In order to celebrate Captain Summers’ retirement from the school and detachment – 30 years after founding it – we planned a week-long detachment expedition on and around a section of the West Highland Way in July 2022.
During lockdown, the detachment staff and cadets ‘virtually’ walked all 2000 miles of the Appalachian Trail (in the USA) so for our first detachment expedition we were keen to do another established, long-distance hiking trail.
A group of 12 cadets, including cadets at every star-level, took part in the expedition and were supported by six Cadet Force Adult Volunteers (four expedition supervisors, plus a base camp team of two).
After thorough kit checks and a 7-hour drive, we were dropped in Tyndrum and began our expedition southbound along the West Highland Way. This 3.5km stroll allowed us to test and adjust our kit before ready for the 16km walk the next day. Camp for the night was Strathfillan Wigwam Village – a picturesque spot surrounded by mountains, and next to a field of sheep who served as out 5.30am alarm clock the next morning!
Day 2 took us from Strathfillan to Beinglas Campsite at the top of Loch Lomond. Given that this stretch was surrounded by mountains, we took the opportunity to do some navigation exercises around landforms and the cadets were challenged to navigate using maps that contained only contour lines (huge thank you goes to Chasing Maps for their incredibly kind donation there!).
We’d experienced the infamous Scottish midges a little on night one, however night two was where they really came into their own. Despite head nets and lathering ourselves in insect repellent the cadets were still defeated and put themselves to bed around 8pm.
The next morning, we transferred from Beinglas to Loch Ard Forest for our ‘Navigation Challenge Day’. This 10km route was entirely through forestry – by removing all prominent landmarks the cadets were challenged to depend entirely on alternative navigation strategies such as walking on bearings, timing and pacing.
That night was spent at Loch Chon campsite – owned by the national park authority. As an organised youth group, this site was free and by far our favourite of the week! The cadets had individual pitches nestled within the woodland with views overlooking Loch Chon. This was one of the few sites where campfires were allowed, so after dinner we gathered as a group for hot chocolate and toasted marshmallows.
Since no plan survives first contact, Day 4 began with a little rerouting due to the closure of some forestry tracks in Loch Ard Forest for logging. While much of the replanned route was easy walking, the final 2km stretch into Cobleland Campsite turned out to be the road less travelled and a fair amount of ‘bushwhacking’ was required to get through the overgrown trail – definitely a new expedition skill for the cadets, but one they all took in their stride.
The following day we took a break from walking and the cadets headed to Go Ape for some adventures in the trees. They also took part in an ‘Expedition Weather Masterclass’ where they worked in teams to come up with alternative plans for a day’s expedition based on changing weather conditions.
Our pitch at Cobleland Campsite was located on the bank of a small river, which inspired an improvised fishing competition in the evenings, much to the glee of Captain Summers, Lt Johnson and SSI Murphy.