Challenging, isolating and inspiring, ski touring offers a unique way of exploring the mountains. Such exploration was one of the main aims of Oxford UOTC’s Exercise Blue Tour, a seven-day ski tour through the Italian Adamello and Ortler Alps.
The group of eight Officer Cadets met in Oxford on 27th March 2014 and, having been issued everything from suncream and foot tape to crampons and ice axes, we squeezed into the minibus and headed for Folkestone. After catching the train under the Channel, we continued south, through France and Switzerland and on into northern Italy. It was dark by the time we turned off into Temu (just south of Ponte di Legno) and pulled up outside the ski chalet that would be home for the next couple of days. It had been a long journey, but we were all excited to have arrived and eager to begin skiing.
The aims of the expedition were twofold. The initial focus was on learning the basics of ski touring and mountaineering; although we had all skied to competent levels previously, most were new to the gentle dragging of skis up steep slopes that characterises touring. Fortunately, we were blessed with three highly talented and experienced guides in the form of Captain Tania Noakes (IFMGA) and two members of the Italian Alpini, Giovanni Murer and Luca Dei Cas. The local knowledge the latter provided was invaluable and this relationship between the British and Italian Armies proved to be hugely productive over the course of the exercise.
Secondly, the exercise was aiming to incorporate an element of battlefield study by following the ‘Italian Front,’ the front line between the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies during the First World War. Although a number of us had read Mark Thompson’s ‘The White War’ prior to the expedition, it was still a shock to experience the hostility of the terrain first hand. In truly horrific conditions more than one million soldiers gave their lives for a mere 12 miles of territory. Our tour made us fully appreciate the difficulties of fighting in such an environment and the logistical and tactical limitations that it would have imposed. Indeed, in Temu’s excellent ‘White War Museum’ we learned that no fewer than seven men were required to supply rations, equipment and weaponry to each soldier in the mountain trenches. We also discovered how ill equipped the Italian army was for this style of mountainous warfare; one report described the green tinted glasses issued to the mules (to prevent sun blindness) that convinced them that the snow was grass. Many died of malnutrition after trying to eat the snow.
The route of the tour had been chosen to include several landmarks from the war. For example, our third day began with the ascent of Cresta Croce ( 3,315m), a steep pyramidal peak that had been the site of an Italian cannon emplacement. One large gun remains and it was immediately obvious how it had taken over three months to haul it into position; such was the gradient and exposure that we made the final precarious steps to the summit with our skis strapped to our backs and ices axes in hand. This was a sobering experience and made all of us realise the true horror of fighting in such terrain. Despite modern equipment and light rucksacks (and not needing to keep our heads down to dodge enemy bullets), we had struggled up the fairly small peak and could only imagine doing so as malnourished soldiers burdened with a heavy weapons and inappropriate uniforms.
Over the seven days of touring the group climbed four other 3000m peaks. The physical (and possibly emotional!) high point of the tour was reached on the penultimate day on the summit of Monte Cevedale (3,769m), the tallest mountain in the Trentino province. The next (final) morning brought with it our first fresh snow and gave us a chance to reflect on the significant progress we’d made over the seven days. An efficient 700m climb to a final precarious summit was rewarded with a perfect powder descent, allowing us to put all our new skills to good use and revel in our newfound confidence.
There were justifiably wide and very contented smiles all round when we reached the minibus. All eight OCdts had received an excellent education in the horrors of the Italian Front, developed hugely as skiers and mountaineers and returned to the UK with either a SF2 or SF3 qualification. However, none of this would have been possible without the very generous support of the Ullysses Trust, and for this the whole group is deeply grateful. The exercise was a great success and I hope that Oxford UOTC will be able to continue to offer such excellent training opportunities long into the future.
OCdt Hector Alexander