1192 – ‘Phoenix Dragon’ – France – Massif et Park National de la Vanoise

The time had come once again for our Battalion, 101 Force Support Battalion, The Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, to travel to the French Alps for our annual skiing trip: 81 soldiers, keen as mustard, raring to go. 20 hours later, a wet and blustery day in the UK transformed into a very snowy and sunny one in Meribel with well over a metre of snow at the higher levels.

Accommodation and equipment sorted we were off to the slopes, some for the first time, putting on ski’s and wondering what to do next! Our intrepid instructors gathered up their little groups and off they went into the sunset! As If!

The first day is always fraught with equipment failure, it’s never the soldier! So after a few hours sorting out we got down to some serious teaching and learning on slopes commensurate with the individuals experience and ability. From 9am every morning we dragged our aching bodies up the mountain only to gather more bruises and twists on the way back down. That being said Meribel, Courcheval and Val Thorens, together, is a massive area and we seldom met other groups during the week. The snow was perfect, accommodation and equipment extremely good and the locals friendly, which always makes a difference.

The groups were split into total beginners, those that think they can and those that really can. The really cans (12) were taken touring for the week which meant using touring ski’s that allow you to walk uphill. The majority of their skiing was off piste and on virgin snow when they could find it. It was very exciting for those that had never been ski touring before as it incorporates a different type of skiing skill to the normal downhill. I must say that this group were buzzing when they returned each night with another story of heroism of the highest order. ‘Well done to them’ – they have learned masses about the snowy mountain environment, identified different snow packs, and avalanche risk area’s and generally become more aware of their surroundings which is fraught with danger and incident pits.

The basic and the intermediate groups still had the opportunity to ski off piste but only where safe and appropriate. In the main they stayed on piste learning and relearning skills.

All too soon the week was at an end and our last day arrived where we cut free our charges and see them off on their own. Some who were unsure, or felt that the reassurance of an instructor was what they required stayed with the instructor for the final day of sight seeing and really top skiing. As with all military exercises, the Chief Instructor always books groups in at the end of the day to ensure they are all off the mountain! Today was no exception but as the last lift closed we became aware that one instructor and eight little ducks were astray. Why does it always happen on the last day! However, a few phone calls soon located them, ……………. In the next valley with all the lifts closed! The military machine immediately swung into action and soon they were being brought back to the fold at the cost of many beers and a very red faced instructor.

The next day was pack up, hand in equipment, and head for home with many tales to tell families and friends. Without a doubt this has been a cracking trip with much achieved and learned. It just remains to thank all those who helped put this together financially, not least the Ulysses Trust, for without their help many young soldiers could never experience what they have over the last 9 days. Thank You!

With thanks to:

Ulysses Trust

In partnership with:

Nuffield Trust