Reflections: September 2015



When I wrote my last column I was about to embark on the adventure of my lifetime – climbing Mount Elbrus in Russia. I’ve now been home for two weeks and I’m surprised by the impact that our trip has had on me. Physically I feel fine, and that comes as no surprise given the way our trip unfolded: but psychologically I have noticed that this trip, more than any other, has had a profound impact.

We headed off from Heathrow and via Moscow to Pyatigorsk, a city in the south of Russia on the Georgian border. This was our first expedition led by a company – normally we go alone but getting into Russia is very difficult and the difficulty of our expedition was new territory for me, so it seemed most sensible to go with a company with vast experience. Our team of twelve met in Heathrow and travelled through the night to our destination, slowly getting to know one another: the teachers, lawyer, tree surgeon, engineer, financial expert, banker, architect…the team had diverse experiences, both in working life and expedition accomplishments, and it was really interesting to learn from them all. We spent a short time in Pyatigorsk and were then taken via a jeep-style minibus to the base camp, some four hours away. I’ve never seen such a vehicle drive through a river, I’ve never been in a bus traversing a steep mountainside and driving down stream, so that was certainly a first for my #40Challenges bucket list!! We arrived at Base Camp safely and began our acclimatization phase of the expedition.

Within forty-eight hours we were preparing to leave Base Camp and carry all our equipment up to High Camp. We had chosen to tackle the more difficult, north side of the mountain and were to spend six days at High Camp. We carried as little as possible, meaning that despite carrying a minimum of 20kg each we knew that we would be wearing the same clothes for the next week. As we ascended the mountain we were rewarded with the most wonderful mountain views, the snow topped Elbrus peak ahead of us and beautiful valleys around us. As we climbed we spotted a helicopter overhead and joked that they were dropping off supplies to High Camp of fine foods and toilet roll…we knew that what we would find up there would be more basic than you could possibly imagine.

After a long climb the twelve of us settled into our new accommodation- a very small, hand built hut, made of metal and containing twelve beds. It wasn’t the time to be shy, sharing living quarters with relative strangers, and so we each set about preparing ourselves for the next few days. We spent two days practising and acclimatising, using our crampons and ice axes on the steep ice faces, and learning to use the roping systems that would keep us safe on the mountains. Our summit day was to take place on day four and we spent considerable time eating: with the summit trek departing at midnight and taking up to nineteen hours, we knew that many calories would be burnt so we were determined to have our bodies well fueled for the challenge.

Day three was a rest day and we used that to sleep, eat and pack our rucksacks. By 8pm it was evident that the weather was against us – strong winds at the summit had led our guide to believe it was too dangerous to attempt the summit. Disappointed, we returned to our bunks for another night of sleep in the hope that the following day might bring us better luck. On our fourth and final day, the weather looked good. Blue skies and low winds meant that we prepared, albeit with mixed emotions. The acclimatisation trek to 4818m, higher than Mt Blanc, had been very challenging, and a fall I took had knocked my confidence. I had begun to realize that this really was a huge challenge for me, both mentally and physically, and the doubts set in. Could I really do this?

By 6pm on the fourth day we were in our third meal of the day. As we emerged from the hut with full tummies, we were greeted with snow…falling fast and thick from the sky. We went for a short sleep, hoping that when we woke at 10pm to eat our final meal, the snow would have stopped and we could depart for our challenge. However, our guide woke us at 9pm to say that the summit was off. We had been beaten by the weather and it was too dangerous to attempt the climb. Game over.

I must admit that my emotions were very mixed. Much of me was disappointed that the challenge and our time, energy and excitement had been dashed by soft, white snow. But on the other hand, the relentless hours of walking in zigzags up very steep, icy slopes had been physically and mentally draining. I didn’t know if I could really achieve the summit, and I was finding that this type of trekking wasn’t as enjoyable as other treks we have completed, such as Everest Base Camp. I love not only the challenge but even more the views, the wonderful mountains surrounding us and their tranquility and peace. Watching the back of someone’s crampons for eight hours had been tough enough on acclimatization day. I am left wondering what nineteen hours of mental and physical ascent and descent would have done to me.

And so, the team returned to Base Camp with heavy hearts the following day. We each knew that our guide had made the call with our best interests at heart- safety first. It wasn’t until we retuned to the city that we learnt of the true tragedy on the mountains. The helicopter we had joked about, bringing up toilet rolls to High Camp, had been there for a much more serious reason. As we had climbed up the valley, three Polish climbers had successfully summited the West peak of Mount Elbrus. Tragically, they had been blown from the summit in the high winds and died on the mountain, the helicopter coming to take away their bodies. Such tragedy is sadly common on the mountains, where climbers risk their lives to take part in the sport they love. I have never ever considered that such an event could happen to us. We are relatively experienced mountaineers, well equipped and cautious where necessary. It was sobering to learn of their fate and a sharp jolt back to the reality of our trip. It was dangerous, yet we returned safely down the mountain, albeit without summit success. But sometimes, the summit isn’t the place to be. We didn’t succeed but, in my mind, for good reason.

And so, we returned to the UK and to work. It was glorious to welcome our students in to the UTC last Monday, their excited chatter filling the corridors. I was reminded of how much I love my job, working with talented staff to teach enthusiastic and committed young people. I shared my tales with them, glad to be standing safely at the front of the auditorium. My morning drive to work each day has been ever brightened by the gentlemen on the Dunham Bridge. I don’t think they realise how much I appreciate my daily, double dose of cheery smiles and I think this is the first time I’ve really appreciated their kindness.

On reflection, this is the first time I have been faced with such a difficult expedition. We make measured decisions to take on such adventures, calculating the risks involved. Where risk lies, challenge begins and without challenge, we cannot grow. Each adventure I have undertaken has helped me to find my limits. When failure occurs, for whatever reason, it is so important to accept the failure as being a valuable part of the learning experience. I learnt much about my physical and psychological limits this summer and I look forward to stretching them in different ways through my next adventures.

And so, my mind is set to the next of my forty challenges. I’ve booked to climb Mount Toubkal in Morocco in late December, taking in three peaks in the eight-day trek, seeing in the New Year atop a glorious mountain. The crampons and ice axe will be back out for use and my training has begun once more. In the meantime, I’ve still got around £2k to raise…and twenty more challenges to achieve before the year is out. This is going to be a busy few months!


Professional Development


I’m in the process of preparing for Professional Development meetings this forthcoming week. Every line manager has their own way of structuring and delivering the meeting but I’ve been considering how to ensure that we create a core structure that staff can utilise of they wish, or ensure they meet the essential criteria as they design their own meeting structure.

I have decided to locate my meetings in front of my trusty, monstrous whiteboard – a perfect location to scribble down thoughts, ideas and reflection as they tumble from the reviewee. It takes away some of the intensity of a 1:1 meeting, enables us both to draw / add / erase ideas as they emerge and captures the essence of the meeting without formal minutes needing to be taken.

In terms of structure, I plan to hang the meeting around the following areas (draft one of structure):

  1. Tell me what a great year would look like for you.
  2. How will you know that it happened?
  3. What strengths and areas of expertise do you already have that will help you to succeed in achieving your ‘great year’? (Refer to Teacher Standards Audit, where applicable).
    1. How could you use these strengths to support the development of other colleagues or the wider development of the UTC?
  4. What do you need to develop or do differently to achieve your ‘great year’ goals? (Again, refer to Teacher Standards Audit and any other relevant information the member of staff has provided).
  5. How will you develop these areas? (i.e. CPD, training, coaching, mentoring, personal reflection, reading, colleagues to learn from or collaborate with).
  6. Who else might influence your success in your targets? Do you need to collaborate with other staff to enable success?
  7. How will you reflect on your development through the year? How will you format / structure your professional learning ‘journal’ (PLJ)?
  8. How can I assist you in my role as your line manager?
  9. Would you be comfortable sharing your PLJ developments with another colleague informally so that you can share, reflect and develop your thinking? If so, who do you think you would like to collaborate with? (Ask staff to set these informal relationships up).
  10. Is there anything we haven’t considered in the meeting that you would like to explore?
  11. Run through the plans for the remainder of the year:
    1. Informal PLJ collaborations in Term 2 CPD sessions.
    2. Formal interim review of progress in Term 3.
    3. Informal PLJ collaborations in Term 4 CPD sessions.
    4. Formal final review of progress in Term 6.

I’ll share this outline with my colleagues this week to see if they have any ‘marginal gain’ development points.

Catching Up!


I’ve been pretty slack with keeping this blog up to date so I thought I’d do a quick update on how far I’ve got with my challenges. So far I have completed the following:

  1. Learnt to alpine ski.
  2. Learnt to cross-country ski…and fall over!
  3. Had a gliding lesson…and felt quite sick.
  4. Ran in the Newark Anarchy Adventure Race, took three and a half hours, got very muddy and spent an hour in the shower trying to wash it all off!
  5. Spent a whole day in my PJs doing nothing but relaxing (I’ve never done this before!!). I actually spent a whole weekend with Paul in South Yorkshire, genuinely doing nothing but laze around and LOVED IT!
  6. Had a clay pigeon shooting lesson with my Mum and dad on Mum’s 70th. Dad was awesome, Mum was good and I was hopeless!
  7. Learnt to use crampons and ice axes in the mountains…February half term. Blogged it before.
  8. Ate in a Michelin Star Restaurant. Paul didn’t enjoy it, I was more shocked at the price.
  9. Spent half term in Scotland on a Winter Mountaineering training course.
  10. Milked a cow.
  11. Assisted in the birth of an animal…well, none were born the day I was on the farm so instead I looked after a poorly calf and fed it from the biggest baby bottle I ever saw in my life.
  12. Completed the first Lincoln Colour Run.
  13. Climbed the Stenigot Tower.
  14. Went to the ballet.
  15. Went to Paris for the first time.
  16. Attended the Buckingham Palace Garden Party and meet the Queen!
  17. Went to London Zoo.
  18. Gave blood. Technically, I tried to give blood but I’m not allowed to because my veins were uselessly small.
  19. Went on a relaxation spa evening with Aggi. And we plan to go again soon.
  20. Climbed to the summit of one of the seven summits of the world, Mount Elbrus. Climbed to within 800 metres of the summit but due to bad weather had to turn back. So technically not achieved, but the closest we could have got.
  21. Opened Lincoln UTC in our new building.
  22. Went to Russia for the first time.
  23. Completed the 100km Race to the Stones. Actually, got to 70km and then my feet fell off and I had to withdraw. Going back next year for another go!
  24. Working towards a Doctoral Diploma in Strategic Leadership – I’m still plodding along.
  25. Proudly attended Q’s Graduation from Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (and resist the urge to run across the parade square waving my arms in the air). Photos to follow.
  26. Took Mollie on a low ropes and high ropes course.

So, 26 challenges achieved on 5th October 2015 and 14 remaining. Update on progress is:

  1. Going to a Foo Fighters concert later this month.
  2. Taking part in the Crystal Maze challenge – waiting for Claire to fix the date.
  3. Climbing a big mountain in December 2015. Booked to climb three peaks in Morocco over New Year.
  4. Keeping a blog and photo diary of my 40th year…I’m still trying!
  5. Learn to ride a Penny Farthing. Struggling with this one, cant find a bike!
  6. Learn to Roller-Ski. Again, struggling to get on a course, might have to wait until the New Year.
  7. Design and make a silver spoon. Ready to book a weekend in November to do this.
  8. Send a message in a bottle. Going to do this with Bex when she comes home next weekend.
  9. Bury a time capsule. Not sure where or when…anyone got any ideas?
  10. Enter and complete a Cani-Cross race with Pippa. Missed the last race of the season – might have to put this into 2016.
  11. Complete the lakes open water swim race – 2.6 miles. Missed the race as we had to move the Russian expedition dates. Maybe replace with a similar challenge?
  12. Go on a meditation weekend. Replaced with ‘Go on a relaxing week with my Mum and take part in meditation’. We are off to Crete for October half term for exercise, meditation, yoga and sun!
  13. Raised £4,040.40 for charity. The money is slowly adding up. have you sponsored me yet?
  14. One space for one final challenge. Any bright ideas??!!