Blog: How my Churchill Fellowship inspired me to climb the Himalayas with 14 schoolchildren

Published: 16 Sep 2019

Author: Jon Clarke
Blog: How my Churchill Fellowship inspired me to climb the Himalayas with 14 schoolchildren

My Churchill Fellowship explored how learning in an unfamiliar environment enriches a young person’s education. I have put this into practice by leading expeditions in the world’s highest mountain range both to Everest and to Kashmir with groups of pupils from an inner city school. Our aim on the latest expedition was to reach 6,134m on the summit of Stok Kangri

In 2016, I was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to look at the impact of expeditionary learning on schools in inner cities of the USA.

On return from my travels, I started to develop my thinking about both in-school and out-of-school learning for young people. I’m not a stranger to expeditions. I undertook my first residential field trip to Yorkshire when I was only two weeks into my teaching career. Twenty-six years later I haven’t stopped, but the venues have changed a little. 

Swapping school for the Himalayas

On 13 July this year, I met the group of 14 students at the school where I am shadow head teacher. They were excited about their three-week trip and chatty. Our journey to Delhi, then onto to Leh in the Kashmir region of northern India, was mostly straightforward. It was only complicated by a student finding a cockroach doing front crawl in his curry in Delhi.

Thirty-six hours after leaving the school, we arrived in Leh at 3,600m. Reaching that altitude was a shock. We all wondered, “Who’s removed all the oxygen from the air?” After three days of acclimatisation, including a day in a local school, we headed out to slowly gain more altitude and start our attempt on the summit of Stok Kangri. At 6,153m, this is one of the highest mountains in the Ladakh region of the Himalayas.

The weather in this region of the Himalayas wasn’t good. Snow, which should have stopped in April, was still falling. Over our first two days, we gradually walked higher and higher, reaching 4,500m, followed by our caravan of 18 horses, cooks and guides. The students had already completed outdoor courses and took to it like ducks to water. The challenges we faced were caused by a stomach bug being swapped around the group, altitude sickness, and sunburnt lips due to our mouths gaping at the stunning scenery.

A view from a mounntain in the Himalayas

A journey through the past

It felt like a journey through the past as we walked through remote valleys. We came across small Buddhist stupas and prayer wheels. At one campsite, we met a family who spent the summer months living in the high pastures with their goats and dhzo (a hybrid of a cow and a yak). We talked to the matriarch of the family, who told us she was the last of her family to live in this way, living with no modern amenities, collecting dung and drying it on the roof as fuel for winter. She explained how the weather patterns had changed over the last 10 years and how this year’s weather was making her life nearly impossible. She blamed climate change and had little hope of this traditional way of life continuing.

Our bid to reach a summit

Our ultimate goal was to summit a peak. The students wanted to outdo their peers, who had travelled with me two years before to become the first UK state school to reach Everest Base Camp.

After seven days of walking over snow-covered mountain passes, we finally reached the base camp of Stok Kangri. At 5,200m, this barren valley bottom sits below a large slope leading towards the summit.

We had two days to prepare for a summit bid. But the group was suffering from altitude sickness and, due to poor weather, a large number of other climbers would be attempting to reach the summit during the same ‘weather window’ as us.

Our journey to the summit began with porridge and black tea at 11.30pm. We were out of camp quickly, but we could see other teams of climbers like lines of fireflies on the route ahead. At 3am we began to lose team members with altitude-related issues. By 3.40am we were in crampons trudging up steep snow-covered slopes.

The weather was starting to take its toll. The slopes are usually snow-free until the last 300 metres, but we had a kilometre of snow-covered ridge ahead of us. One of my pupils, Jack, described this best: “I just kept following the sherpa in front of me, his boots lit by my headtorch. Four steps and rest, four steps and rest.”

We kept going and going, following a crazy line of headtorches towards the final summit ridge, able to see the first people of the day on the ridge above us.

John and his group of students hold a WCMT flag on a mountain

Sunrise over the Himalayas

Our team, like so many other climbers on that day, would not reach the summit. As the sun rose, we saw clearly that to continue would be foolish. The altitude was taking its toll on the team and the danger of another 16 hours at that and greater altitude was not a risk we could take. The last nine of us came together and agreed, with tears in our eyes, that our goal should be to reach the shoulder at the start of the final ridge. This was as far as we could go without endangering members of the team with serious altitude sickness or a misplaced step on the narrow ridge covered in loose snow. We watched the amazing sunrise over the Himalayas and celebrated the achievement of reaching 5,800m.

Why learning outside the classroom is important

Today, sitting on the balcony of our hostel in northern India, full of pizza and coffee, I think about how this expedition relates to my Churchill Fellowship. They’re intrinsically linked. I travelled to learn on my Fellowship, and what I learnt helped me develop an experience for the young people who came on the Himalayan expedition. Now they have travelled and learnt, not just about themselves but also about the world, which humankind seems intent on destroying. They will take action – because they have seen at first-hand the impact we are having on our planet.

While we were out there somewhere on a snowy ridge in the dark, an article was published in The Guardian about school trips and their decline due to funding. I was quoted: “Learning outside the classroom is not a bolt-on extra part of education, but an intrinsic part of what every you person should experience.”

What next for me? It’s a big world out there. I want to make sure that our most disadvantaged young people are not disadvantaged in their ability to explore and learn about it.

Read Jon’s report

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