International adventurer, Nigel Vardy has summited peaks across the world as well as regularly taking to the hills of Derbyshire, his home. Along with his vast amount of mountaineering experience, Nigel is an avid map collector. Here he tells us the value of training for an expedition, and his recommendations on how, and where to go, to get the most from your Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expedition.
Expedition - ‘A journey undertaken by a group of people with a particular purpose, especially that of exploration, research or war.’ Hopefully we can forget the War part for the DofE…!
Though the DofE is made up of five sections, most people worry about the expedition. It’s the most talked about, most planned and most feared part of the award, but it doesn’t have to be. Good preparation is everything, as is location and weather. We can’t book the weather in advance, but everything else is within our control if we prepare correctly.
I’ve worked with the award for over 20 years and seen a huge evolution in expeditions. People seem more open to try new ideas and challenges and I’d like to see this evolution continue. Many people still walk, but groups also canoe, ride horses and cycle. I think these should be exploited more as there is so much that can be gained from them, but they do need prep.
The Derbyshire Peak District has been my playground since I was born. Many a summers’ day I see groups on their expedition wandering down Lathkill Dale or near Matlock. Many campsites have dedicated DofE areas due to sheer weight of numbers, but I’d like to see people fan out a little more into places such as the Staffordshire Moorlands, where tourist numbers are lower, and the scenery is spectacular. We need to give guidance to the Bronze Groups, but when at Silver and Gold level, there should be a sense of adventure. The UK National Parks are always popular for expeditions, but look for the edges, away from the honeypots and let people learn. It’s all too easy to send groups onto the same routes, year on year.
I’m a great believer in going to an area that you don’t know for your expeditions. Transport is an issue, but why not try canoeing if you live in the hills and vice versa? Take a bike ride and do cycle maintenance as a skill. It’s all about learning. You can do as many practices as you like before the big day, so train well. I never climb a mountain without extensive training, I wouldn’t dare.
I’ve travelled extensively during my life and had a fair few epics. I’m not saying that expeditions should entail helicopter rescues, huge river crossings or quicksand, but we need to install the sense of adventure into all young people. If anyone completes their expedition and tells me that ‘it all went like a breeze’, I’m worried as no one has learned anything. When things go wrong, we learn. When we get lost, we learn. When we overcome the problems, we learn, but we need some skills before we start.
Years ago I met a group who were crossing Kinder Scout for their Gold Expedition. The weather was bad and some group members didn’t like heights, so the route crossed the centre of the Scout. When I asked the leaders what was going on, I was belittled as they were much older and apparently experienced. Anyone who crosses Kinder Scout will understand what navigation from East to West is like on the best of days as a competent navigator. So when the cloud came down the group had a nightmare, failed and all looked depressed. Poor route choice, poor weather and poor prep. Be flexible when you need to, as this is another learning opportunity.
At a recent Gold Award Presentation, I spoke with groups who took their expedition overseas. Morocco seems popular, as does South East Asia and Scandinavia. All offer extensive opportunities for unusual expeditions. One group had gone camel trekking in the African desert! They had wonderful stories to tell and this is all-important to me. No expedition should be a drag, it should be enjoyable, challenging and then it can be life changing.
I’ve recently returned from crossing a section of the Jordanian Desert on foot, which would make an excellent expedition challenge. There are different considerations such as inoculations, travel restrictions and differing cultures, but these are more opportunities to learn. When you see the smiles on their faces, you know it was all worth it.
Get away from the norm, think differently and challenge yourself. This is where leaders are created, and futures built…
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