On expedition

Expeditions are a unique – and unifying – phenomenon. We investigate why going on expedition means so much to Aiglonians.

“You don’t really know somebody properly until you’ve spent two days climbing up a mountain with them,” says Aiglon student Oliver Patrick (Belvedere, Lower Sixth). “The mountains let you know so much more about your friends – and yourself – than you could ever have discovered just hanging out with them.”

Thousands of Aiglonians past and present will identify with those sentiments. For 65 years, students have been daunted, excited, challenged, exhilarated, and sometimes terrified by the school’s unique expeditions – and have learned things along the way they could never have been taught in a classroom.

“You see people at their best, and at their very worst,” says Sally Wright (Clairmont, Lower Sixth). “I’ve been upset, frustrated, depressed on expeditions. I’ve made mistakes, shouted at people, been shouted at and had some pretty intense arguments and really bad fall-outs. But other times I’ve been sitting in a hut on the side of a mountain with the same people and we’ve laughed until our sides ached. There is nothing like an expedition to bond and bring you together.”

And these memories last a lifetime. “It must have rained sometimes, but in my mind’s eye I just see perfect sunny days with my greatest friends,” says Richard Murray Wells (Delaware, 1992). “We’d swim to a pontoon and see the sun go down, or watch from the Dents du Midi as a shadow crept towards us across the valley until we were the only people left in sunlight. Such special memories gave me a sense of adventure I’ve had ever since.”

But all of this seems unimaginable to new students facing their first ever expedition. Many children come to Aiglon having never climbed a mountain, stepped into a pair of skis or even slept in a tent – and the learning curve for them is as steep as the scenery.

“Even if you’ve been camping with your mum and dad, everyone faces something new as soon as they get to Aiglon,” says Tim Milner, Head of Junior School Expeditions. “Almost immediately after joining the school – and most of the new children are only nine – they’re sleeping in barns, in forests, out in the open.”

Egg crackers

Zadie Sparrow (La Casa, Second Form) remembers the excitement of her first expedition – due less to the surroundings than to her newly found independence. “I had camped in the Girl Guides so I knew how to put a tent up, but the excitement was about being together with my friends for the first time,” says the 13-year-old. “It was autumn and there was a big group of us – it was good! I already know I have made friends for life on the mountain.”

Mr Milner loves the exuberance of a group of up to 20 nine year-olds taking their first adventurous steps. “There’s a lot of nervous excitement, but we rarely have to rein in that excitement, and I don’t want to,” he says. “I want them to let themselves go, run around, jump in puddles – the environment is there to be enjoyed. During the week they’re sat in a classroom working and they can’t wait to be outside. I love seeing them release all that pent-up energy by making as much noise as possible!”

The noise is what Sally remembers from her first overnight ex. “We had to carry our own rucksack with all our stuff in it: tent, sleeping mat, sleeping bag, food. A first for me,” she says. “We went up to Bretaye on the train then walked to the camp site, pitched our tents, and started a fire. Then in groups of about six, they drove us out about 200 metres along the road, and asked us to walk back with our head torches. It was at the time that the guys decided that it was the perfect moment to find out who could scream the loudest!”

Egor Shmatok (La Baïta, Second Form) recalls the excitement of his first foray into the mountains. “It felt like such a big adventure,” says the 12 year-old. “It was a very hot autumn day and we stopped at 5pm to make dinner – I think it was pasta. I’d never cooked before, so it felt like a great achievement.”

Many new students face their first ex just days after arriving, but their first term on the mountain in particular is programmed to build confidence gradually. “The first ex is a daytrip, a walk – the food is often provided,” says Mr Milner. “And then on the first overnight trip the children sleep under cover of a barn or even a mountain hut. Then we move on to camping and they learn to cook for themselves.”

That test of self-sufficiency can be as challenging as the climbs, he adds. “I took a group to Solalex last year and we had some eggs, so I told the children to decide how they wanted to cook them – fry them, boil them perhaps – and then to go and do it. A few minutes later one of the lads came back and said: ‘Sir... how do you crack an egg?’ He was legitimately unsure – he’d never done it before.”

But it is the conquering of challenges, whether it is breaking an egg or climbing a rock face, that makes the adventures so rewarding for both students and the staff who lead them, says Head of Expeditions Mr Paul Wright. “Children learn the reality of self sufficiency,” he says. “You have a problem, you learn to solve it. We’ll be up in the mountains round the campfire and new students keep coming up to me at 8pm, 9pm, 10pm, 11pm asking for the toilet. The answer’s always the same: ‘There aren’t any, you have to go in the woods.’ They think they can’t possibly do this but eventually they see it is their only choice. So they do it, then come back and say: ‘You know, that wasn’t so bad.’”

Blisters, sun cream and ice axes

And conquering one fear encourages students to vanquish others. “If we’re rock climbing, we make sure the children are absolutely safe,” says Mr Wright. “However, some do come with a fear of heights and are petrified. We don’t force anyone to do anything but we encourage them to try. Some go through two or three minutes of blinding terror – but what a fantastic achievement when they do it.”

And it is not just about facing fears, but conquering the unknown. “One of our students was from Pakistan and the first time we went out to the foot of the mountain, he just fell to his knees and was touching the snow, picking it up, tasting it.
He’d never seen it before,” says Mr Wright. “Within 10 minutes he was clutching an ice axe, had crampons on and was walking up this snowy mountain, stepping over glaciers. That was a very special moment.”

The teachers, inevitably, have a fund of such standout memories. Mr Milner recalls a recent ex to Solalex when one
 of his students fell through a cattle grid. “He didn’t know how to walk across it, slipped and was actually trapped above the knee,” he says. “We thought we’d have to call out the pompiers (fire service) but by rolling up his trouser leg and applying a lot of suncream, we finally got him free.”

All of which proves the mountains do not just teach the students to be resourceful – for all the teachers’ vast knowledge, every ex adds to their experience too. “About two years ago 
I took 16 children camping in Taveyanne and we were hit
 with the worst storm I’ve ever seen here,” says Mr Milner.
“The lightning was so powerful that whenever there was a flash it seemed to go from nighttime to daylight and back again. 
Even I was apprehensive. Then I heard girls talking in one of the other tents and there was a lot of nervous anxiety, even sniffling. So I put on my waterproofs and went over in the pitch black
 to reassure them. Just as I got to their tent another lightning strike showed up my silhouette against the side of the tent and they screamed the house down! Then I told them it was me,
 the screams turned to giggles and they couldn’t stop laughing. At least that stopped them being nervous!”

Some expedition experiences, of course, are common to all Aiglonians. “Blisters!” says Sally. “It’s almost a rite of passage. Coming down from the girls’ high ex at the start of this term, stopping at the hut on the way down was like a huge Compeed festival as Miss Dickinson handed out the blessed plasters.”

Camping also has its regular recognisable hazards.
“The tents we use are quite old, bright orange, they always smell a bit mouldy, and the best bit is definitely the sides,” says Oliver. “They’re also not very waterproof, and if it rains you are likely to get quite wet. Oh, and they often have parts missing like pegs or even poles, so improvisation is sometimes needed.”

And it is not just the equipment that can prove challenging. “Tent mates are another entertainment,” says Sally. “You might wind up with any of: snorers, kickers, wrigglers, sleep talkers or moaners. One high ex found Mr Wright sleeping outside 
in a tent on the side of a mountain, because he knew he would never have heard the end of our teasing if he had slept in the hut with us.”

And when students are tired, blistered, wet, cold, and 
just generally fed up, that is when they learn the most about themselves. “We teach them to be resourceful,” says Mr Wright. “Things can go wrong – for example, poor navigation gets us lost or someone burns the food or loses the matches or forgets their lunch. But I tell them: ‘Expeditions are a great way to learn to solve problems, sometimes problems that we bring upon ourselves.’ On the mountain you have to be self-reliant and deal with the consequences of your actions. The mountain exposes you, and there’s learning to be had.”

Cowbells and pastoral bliss

But get past all that – and students do – and then there is the view. “My favourite place is Solalex, with the great views – and the pigs!” says Egor. Sally loves the shelter next to the Grand Paradis site with its central fireplace and surrounding benches, while Oliver relishes the routes at Coufin for their “feeling of being alone without any civilization”. Mr Wright’s favourite location is the Dents du Midi: “The sights, the sounds, the smells – cowbells, cow poo... it’s pastoral bliss. And it dominates the skyline we see from Aiglon”.

But for all the spectacular scenery, the one overriding sensation students and staff tend to take from their expeditions is simply that of close friendship. “The mountain is beautiful and the experiences the children get are amazing,” says
Mr Wright. “But I genuinely think the real appeal for many is just being out with their buddies. Students love exploring with their mates.”

The children concur. “I already know I’ve made friends for life on the mountain,” says Zadie. Egor reckons “the mountains bring you closer together”. Sally loves the campfires because “on top of the warmth and peacefulness, it’s social time. Catching up with people, chatting, laughing, stories and of course marshmallows – and Mr Wright singing random songs and changing the words.”

Oliver agrees: “Things that really stand out in the expeditions are not always standing on top of the mountain or arriving at the destination, it’s usually the way there that is more fun.”

And these are the memories that stay with every Aiglonian. “Of course all students sometimes complain when they’re
 on an expedition,” says Mr Wright. “But even those who always moaned, when they’ve graduated and come back years later they have great big grins and the expeditions are all they talk about. They’ll say: ‘Do you remember when so and so fell over, or we slid down there, or this happened?’ They can’t recall the name of the guy who taught them physics, but they’ll always remember lying down in the snow and looking up at the stars.”