Expedition To The Alps

Chatting while the food burns

PrologueIn 1984 as a 15 year old Venture Scout I set out to complete a 10 day hike around the alpine region of South France in order to attain my Explorer Belt award.

Why write about this now? The adventure provided me with a formative experience at an impressionable time in my development. I have long wanted to retrace these steps and piece together a jigsaw of what actually happened and that became much easier with the recent rediscovery of my diaries of the time. Over the coming series of blog posts I’ll attempt to relive those special days by drawing upon my notes, photographs and other documentation from the period.

As a child I had joined the cub scouts and progressed to the venture scouts when old enough along with many other boys (females weren’t yet admitted). Our thriving Viking VSU (Venture Scout Unit) was immensely popular and following much fundraising activity a new unit building was opened by Princess Anne in 1982 to replace the moth eaten old wooden shack we had called home. I remember her arrival by helicopter on the adjacent playing fields of Portway Infants – my first school.

My brush with royalty
My brush with royalty

Viking VSU had an iconic aura. You knew you were part of something special. Not some pampered or showy outfit but a truly ambitious and capable organisation with climbers and canoeists of genuine ability. The unit had mettle and this was forged by the legendary Pete Mitchell who, beneath his profanity spouting chain smoking demeanour, was a true outdoor man of action not to mention an organisational tour de force.

Every member was expected to take responsibility. Scouts gave up their time to organise events, work on the fibreglass canoes, supervise younger members, etc. This newspaper article nicely articulates the unit and Pete’s contribution

Me chatting while the food burns
Me chatting while the food burns

This dynamic environment encouraged people to push themselves. For some that meant physical achievement of national standard. For others like me achievement meant turning up and fulfilling the relatively menial responsibilities that I was unable to dodge having failed to volunteer for anything.

At weekends I had helped to man a skip at the unit building where visitors could drop off recyclables. For the most part this involved me and my mates chucking bundles of newspapers around and diving around in the paper lined iron play pen. Other responsibilities included fund-raising and at Christmas posting cards for the newly conceived Stamp And Deliver postal service – a cheap alternative to the royal mail for sending Christmas cards within the Derby area. The service runs to this day.

The VSU undertook annual expeditions and the 1984 three week trip to the French Alps was to be a major event. Almost 50 scouts would be travelling and activities were to include Hiking, Climbing, Mountaineering, Caving and Sub-Aqua.

Expedition bulletin (click to enlarge)
Expedition bulletin (click to enlarge)

Eleven teams of 2 were scheduled to embark on Explorer Belt hikes. My pairing with Andy was notable because we were the youngest team – Andy at 16 and me at 15. The objectives were to plan and walk 100+ miles over 10 days in a foreign country and to complete a number of cultural projects along the way. The project work and an account of the walk would be presented to a review panel at a later date.

Itinerary (click to enlarge)
Itinerary (click to enlarge)

My memories of our preparation are very limited but based on diaries we were expected to plan all aspects of the expedition and participate in some physical challenges beforehand. I had competed with my Viking team of 4 in the 22 mile White Peak Walk starting from Hathersage. We finished 37th out of 47 teams. Other preparation included enjoyable walking trips in Wales and also the Lake District where we walked the ridges around Keswick in 90 degree heat and then cooled off in the lake!

I had planned our Explorer Belt walking route. I loved maps even back then and the 1:25,000 alpine series hypnotised me to the point that I failed to realise that altitudes and distances were listed in metres and not feet. According to my diaries the initial EB route came out at 240 miles and had to be re-planned!

Andy and I finalised all aspects of our planning and then we were ready for the off…

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