How our students conquered Kilimanjaro

Jen Lynn

Jen Lynn is the head of Outdoor Learning at Nottingham Girls’ High School. Previously, she was a senior outdoor instructor at Abernethy Trust, an outdoor adventure centre in Scotland. With a degree in Sport and Exercise Science, Jen is a qualified ski, rock climbing, canoe and kayaking instructor, and also teaches gorge walking, mountain biking, archery, coasteering and zip wire activities. Jen has also completed her Winter Mountain Leader training and hopes to go on to became one of a small number of women in the UK to hold the qualification.

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At Nottingham Girls’ High School we have a great reputation for presenting extraordinary opportunities which have the potential to take our students to a whole new level of confidence and achievement. As head of Outdoor Learning, it’s my job to inspire a love for the outdoors and a passion for exploring it in our girls and support them in that process, creating new and exciting opportunities for them.

"I’ve supported teams of our students on expeditions to Iceland and to Norway."

We do this in many ways. As a school we have the highest completion rate of the Duke of Edinburgh Award in the whole of Nottinghamshire, and we use Upnah Wood, our outdoor learning centre, in school time. Upnah includes a number of team challenges, a climbing wall, low rope course (just to name a few!) and a fire pit where we teach the girls bush craft and run what we call Firepit Fridays - the girls gather on a Friday lunchtime, roast marshmallows and play music. All of these activities are designed to bring out their leadership skills, build their confidence and encourage them to spend more time outdoors.

In recent years, outside of school time, I’ve supported teams of our students on expeditions to Iceland and to Norway – a 17 day expedition where the girls went mountain biking and sea kayaking, camped wild, jumped over crevasses and explored the Hardangervidda Plateau – one of Norway’s largest glaciers.

There’s always a lot of preparation and training undertaken before we head out on an expedition, and beforehand we discuss students’ fears, what they think they’ll find the most challenging part of the trip, what they’re most looking forward to. We never underestimate what the girls can achieve, and it’s wonderful to see how these kinds of opportunities and experiences can transform a student, allow them to test their limits and help them to realise they really can achieve anything they set their mind to it. It’s a huge confidence boost for them.

Most recently a team of 14 of our students completed a tough 3 week expedition to Tanzania, which saw them climb to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. When you think these girls are just 16 and 17 years old – it’s incredible!

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When we announce a trip like Tanzania students apply for a place, complete a fitness test and have a one-on-one interview with me. These trips aren’t easy – they are mentally, emotionally and physically demanding, so we have to be sure we are taking students who are prepared to handle those conditions. They also have to be able and willing to commit a significant amount of time to it – not just during the trip itself, but beforehand too. For almost 18 months before we left we took regular training trips to the Peak District and Lake District, hiking and camping while team-building along the way. We give them as much practice and exposure as we can!

"The girls were in charge, travelling across Africa independent of help from home."
The key thing about these trips is that the students are in complete control. I’m only there for support, and as a safety officer to step in if I’m ever really needed. From the moment we left the school for Tanzania – the girls were in charge, travelling across Africa independent of help from home. Every day each girl took responsibility for one aspect of the activities – the food, the budget, medication, accommodation, timing, modes of travel, liaising with the in-country agent, Timba. Everybody in the team had a role and had to step up as a leader.

Climbing Kilimanjaro itself was actually a small part of the expedition – so to speak! We arrived in Dar es Salaam, a wonderful city that’s a melting pot of East African cultures. From there we headed out to Mount Longido, for an acclimatisation trek through Maasai land – thick forest and buffalo trails, and spent two nights camping with the Maasai tribes.

The climb up Mount Kilimanjaro (5,895m!) took eight days on the Lemosho route, passing through farmland, rainforest and alpine meadows before hitting the higher slopes and reaching the summit. It really was so tough. You have to push past the physical and mental demands a task like that puts on you personally and work as a team, encouraging and supporting each other on when you’re tired or when your kit starts to feel a thousand times heavier than it did that morning. And the girls learned a few words of Swahili from our porters on the way. ‘Asante’ means thank you!

After the climb the team enjoyed some rest and relaxation on an African safari, and then they travelled to the village of Machame for the project part of the trip. There, the students helped rebuild and repair classrooms at a local school – even providing materials for new windows, doors and roofing and helping to teach English to the children and playing games with them.

Before the journey home, we travelled to the Swahili Coast for a final day of rest and leisure activities – it gave the girls a chance to reflect on everything they had done over the previous three weeks and recharge their batteries before the trip back to the UK.

The students who took part in this expedition truly had their limits tested, but they faced their challenges head on and achieved their goals. I’m very proud of them – we all are. A trip like this takes real strength of character, commitment and courage – attributes the team had in spades. They worked hard, had fun and made some incredible memories. It was an inspiration and privilege to share this experience with them.

For the next expedition we are talking about taking a team of students to Everest Base Camp in Nepal, but my dream is to be the first school in the UK to do an expedition to the North or South Pole. I am talking to Bull Precision Expeditions to see how we can achieve this. It’s expensive and a challenge even at the planning stages but we’re an adventurous school. I want to keep offering these incredible, exciting, once-in-a-lifetime adventures for our students.

Has your school undertaken such a trip? Share your experiences below!

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