Student Participants:  Wellington East Girls’ College  – Arien, Gracie, Khaya, Sofia, and Zoe

Following on from a successful tramp of the Abel Tasman in 2022, nine neuro-diverse students from Wellington East Girls’ College headed off for their biggest adventure yet – a six day trip to the Cardrona Valley to explore the area on skis and snowshoes. For five of these students, this adventure was the last big requirement to complete their Gold Duke of Edinburgh’s Award.

The first two days were spent with the wonderful adaptive team at Cardrona learning to ski. The students’ perseverance and endurance was put to the test. However with positive attitudes, they achieved far more than they had hoped. Many of the students were independently skiing by the end of Day Two. 

Sofia on skis; Photo credit: Deanna Gerlach

We were fortunate to have glorious weather and everyone enjoyed being in the alpine environment. The phenomenal views of the Southern Alps from the top of the ski field were a highlight. 

Gracie, Zoe and friends setting off for Meadows Hut; Photo Credit: Deanna Gerlach

On Day Three of the journey, we swapped our skis for snowshoes and tramped into Meadows Hut on Snow Farm. The weather was testing, with a strong cold headwind and ominous cloud cover threatening rain and snow. Tired bodies were pushed to the limit to get to the hut.

Meadows Hut; Photo credit: Deanna Gerlach

Meadows Hut is set in a fairy tale-like snowy paradise, an environment that was completely new to the students. They relished in the beauty, the silence, the clear starry nights, and the opportunity to explore in depth. Walking through deep snow and sinking up to your hips was a new experience that caused great hilarity. 

Testing out snow-shoes on tricky terrain was a challenge that many of our students loved. They experimented with icy patches, testing out their balance as they tried to skate in their tramping boots. They made snowballs and threw them into the creek, watching them dissolve. They built a snowman, felt the fresh overnight snow on the hut deck in the morning and marvelled at the stars in the evening. 

Enjoying the sunshine at Meadows Hut; Photo credit: Deanna Gerlach

Over the final two days of the trip, students completed day walks on Snow Farm and snow craft activities. An unfamiliar environment became a familiar and treasured environment. Meals that had been planned back in Wellington were prepared with enthusiasm and served with pride.

Snow Farm; Photo credit: Deanna Gerlach

For a group of neuro-diverse students, the biggest challenge can be getting the opportunity to take part in outdoor adventures. For these students, the journey began five years ago when they had the opportunity to sign up for the Duke of Edinburgh’s award through their supported learning class. Their first adventurous journey involved a day walk, an overnight stay in a cabin and a session on a high ropes course.

That first journey helped parents and school management to be comfortable with the students venturing further from home and for longer periods. The students began to see themselves as more capable and became more confident. The staff and senior peer support students on the journeys built trust with the students. Over time students became more comfortable with the unknown, the unfamiliar, and with pushing on through adversity. They are at a point now, where parents willingly signed them up for six days away in Wanaka, with no easy option to come home if they were struggling.

The students had no hesitation at all about the journey. There was a 12-month lead up and the students were looking forward to the trip the whole time. There was much excitement about everything, from the plane trip, learning to ski, riding ski lifts, being in the mountains, staying in a hut, snowshoeing and cooking hotdogs in the snow.

The next big challenge to overcome is finding funding and suitable clothing and equipment. We are very grateful for the many people who have supported us financially to get the students on their adventures, including FMC through the Youth Award grants. Due to the number of support people needed to ensure safety and a quality experience, the journeys cost so much more than they would for a student without additional support needs.

On our journeys, challenges can be big and small. Getting ski gear fitted could have been quite overwhelming for some of our students. We needed this to be a positive experience if we were going to be able to get the students to wear ski boots that are not very comfortable to put on or walk in. Pre-planning with Cardrona enabled us to get fitted without others in the store, and their helpful staff were all ready for us. This calm environment set us up for a positive two days on skis. Pre-planning and support from providers are the key.

How is skiing, Khaya? Photo credit: Deanna Gerlach

Physical and mental challenges on the journeys are overcome by the students using their perseverance and sense of humour. Their perseverance has built up over the years from exposure to increasingly challenging, but positive outdoor experiences. While learning to ski and snowshoeing were physically challenging, they were also exhilarating and rewarding. 

The students made fun everywhere they went and revelled in the beauty and novelty of a snowy environment. Snowballs, snowmen and snow angels were made. There was much excitement when a student achieved a goal, like skiing independently for the first time, walking all the way to the hut or lighting a successful fire. New friends were also made and existing friendships were strengthened. Everyone returned home proud of what they achieved, more confident and lifted by the positive experience they shared. 

Article Written By:

Leonie King
Supported Learning
Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Unit Leader
Wellington East Girls’ College

We launched our Outdoor Community campaign in 2015 to showcase the diverse range of recreational pursuits about which our member clubs and individuals are passionate.

Our celebrated activity for 2023/24 is Youth Tramping. FMC believes young people are the future kaitiaki of our wild places. That’s why this year, FMC is focusing to promote and support tramping and outdoor pursuits among youth.

So, keep an eye out in places like Backcountry magazine and our blog for stories, articles and resources on Youth Tramping. As always, if you or your club has ideas or stories to share, please get in touch. We would love to hear from you.