Exercise Alpine Belfrey

Recently six members of IX(B) Squadron ground crew headed out to Chamonix for 10 days adventurous training.

Day One started early with the group meeting at IX(B), travelling to Geneva via Luton Airport followed by a 100km road trip using a hired mini wagon. Once we finally arrived in Chamonix, the task of unloading and sorting through the mountain of equipment we had brought with us awaited us. Luckily, we were met by our instructor, who showed us our way around the equipment.

For the duration, the team were led by Mr Andy Nelson, an alpine guide, leader of the Glen Coe Mountain Rescue Team and one of the foremost mountaineers and skiers in the country. Mr Nelson’s experience and  knowledge was there to teach the six aircraft engineers various skills that were a necessity for off-piste and on-piste crosscountry skiing including crevasse rescue drills and basic avalanche rescue training (something that was quite pertinent due to the Mount Everest avalanche, from the Nepal earthquake disaster that happened the very same week!).

The second day was used for Andy to grasp our skiing ability and a chance for the group to blow off a few old cobwebs. After a few runs and some instruction from Andy, we were primed for the rest of the Exped.

Six days exploring the Haute Route (Chamonix to Zermatt) was the original plan for the expedition. However due to various unforeseen circumstances last minute changes had to be made to the whole expedition a week or two before leaving for France. As much of the original objectives were still achieved, but with a different approach so that all those involved could still get a chance to develop their skills on skis.

Day three and four at Les Contamines remained dedicated to our techniques that we’d learnt from the previous day but primarily focused on off piste skiing, which involved skiing on terrain that most of us hadn’t experienced before. Andy demonstrated how to use our transceivers, shovel and probe correctly and efficiently. We then split up into two teams and carried out practice avalanche rescues. This involved one team burying their transceivers and reporting an avalanche to the other team. The task was to find the transceivers as quickly as possible using our own equipment. Wading through the knee high snow to follow the transceiver signal,  then shovelling away the snow to find the buried transceiver was extremely tiring. We all realised how difficult it would be in a real life situation. All these new skills mixed together proved tough but it was all good fun!

Throughout the Exped the group’s physical and mental fitness were tested, notably day five when we explored parts of the Vallee Blanche – a classic off piste route in the shadow of Mont Blanc – which involved navigating down the mountain and glaciers, harnessed together with skis and other kit tied to backpacks, ice crampons fitted and our nerves tamed. However, the challenging part was getting back up to the 3842m high Aiguille du Midi lift with ski skins fitted and we cut it fine with only just making the last lift with moments to spare. If someone had slacked whilst climbing back up, even for just 10 seconds, we would have had to look forward to a cold night on the side of the mountain!

By day six the weather had started to take a turn for the worse. However not to be put off, we made our way to Les Contamines ski resort. The visibility was poor at the top so we practiced more crevasse rescues before making our way down a tough black slope to the bottom. At this point the weather wasn’t ideal so we decided to call it a day and get some well earned rest. The bad weather prevailed into day seven and that unfortunately meant poor snow conditions. We were unable to carry out planned activities but it gave us chance to explore Chamonix and the local area.

With the skill level rising every day, we took the opportunity to delve into the Mer de Glace glacier on the antepenultimate day of the Exped. The “Sea of Ice” is the largest glacier in France (7km long, 200m deep and  moves around 90m per year) and our guide Andy set us the task of climbing one the “walls of ice” and abseiling back down. A task that wasn’t for the faint hearted.

Our last day on the slopes was a lot more relaxed. The weather had picked up slightly so we took the time to enjoy some downhill skiing. Andy gave us some last minute instruction for general skiing techniques, which we put into practice that afternoon.

We spent the final day packing up all of our kit/equipment, tiding up the accommodation, last minute prep for the return journey home and reflecting on; our improved leadership, communication, self awareness and the ability to work as a team. All of which can be applied to everyday life in the Royal Air Force.

Everyone on the trip truly pushed the limits of their comfort zone on a number of occasions (even Andy at some points when tolerating our ‘wit’), whilst promoting all the pillars of Adventures Training.

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