Connecting with friends. Conquering your fears. Climbing that mountain. Whether you just want to sleep under the stars one more time or long for the road less travelled, it is hard to leave Aiglon without an appetite for adventure.
Some people celebrate their birthday with a meal, a party or even a holiday. Not if you are Reza Larizadeh (Alpina, 2006) – he hopes to mark his birthday in January by climbing the highest peak outside Asia, the 7,000m Mount Aconcagua in South America.
Reza finds it hard to say no to a challenge, whether it’s driving nearly 5,000km through 13 countries in six days, or working his way around – and up – some of the highest mountains in the world. “If you point out a cliff and say let’s go jump off it, I’m up for the adventure,” he says.
Like many Aiglonians, Reza traces his adventurous spirit back to his time at school. “Aiglon teaches you that it’s OK to be outside your comfort zone,” he says. “I skydived for the first time in Aiglon and I have a fear of heights.” Whether it’s Via Ferrata, kayaking, cross-country skiing, scaling mountains or camping out under the stars, going on ex is a core part of the Aiglon experience – and it’s something that leaves a lasting impression on students.
It is why, in 2017, when a friend suggested a group trip to climb Kilimanjaro, he and Waleed Albinali (Delaware, 2006) needed no convincing. “The beauty of Kilimanjaro was just something else,” says Reza. “Every day the landscape was completely different. On the first day we were in this tropical rainforest surrounded by monkeys. The next day we were hiking across a harsh landscape where molten lava has come out the mountain.” Two years later, the group climbed the 5,642m-high Mount Elbrus in Russia. “You’re there with your friends and you have one goal – to get to the top of the mountain,” says Reza. “That sense of camaraderie, of having a shared purpose, is such a beautiful thing.” Next up is Argentina’s Aconcagua, and Reza wants them to carry on and complete the Seven Summits – the highest peaks of the seven continents.
Another alumna, Maiga Winzenried (Clairmont, 2009), also has the adventure bug, driven by her Aiglon experience. Last year, while living in Bangkok, she organised a dinner with a group of local Aiglon alumni and much of it was spent reminiscing about the expeditions they had been on. By the end of the evening – despite having never met before – the group had arranged to go on their own adventure. “It was kind of a joke at the beginning, then everyone just agreed. We all missed the expeditions.”
Two months later, in December 2020, they spent a weekend together in Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park in Thailand. “We started off with a bike ride through the park and along the beach, then we went on a boat trip, swam in the river and had a barbecue. The next day we went on a hike. It was beautiful.”
The pandemic may have many plans on hold but, for some, time spent living under restrictions only fuelled a thirst for adventure. For Marc Chu (Delaware, 2020) and his classmates, much of graduation year didn’t go as expected – but he was determined not to leave Aiglon without making a few final memories. “There’s the thought at the back of your mind: ‘Am I just going to let this summer go by without doing anything?’”
He recalled an Aiglon teacher, Mr David Fairweather, telling students about a bike ride he’d been on across Europe, and thought it sounded fun. So, he convinced a classmate, Slava Gudzenko, to go on a similar trip with him. While Slava was an experienced cyclist, Marc was a relative novice. He bought a cheap bike from the local cycle shop and the pair set off from Aiglon – first to Geneva, then through the South of France, Monaco, Corsica, Sardinia and mainland Italy, finishing in Milan, mixing cycling with taking the train. “On the days we biked, we did about 150km a day,” says Marc. On one occasion he left Slava at a café so he could get an hour’s head start on his friend – only to find him by his side less than 90 minutes later.
It was the times he pushed himself that proved the most satisfying, though – like missing the train and having to set up camp for the night underneath a castle in Corsica, or a difficult day in Ardèche, dealing with heatstroke and altitude sickness while trying to get his bike up a steep mountain. “The days that went by easily, the days where I took the train to the destinations, are blurry in my memory,” he says. “Whereas days where I had to cycle and overcome significant challenges, physical or emotional, are the days that I remember most clearly. In a way, that was the entire point of the trip: to get out of our comfort zone and do something that is memorable.”
Almost 70 years before Marc and Slava biked across Europe, another Aiglonian was pedalling his way across the continent. Denny Lane (Les Evêques, 1957) was just 14 when he decided that instead of flying back to the UK for the Christmas holidays, he would cycle with a classmate, Mark Schmidt. “I actually asked my mother the year before if I could do it and she said, ‘No, don’t be ridiculous, wait another year’, with the assumption being that I’d forget about it. But I didn’t forget about it.”
The pair spent five nights on the road, covering around 160km each day and staying in Pontalier, Avalon, Auxerre and Paris before taking the ferry from Le Havre to Southampton. “The most notable thing was that we got stopped twice by the police,” he says. “We stopped at a café for a hot chocolate, and if you’ve been riding a bicycle for 100 miles, sitting on a racing saddle, walking in a straight line is not something you do terribly well. We came out of the café and two policemen accused us of being drunk. They let us go. We both thought it was hilarious. Twenty minutes later we were stopped by two motorcycle policemen because we didn’t have red lights on the rear of our bicycles.”
When he left Aiglon at 17, Denny repeated the same trip home to England, this time on a Vespa scooter. With a long and distinguished military career that has taken him all over the world, Denny’s life has not been short on adrenaline – but even as a teenager, taking on challenges felt like par for the course. “That’s what John Corlette expected us to do,” says Denny. “On Sundays at Aiglon we would go skiing in our dark blue suits ready to go to church that evening, so all we had to do was ski back down to the chapel – though Mr Corlette finally put an end to that because he didn’t think that suits worn with ski boots was appropriate for church.”
Kim Hay (Exeter, 1996) agrees that her time at Aiglon ‘normalised’ physical and mental challenges. “It was just part of your life and I think that stays part of your life,” she says. “Cradled by the alpine landscape you can’t ignore that spirit of adventure and what might be around the corner or over that ridge.”
In December 2019 she completed the Half Marathon des Sables in Peru, running 120km across four days. She took on the challenge after a remark by one of her children that adventure sport was “something daddies did, and not mummies”.
Needless to say, she wanted to prove them wrong. “It may be more my stubbornness rather than my thirst for sporting adventure, but it turned out to be the best thing I’ve ever done. Knowing that my body and mind accomplished something like this means I know I can achieve anything I want – and that’s the same feeling I had when I climbed the Dents du Midi in 1996.”
As she ran across vast swathes of sand in Peru, she sometimes found herself alone and far away from any of her fellow runners. “I remember sitting down on top of a dune for 15 minutes – which you shouldn’t really do when you’re in an ultra-marathon because it’s really hard to get up again – but I just wanted to take it all in. It was just this vast expanse of nothing, and you feel very small and humble.”
You can’t run an ultra-marathon every week, but Kim has found a way to incorporate outdoor adventure into her everyday life – by making it part of her career. She looks after communications for The Western Front Way, a 1,000km walking route along the line of the Western Front from the First World War, as well as for the first ultra-marathon in the Falkland Islands. “I tend to choose clients that keep me outdoors!” she says.
Even when a love of adventure isn’t an official job requirement, alumni have reaped the benefits of Aiglon expeditions in their careers. “It teaches you a lot about team building and pushing your limits,” says Maiga, who works as a client relationship manager for an insurance broker. “That’s helped me a lot in my work.”
Reza says the resilience and courage those expeditions instilled translates “into business, into your relationships, into pretty much all aspects of your life”, even if he wasn’t always so enthusiastic about expeditions at the time. “Mr Wright, who was head of expeditions when I was there, would always tell us that when we leave, we’ll miss expeditions the most, even if we weren’t the biggest fan of them while we were there – and nothing could be more true.”
Words by Clare Thorp
Illustrations by Sarah McMenemy