Indelible Memories in the Mountains with the Duke of Edinburgh International Award

Experiential learning is one of the many aspects that sets Woodstock education apart, as students awake every morning nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas. The annual opportunity of Activity Week allows students and staff alike to venture across foreign and familiar landscapes, encountering learning in the real world. In October of 2022, this tradition was revived after the pandemic and with it, chances to gain life-long skills and build indelible memories.

The Duke of Edinburgh International Award was recently reintroduced at Woodstock school, and the program’s ethos of developing new skills and pushing personal boundaries through service, action, and skill complemented that of Activity Week. So, students working towards the award were able to complete their required Practice Adventurous Journey while also acquiring a Wilderness First Aid certificate from the Hanifl Centre. Over the course of five and a half days, the group of 10th and 11th graders studied methods of effective care away from a hospital setting, learned the correct protocol for administering CPR, and journeyed on self-supported hikes, which involved carrying their own gear and cooking meals together in the mountains. In addition to gaining practical skills, students on the Duke of Ed trip also “learned how to work together and help each other to grow,” in the words of an 11th grader on the trip.

Above: Making chai over a camp stove

When the course commenced, twenty students sat in a classroom, notebooks out and pens ready, prepared to learn. Despite this scene, the Wilderness First Aid (WFA) course at Hanifl felt distinct from the traditional classroom experience. We were encouraged to sprawl across the floor on mats, shifting to move closer during a demonstration. Every half hour or so, when a lesson would come to the close and the energy of the group began to dip, we would rush outside for a scenario, constantly being placed in the real-life scenario of handling a medical emergency. Fractures, abrasions, snake bites, dehydration, stroke, hypothermia – the content covered was vast and in-depth, yet never overwhelming or hypothetical. On the first day of class, one of the instructors, Gaytri Bhatia, made a point to mention that we should avoid what-if questions. “We’re giving you the skills so you can make those decisions in the moment,” she said, eyes bright and focused as she relayed to us the responsibility we were to be entrusted with as WFRs – sound decision making and educated thinking while handling illnesses and injuries in the field. Although this duty may not have initially felt familiar, each student who signed up for the Duke of Edinburgh walked out of Hanifl Centre at the end of the course prepared to enter the outdoors. 

Above: Students test out their wilderness medicine skills in scenarios outside Hanifl Centre

Fortunately, none of the recently gained first-aid skills needed to be put to the test while out in the field. Our two and a half days camping and hiking through the nearby mountains passed in a blur of cold night air, meals cooked on camp stoves, and the invigorating green of the hills. As one wanders across grassy campsites and through thick forests, it’s difficult not to feel that these are the sensations of life – the faint scent of grass damp from dew, the cautious chirping of birds as they flit between surrounding trees, the wildflowers that scatter the ground in yellow, purple, white. I remember hearing more than one student say, as we began our descent to the bus, “I wish I could stay here, in the mountains, forever.”

Above: View from the hike – past the Thatyur village in Garhwal

For some students, hiking with everything you would need for the next few days on your back was a common experience, and so they jumped upon the adventure with keenness. Others were more apprehensive; the wilderness is so unlike the bustle of urban life, or even boarding school life at Woodstock, enveloped by the mountains as it is. By the end of the trip, however, we were all united by the bonds forged from morning chai made with milk powder from our rations, washing dishes with icy stream water at “hiker’s midnight,” and waiting out the rain in tents we had just set up ourselves, nestled in sleeping bags and reminiscing about the day’s walk.

Asha is Editor-in-Chief

Edited by Aryaman

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