Eleven Form 6 cadets from Oakham School Combined Cadet Force (CCF) are in the Dolomites area of Northern Italy, undertaking their assessed Gold Duke of Edinburgh Award Expedition.
The actual four-day DofE expedition is around some of the valleys and passes in the area of Cortina d’Ampezzo and Corvara; the cadets will cover around 20km each day in this stunning area of Europe.
As is traditional with CCF DofE expeditions there will be an element of military history and ‘battlefield touring’. The theme this year is the Italian front of World War 1 which saw Italian and Austro-Hungarian forces fighting amongst the mountains of the area, a feat which often involved tunnelling deep into the mountains and which saw the introduction of the via ferrata (‘iron path’) routes around the steep mountains which allowed troops to move quickly around.
Updates from the trip leader, Mr Duncan Wright, will be posted below.
Day 8 Tuesday
With the trekking phase over, the start today was a little more leisurely! Flt Lt Townsley and 2Lt Constable popped out to the Spa to get some breakfast - difficult as the Italian breakfast seems to consist only of coffee with nothing really eaten until later in the day! The cadets surfaced ready for their return and once all the kit was packed away everyone headed off.
By this stage SSgt Des Barlow, the assessor, had departed back to the UK. Once again Oakham is very grateful to him and to 299 (Para) Squadron Royal Engineers for 'loaning" him - it is great to have an external but familiar face to assess the cadets for their Gold Award!
The first stop was the Tre Sassi fort close to the Passo Falzarego. This is a circa 1900 Austro-Hungarian fort, now restored, offering visitors a unique feel of what the Italians referred to as the vertical front - 'il fronte verticale'. This brought home how difficult it was was on this front for the many young men - mostly little older than the cadets - in an area where temperatures can drop as low as -30 in the winter. Maz Hastings, the Historian, described the front here: "...year after year rival forces of alpine troops – native mountain men – strove to dispossess each other of neighbouring pinnacles, to tunnel the peaks, to mine and counter-mine in unspeakable conditions."
The next stop was the Sacrario Militaire, which opened in 1939. It is the official state memorial to the thousands who died during WW1 on the Dolomite front. Sitting on a promontory above Cortina, its heavy fascist styling dominates and certainly creates a striking presence. The cool and quiet interior provided space for reflection of all those lives lost during fighting.
The final stop was at the Nasswand Cemetary. This peaceful resting place for hundreds of the dead, again is in stark contrast to the horrors of a hundred years ago. After taking it in and a short act of remembrance, the group set forth for Venice.
Upon arrival in the northern plains, the cadets found temperatures rising to 35 degrees - some 10-15 degrees higher than they'd been used to in the mountains. It was nice to have air conditioning in the vans! After a stop for a late lunch on the autostrada, they reached the campsite for the next phase - city camping and a day of R&R in Venice. Once the tents were up, the swimming pool proved popular as did the evening outing to McDonalds..... Satisfied on many levels, bed shortly followed, no doubt accompanied by dreams of tomorrow's visit to Venice.
Day 7 - Monday
So, it was the last day of the expedition phase and both teams were in good spirits. The dawn was a little warmer than some other mornings so it was easier to get going!
Starting with an ascent of around 400 metres, both teams made short work of hiking to the top of the mountain. They reached the first checkpoint in around two hours, which was superb! They then ploughed on along the ridge towards the second checkpoint at the Rifugio Pralongia where both teams had a short break to recover and to admire the 360 degree views. Team 2 then headed for the descent whereas Team 1 continued to the highest peak in the area to have lunch and to enjoy even better views!
Everyone made super progress in the afternoon with the descent down towards the campsite. Team 2 arrived first though Team 1 was not far behind.
The cadets have put in a sterling effort over the last four days and have dealt with a range of weather as well as steep terrain. They have been rewarded with not only successfully completing their Gold Expedition but also doing so surrounded by some of the most magnificent scenery that Europe has to offer. Our assessor Des was certainly impressed with their performance over the past few days.
To celebrate, everyone headed into Cortina for dinner. There was a slight delay on the way there, as the Carabinieri were dealing with a serious accident involving a cyclist on the steep road up to the Passo Falzarego.
The cadets had a couple of hours of welcome free time in Cortina looking around the very expensive shops - only to be expected of Italy's top resort! They then went to a delightful restaurant just off the main piazza and enjoyed a well-earned pizza before returning home, tired and content.
Day 6 - Sunday
The day once again dawned chilly but sunny as both teams readied themselves for their third day of walking. Once at the Passo Falzarego - their start point - they headed off west then south over the mountains towards Corvara.
Everyone made good progress, though Team 1 did stray off route a little, but they recovered very well and were back on track quickly enough. Both teams hit the ridge close to the Col del Lana at about lunchtime, and after a break they descended down towards the hamlet of Contrin where they were checked in by staff. The terrain changed through the afternoon with the harsh rock of the mountains giving way to lush alpine pasture where there were great views of the Marmolada, the highest mountain in Italy.
After a short last bit of uphill towards the Rifugio Incisa, which sits on the ridge above the town of Corvara, it was downhill all the way to the top of town. They finished their long day, once again just in time to miss the late afternoon rain!
Day 5 - Saturday
The dawn was the chilliest yet, though sunny as the students packed away their kit ready for day 2 of the expedition phase. Both teams set off through the woods and pasture of the lower part of the valley to head up to the side valley, which leads to the Passo Falzarego, their finishing point for the day.
The cadets made good time and attacked the steep uphill sections of the first part of the route. They headed for the shade and rest afforded by the Rifugio Dibona at just over 2,000 metres (some 700 metres above their start point!).
After their break, Team 2 set off first and were met by myself and Des part way along their afternoon section. The meeting point was also the site of a World War 1 field hospital, the ruins still clear to see. In good spirits, Team 2 finished first and returned to the campsite. Team 1 were met a short time later and in equally good spirits, they finished a short time after Team 2. Luckily everyone finished slightly ahead of the heavy downpours, which are common here and which can soak you in only a couple of minutes!
They have all now settled down for the evening, half way through their trek.
Day 4 - Friday
The first day of the expedition phase dawned sunny but chilly, the teams were almost ready to depart at 0830! Once the vans were loaded we headed over the pass through Cortina d'Ampezzo then turned northwards. A few kilometres out of Cortina the groups reached the start point and then, with water bottles filled and final routes briefed, they began.
With a short but steep climb up into Val Padeon, the teams walked amongst some delightful scenery, both stopping by a lake for a well deserved lunch. With a final haul up over the Col, the teams then headed westwards down towards Cortina, finishing just north and crucially just before the heavy afternoon rain!
Both teams reached their campsite safe and sound, ready for a good feed and a good sleep!
Day 3 - Thursday
After a decent night's sleep in the deceptively chilly nights here in the Dolomites, the cadets were ready for their acclimatisation day.
We started by driving up to the Passo Falzarego and once parked (no easy feat in the height of summer!) we took the cable car up to the Rifugio Lagazuoi at just over 2,700 metres. From there, we could get the sense of scale of the area and see where we would be walking over the coming days. The cadets could also begin to appreciate what Austro-Hungarian and Italian troops of World War 1 might have gone through over 100 years ago. We wandered down from the Rifugio to explore some of the tunnels before getting the cable car back down.
From the bottom we then set off on the 'acclimbatisation' walk to enable the cadets to stretch their legs a little after the two days of travel. Heading for the Rifugio Averau, and navigating around some of the stunning mountains, we stopped at a hut for a pleasant lunch. We returned to Falzarego stopping at a local Spa branch (much more upmarket than in the UK!) to shop for expedition food.
All stocked up, we headed back to the campsite for a final brief from Des before relaxing for the rest of the evening. Tomorrow sees the start of the expedition phase!
Day 2 - Wednesday
Arriving a little late in Verona, the cadets breakfasted at the station whilst some of the staff went to collect the hire vehicles. Once done we set forth for the mountains through the heavy traffic on the autostrada, this being peak Italian holiday season! The journey took a good deal of the day, driving through the increasingly grand scenery of the Dolomites - a UNESCO World Heritage Site - before arriving at the campsite in the afternoon.
The cadets met Des - their external Army Reserve DofE Assessor - and they quickly put up their tents. They then went shopping to stock up for dinner and had an early night after a long journey.
Day 1 - Tuesday
After an early start, the journey to London was smooth and we were delivered to an almost deserted Brent Cross tube station. A short ride later, we were at St Pancras International and checked in awaiting the 0755 to Paris. Leaving on time, we were whisked across Kent and Northern France arriving at Gare du Nord. Having negotiated the RER we were at Gare de Lyon by midday where we deposited the big bags in the left luggage office.
One of the benefits of slow travel is the opportunity to sightsee en route so the chance of an afternoon in Paris was welcome. Most took the opportunity for a stroll towards the centre to see the Louvre, the Left Bank and for a relaxing sit in the sun in one of the many pavement cafés.
Back at Gare de Lyon, having shopped for some dinner, we awaited the arrival of the nightly Thello service to Venice. A little late, we settled in to our sleeping compartments for the journey and soon we were zooming through the French countryside towards Dijon, Switzerland and Verona.