s training. He’s been a member of HSX for two years and is candid in describing his experiences so far: ‘I went to Nepal with HSX on their 2013 expedition because I loved the idea of going to Everest Base Camp.’ He continues: ‘I think I was quite immature before that trip, but being in HSX made me grow up. The training for Nepal taught me that if you’re childish then you might hurt yourself or someone else. I’ve since organised a training weekend in the Brecon Beacons for the group. I had to do the accounts, get everyone there – it was a real learning curve.’
‘I can’t wait to get back…’ he continues before he and I are both knocked to the ground again, the wind seemingly adamant that even the hike back down the mountain won’t be easy. Laughing and dusting the snow off his rucksack Josh carries on: ‘I just can’t wait to get back out here tomorrow.’
As for me, I too am itching to get back out on the mountain. Despite the wind and cold and how tough the going has been, it’s been an amazing experience and I’ve learned so much. In terms of Antarctica, however, I think I’ll leave that to the HSX experts!
Six members of the HSX team, lead by Quarter Master Tom Robinson, will attempt to ski to the South Pole and then kite-ski back, all completely unassisted. During this expedition, the team will cover a total distance of 2,300km, carry 100kg of food, fuel and equipment, and face temperatures as low as -50C and wind speeds of up to 80 miles an hour, all in 24-hour daylight. Follow their progress at hsx.org.uk.
Join the adventure
HSX meet every six weeks for a variety of weekend or week-long trips in the UK. Anyone can join – head to hsx.org.uk to find out more.
Want to read about more amazing Scouting adventures? Take a look at these Explorer Scouts surfing in Cornwall.
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