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David Thomas of Woodcote Day Nursery in Purley has conquered the Pyrenees in a grueling four day hike and climb to help raise £4,657.30 for charity.
Battling snow, sleet and rain which forced other teams off the mountains, David, a Room Leader at the day nursery in Woodcote Valley Road, climbed and navigated tiny paths bounded by sheer drops following the ‘Freedom Trail’ to Spain.
“It certainly was an extraordinary experience and one I will never forget. The landscape was breath-taking but as we climbed higher, to around 2500m, the air became very thin and that was a hard obstacle to overcome. The hardest day by far was crossing the border on the last day through a snow storm with no visibility and extreme cold,” he said.
David was one of a four member team who made it, from France to Spain, out of a 40-strong expedition from Childbase Partnership, the UK's 10th largest employee-owned organisation, which has 44 day nurseries including Woodcote, throughout the South of England.
Amid unexpected snow storms, which reduced visibility, and falls that resulted in a broken arm for one climber and a dislocated finger for a guide, only the very fittest were permitted to continue the challenge.
Describing it as incredibly tough despite intensive training in preparation, David, a keen history enthusiast, said the challenge was mentally and emotionally demanding too.
“Our guides were ex-RAF and quite extraordinary. Half way through day three we passed the crash site of a wartime Halifax bomber which was an emotional moment for all of us. We were so very proud to be following the trail used by refugees escaping the Nazis and to honour their memory. That was a great motivation,” he said.
Other hardships included walking and climbing in wet clothes and the last leg of the journey which involved clinging to a rock face rope, on a 12 inch wide path with a sheer drop on one side, while carrying an 11 kilo rucksack containing a tent, food and clothing.
Highlights of the challenge included a hot shower in a mountain retreat, sleeping in a shepherds hut, and the fact that, due to the conditions, the team set off early on day three ahead of 20 army recruits who failed to catch them up.
“The team was fantastic and so supportive of each other. As a result of the trip we have become good friends and will all cherish this experience for as long as we live,” said David who ran a half marathon shortly after returning home.
The Freedom Trail, one of the toughest World War 2 escape routes from Nazi-occupied France, involves trekking and climbing through terrain of cirques, rocky ridges, beech forests and mountain lakes reaching heights of 2522m before the descent into Spain.
Fundraising for the expedition was in aid of Children’s air ambulance - adopted by the nursery for a year-long fund-raising drive – which has just one helicopter covering the entire country and currently can only reach one in every three children and babies who need their life-saving help.