Report written by Lt NJW Richmond C Coy 2 R IRISH
The aim of Joint Service Adventurous Training is set out as follows; “to promote, through the conduct of arduous outdoor activities with exposure to hardship and danger, the Army’s core values, leadership, teamwork and other qualities necessary to enhance the Operational effectiveness of all military personnel.” If you were to ask any of the 24 participants on 2 R IRISH’s recent expedition, EX SHAMROCK GLACIER, it would be difficult to find an individual who would deny its arduous physicality, hardship or indeed its benefits to the overall operational effectiveness of the group.
With the main body making the move out in an unprecedented civilian flight rather than the usual long drive from Belfast to destination, it was clear to all that this exercise was organised with its focus strongly set on training value. The main body’s experience of Chamonix, set in the shadows of the towering Mont Blanc Massif to its South East, ran from the evening of Saturday 20th August until the morning of Sunday 28th. The exercise participants were split into four groups, each group consisting of four or five persons and each working off an individual main events list, coordinating their movements and activities with great precision to maximise productivity. To use my own group as an example, Group 2, I can wholeheartedly say that each one of us were pushed beyond our comfort zones in one or more of the activities, with each of us overcoming individual anxiety and physical fatigue to complete each phase of training as a team.
Day one – Sunday 21st August
After a long day’s travel from Belfast to the picturesque Chamonix and a busy night’s administration in the tents, which were to be our homes for the week, Sunday held a relaxed but excited atmosphere. Awoken by the smell of breakfast, provided by our own Master Chef, the Exercise CQMS had already set about the task of distributing kit and equipment for those who needed it for the coming activities. After this, the group disembarked en masse to conduct a day’s trekking and acclimatise ourselves to the altitude and heat, which we so seldom experience in Northern Ireland. After all of this and a quick stop at a café on our return, it was back to basecamp, where we would prepare our kit for the slightly more arduous activities the following day.
Day two – Monday 22nd August
Group 2 rallied at breakfast full of energy as we made final amendments to our kit before setting off to our main effort of the week, ascending the side of Mont Blanc and traversing the “Mer de Glace” (Sea of Ice) glacier. Escorted by our guide, Guillaume, what began as a leisurely stroll with the comfortable weight of our daysacks, bearing all of the kit and equipment we would need for the glacier from crampons to ice axes, quickly developed into a tough, uphill slog. After around three hours of walking, we finally reached the point at which the glacier became apparent to see, stretching out into the distance bearing its namesake’s distinguishable frozen waves appearance. After having lunch on the glacier itself and meeting the other two guides, Edouard and Pierre, we quickly changed into our mountaineering boots fitted with crampons and began our lessons. We were shown how to walk on ice, climb vertical ice walls and even got a special lesson from Corporal Gary Baine (our very own climbing instructor) on how to ‘cool off’ as he took a quick and unplanned dip in the Mer de Glace glacier river, created from pure ice melt water!
After our Alpine Mountaineering lessons we began the long walk towards our refuge for the night perched on the top of a cliff in the distance, the Refuge du Requin (Hut). After another few hours of meandering up and around the visible crevasses, we were faced with the challenge of scaling the cliff face; the solution was slightly more popular with some than with others… around 300m of vertical ladders bolted to the rock. Ladders being climbed today by British Soldiers following in the footsteps of the French Resistance in the mid 1940s during their defense of the region against the German Bergsjaeger mountain troops. After another hour of tightly gripping to the ladders we made our final ascent for the day on foot and enjoyed a well-deserved sit-down in the hut. Before bed, we received a quick walk-through, talk-through of using our high altitude cooking equipment to prepare our 24 hour ration pack meals.
Day three – Tuesday 23rd August
After a much needed sleep and stretch out in the morning, we reattached our crampons and continued to our final ascent to the top of Glacier du Tacul, situated high above the Refuge du Requin with outstanding views of the Mer de Glace to our rear and the Aiguille du Midi tower just visible to our front. On a flat part of the glacier Guillaume, Edouard and Pierre imparted their hard earned experience, delivering an introductory lesson on how to rescue a climber from a crevasse, which was technical and very interesting. When the lesson finished and just before we commenced our long descent back to the refuge, we took the obligatory pictures with our 2nd Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment flag. Back at the refuge we re-organized our groups and braced ourselves mentally and physically for the inevitable descent down to the glacier using the fixed Via Ferrata ladders. Again once we reached the mid-point of our return leg, The Montenvers Hotel, visiting the site of a famous WWII French Resistance photograph taken on the veranda, where we attempted to re-created the shot much to the humour of the tourist onlookers. Winding forest tracks led us back down the final leg of our expedition, to our temporary accommodation at the Mer de Glace Campsite in Chamonix. Many were relieved to finally reach the comfort of their camp beds; many others entertained themselves by telling horror stories to the group currently preparing for their own ascent the next day, but everyone enjoyed the hot meal prepared for our arrival and the long, deep sleep that followed.
Day four – Wednesday 24th August
With an ever so slightly envious look, the next group departed the campsite for their own glacier expedition whilst Group 2 enjoyed the comfort of their sleeping bags for another few moments. After a quick kit and administration check, we departed once more for a day’s trekking, this time to the eastern side of the Chamonix valley. Passing the infamous Chamonix luge on our ascent; some expressed their anticipation of descending by what seemed to be a much more efficient means of transport. Experiencing heat unheard of in Northern Ireland the climb was at times uncomfortable but this was rectified by a quick break for refreshments on the descent.
Day five – Thursday 25th August
Waking in our tents to the smell of a hot breakfast was made sweeter with the knowledge that our comrades were currently enjoying their 24hour ration pack meals high up on the glacier and knowing that they faced the challenge of descending the ladders on their return leg.
Today we were to try something completely new to many of the group, rock climbing. Beginning with the basics; climbing calls, basic movement techniques and an introduction to the kit and equipment we were to use, we quickly ascended the ‘beginner’ climbs and began to turn our eyes towards the higher perches and possible overhangs as anxiety was replaced with competitiveness. After a quick coffee and lunch break, we returned to the now hot-to-touch crag for one final climb, the big one. A select team consisting of the exercise leader, myself and George Mckenzie took the challenge of a 60m, multi-pitch climb. This meant that, due to its height and the length of our designated climbing ropes, the climb had to be completed in several pitches, making safe and assessing the next route at each point. With varying levels of ability between the select group, with myself being the most novice, we finally completed the climb and discussed how best to return our feet to firm ground. A quick lesson and kit change later and George and I completed our first abseil the whole way to the bottom of the cliff. Returning to the campsite, a jubilant mood was almost tangible as both groups had now successfully completed their respective glacier expeditions and looked forward to the final activities to be completed in the morning.
Day six – Friday 26th August
Again divided into two groups, we set out for our respective activities with anticipation, my own group on our way to the white water rafting centre in nearby Passy. Once suited and booted in some questionably tight fitting wetsuits, we received a quick safety brief and introduction to our two-man rafts before we set off on what seemed to be quite a timid river. Our opinions quickly changed after meeting the first set of rapids and a few accidental capsize drill rehearsals! A few rapids more, and as the waters relaxed, so did the atmosphere… this however was a mistake as some unsuspecting raft teams experienced the full force of ‘Lieutenant Jack Sparrow’s’ boat-hopping and commandeering skills!
Once all dried off and returned to some more casually fitting clothes, we jumped back into the transport and headed back towards our final planned activity of the week, mountain biking at Le Tour. First practicing on a combination of blue and green trails, a portion of the group dared to try a red, which, by all accounts, truly tested the old saying that “it’s like riding a bike” as some struggled to stay attached to theirs. After this was complete, we cycled the bicycles back to the shop we hired them from and began the most testing activity of the week; getting ready to go out for a meal!
Day seven – Saturday 27th August
Again awakening to the smell of cooked breakfast, many began to pre-emptively miss their bed space and morning routine which had become second nature during the expedition. This morning was to be filled, not with adventurous training, rather administration and the recovery of kit and equipment. Once complete, and our daypacks considerably lighter, the day was our own to enjoy as we will, giving the group an opportunity to explore Chamonix and all it has to offer. Some ventured to race one another on the luge, others posed for photographs to send to those at home but what was consistent was the definite feeling of shared accomplishment and unity amongst the group.
No written report could possibly convey the experiences that myself or the rest of the group were lucky to have on this expedition, nor could they convey the thanks and gratitude that we all feel for those that enabled this all to go ahead. From the organisers, the administration staff to the countless helpful individuals along the way, but most importantly the exercise owes its success to the groups that gave their time and support to ensure we had the best time and received the best training possible. Without the Ulysses Trust’s generous donation to our exercise, we simply would not have been able to avail of the instruction and company of the French Alpine Mountain Guides who ensured that our safety and learning whilst on the glacier was faultless. Besides sharing our experiences with you, the only other way that we could begin to repay your generosity is by recommending a trip to Chamonix to experience the area for anyone who has not already, and, even if you have, you probably don’t need much motivation to return! Thanks again to the team at the Ulysses Trust for your support!