Exercise BOLIVIAN VENTURE 2014 (BV14) was a major high altitude expedition to the Northern Cordillera Apolobamba region of Bolivia and Peru. The expedition took place during the period 3 – 26 June 14 and consisted of twenty-eight personnel broken down into a trekking team of seven and a mountaineering team of twenty-one. Both teams were made up from a small pool of experienced instructors and a large proportion of novice personnel from both the RAF and RAF Reserves. The expedition was facilitated by the Royal Air Force Mountaineering Association (RAFMA).
The aim of BV14 was to contribute to the development of Service personnel through the participation in challenging, physically demanding, extreme high altitude trekking and mountaineering activities in a remote location, thereby, enhancing their fitness, leadership, self-reliance, initiative, courage and team-work.
With such a large group of novices the initial challenge was to prepare everyone for operating in the alpine environment, this was conducted in the UK. Preparation began with training weekends in the Lake District and then Snowdonia followed by a week of operating safely in the Scottish winter hills using ice axes and crampons for the first time.
After the expedition arrived in Bolivia, the next and greatest challenge was acclimatisation as we landed at 3800 metres above sea level, equivalent to two and a half times the height of Ben Nevis. Headaches presented themselves to most of the team almost straight away. The expedition members soon realised that this was going to be a regular occurrence as once the headaches disappeared, we would move higher up and they would return once again.
The trekking team planned to circumvent the mountaineers in an eight day push but with the promise of a trek on the glacier if they arrived early they stepped out to complete the challenge in seven days. The mountaineering team set a reasonable challenge of three summits that were above 5500m. By the end of the expedition they had reached the top of eight peaks via eleven different routes, four of which were previously unrecorded. The mountain summits were all between 5600m and 6044m. In addition to the challenges set within the aim of the expedition, every member faced and overcame new challenges such as handling finance control, risk management and risk mitigation, logistical planning, maintenance of personal and team equipment and of course getting used to hunger.
Two RAF Reservists made up the expedition team; Fg Off Raphael Russell of 3 Air Experience Flight, an Alpine Mountaineering Leader and SAC Malcolm Burgess of No 612 (County of Aberdeen) Squadron. Fg Off Russell of 3 Air Experience Flight commented on his experiences, “the expedition provided numerous and fascinating challenges of which acclimatisation was, not unexpectedly, the biggest. Even after a couple of weeks once headaches and troubled sleep were over, I found it amusing to be out of breath after simply bending down to pick something up! Translating that disposition into load carrying up a glacier on tricky terrain, and you soon realise you have to have your wits about you. It’s no secret that good teamwork is fundamental to mountaineering but, at altitude and roped together on technical ascents, there is a good deal more for both the team and leader to consider. Even small problems could snowball into disaster. The enhanced responsibilities that high altitude mountaineering introduced greatly improved my capability, awareness and experience levels, and I’m truly grateful to the Ulysses Trust for supporting me.”
SAC Burgess of No 612 (Country of Aberdeen) Sqn reported “during the trek we were walking between 6 and 8 hours a day and en route we encountered many a curious llama and alpaca, ever present chinchillas, and on occasion, a majestic condor soaring in the thermals overhead – no doubt assessing our potential as a future meal. For most of us this was the most remote and wildest location we had ever encountered”.
Without doubt, the long hours of preparation before the deployed phase of the expedition and the commitment and hard work displayed in Bolivia and Peru all contributed to ensuring that BV14 was as successful as it was. “It doesn’t stop here” quoted the expedition leader Sqn Ldr Jonathon Percival. “We now need to maintain momentum with the development programme and look forward towards 2016 in order to fly the RAF ensign on the British Services Medical Research expedition to Nepal. Climbing above 8000m without oxygen is a serious objective and every opportunity must be grabbed to prepare for a strong and safe performance.”