Biking Rock 2017

Inspired by the renowned and record-breaking British Adventurer Mark Beaumont, approximately 200 members from across the RAF Regiment celebrated the Corps’ 75th Anniversary by ‘getting stuck in’ to a series of demanding expeditions that have visited 17 countries, 4 continents, 2 of the world’s greatest mountains and criss-crossed the Atlantic 4 times under the banner of Exercise Diamond Rock. The stats were impressive: the teams cycled well over 10,000km through the Rockies, the Great Divide, Central and Southern America, gaining 127km in altitude on their bikes, climbed to 6,195m and 5,600m in harsh mountain conditions, and sailed 23,000nm.  It was an awe-inspiring year of good old-fashioned adventure.

Exercise Diamond Rock’s aim was to mark the RAF Regiment’s anniversary in 2017, by providing a range of ambitious and demanding expeditions and re-enforce adventure through the controlled exposure to risk in a variety of challenging outdoor environments.  There were 14 legs to the exercise: 2 mountaineering legs climbing Denali (formerly Mt McKinley) in Alaska and Aconcagua in Argentina; 6 cycling legs, transiting from Canada to southern Chile; and 6 sailing legs, completing a figure of 8 around the Atlantic.

The first group left in May 2017 to attempt a summit of Denali, which, at 6194m (21,000 feet), is the highest mountain in North America and is one of the ‘7 summits’, the highest peaks in each continent.  The team, which included a Reservist, was exposed to extreme weather (-35 C) and climbed to 4,300m (14,200 feet) where a notional advanced basecamp was established.  Six expedition members progressed to a high camp at 5,200m (20,320 feet) before setting out to reach the summit at 6,195m (20,320 feet).  The team was entirely self-sufficient, carrying 3 weeks of food, camping and mountaineering equipment which was split between rucksacks and sledges.  Conditions on the mountain meant a lower than usual summit success (down to a quarter of its norm), and an unusually large number of climbers suffering from life-changing frostbite injuries.  That Diamond Rock had six people summit in such challenging weather was a tribute to the team’s preparation, training and leadership.

The second mountaineering leg deployed in January 2018 and saw a team of 10 Regular and Reservist personnel make an attempt on Mount Aconcagua in Argentina, which at 6,965m (22,865 feet), is the world’s highest mountain outside of the Himalayas.  For many, it was their first experience of extreme high-altitude mountaineering but weather and climatic conditions conspired against the team and they had to dig out of the snow covering their tents each morning.  The team waited at a camp at 5,600m (18,372 feet) for a weather window that never appeared and were forced by dwindling food supplies and time and the deep snow affecting routes to make the frustrating but inevitable decision to turn back from the summit.  Although a tough call, it was the right one and was whole-heartedly supported by all the team – the few individuals from other mountaineering teams who did attempt the summit went on to suffer frostbite or worse injuries.  Nevertheless, it was a fantastic experience, and all the team learned about high-altitude climbing and living, and a lot about themselves.

Biking Rock 2017

Banff In the Canadian Rockies provided an inspiring setting for the largest leg, which was designed to rotate several of the Regiment’s Reserve personnel through traditional Mountain Bike (MTB) training, albeit in the presence of 400kg brown bears, which did require some rapid route re-planning and good camp discipline!  The central location allowed the use of multiple linear and circular routes to exploit and develop the riders. This format attracted a broad range of MTB ability and experience from across the Whole Force; in total, 48 personnel took part in two 2-week expeditions, well out of the comfort zone and totally self-supported; nearly all of the RAF Regiment Reserve Squadrons were represented.  Dealing with uncertainty and mechanical, personnel and logistical issues, this was no walk in the park.  This was a highly successful expedition, delivering distributed training and providing a truly retention-positive activity.

After Canada, Diamond Rock broke new ground.  MTB touring is a perfect Adventure Training (AT) ‘vehicle’ (no pun intended), offering a different level of physical, technical, planning and logistical challenge as the teams would travel unsupported across demanding and varied terrain.  Teams would carry all that they need to sustain themselves, sometimes for days on end, and need to deal with uncertainty and mechanical, personnel or logistical issues as they arose.  Rather surprisingly, it is an activity that the military has had little to do with, until the Diamond Rock planning team started challenging pre-conceived ideas, obtained permission, developed a bespoke safety management plan and sought the appropriate equipment for this new venture.  The Diamond Rock MTB touring legs represented adventure activity at its purest; travelling independently and seeing and living in a country properly.

The MTB touring legs followed incredibly challenging, but truly outstanding journeys from Canada through the US on the Great Divide; 6 countries of Central America; Peru; Bolivia; Chile; and Argentina.  Teams of 8 rode through extremes of weather (heat in excess of 38 degrees, 98% humidity, raging sand storms and non-stop days of rain) amazing sunsets and film set worthy night skies, high altitudes and impassable landscape, taking in mountain ranges, glacial lakes, volcanoes and snow topped granite peaks, prairies, mud-slides, barren scrub land, salt flats, jungles and deserts. It is difficult to do these epic ventures justice.  Along the way, dynamic planning and risk management were required in order to deal with illnesses, altitude, mechanical problems, injury to and repatriation of personnel, international border crossings, currency exchanges, equipment and customs clearance issues.  All of these challenged the teams, but were issues that such expeditions were meant to be about, demanding flexibility, adaptability and planning on the hoof.

Early lessons were learned – often the hard way.  Perhaps the most important was the fact that the Service-provisioned rations allowance (known as CILOR) didn’t provide enough calories for high intensity AT activities and the team members all encountered significant weight loss and personal expense until additional expedition funds were made available.  We also suffered an extremely frustrating 10-day delay for a team as we waited for a critical spare part to be shipped from the UK and clear customs in Chile.  Different modes of transport were used, including buses, trucks, river boats, vans, ferries and cars, as the teams managed problems.  This didn’t diminish the AT challenge, but definitely enhanced the journey.  The people of all countries the teams visited were amazingly friendly and all too willing to help – none more so than in Argentina which surprised the team which was keeping a very low profile.

MTB touring through the Americas was always expected to be an adventure that involved isolation and many unknowns, but the members of the Diamond Rock legs that attempted it quickly learned that despite these significant challenges, the humanity and inquisitive nature of the local population means travel to such far flung places might well be challenging and adventurous, but is indeed possible and well-worth the effort.  This was captured perfectly by one of the leg leaders: ‘When the team arrived on the shores of Lake Titicaca, one man vowed never again to attach a bag to a perfectly good bike, another threw away his equipment and vowed never again to ride one, and yet, unanimously, we would not have changed a thing…for this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and an achievement of equal measure’.

From October 2017, and concurrent to the MTB legs, the Ocean Sailing element of Diamond Rock set off from the Joint Service Adventure Sail Training Centre on the 72 foot yacht Adventure of Hornet, starting an epic voyage that would criss-cross the Atlantic 4 times in a figure of eight.  The Six crews of 15 (including a number of reservists) would take in Grand Canaria, Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town, Salvador in North Brazil, and Antigua before heading back to the UK, it was always going to be an epic trip.

As with all ocean sailing, you are at the mercy of the weather and all of the crews experienced heavy weather and storms – notably Storm Ophelia which battered the UK in October, causing the crew to seek shelter in France soon after setting off!  The challenges and experiences were diverse: equatorial squalls and learning to appreciate the welcome warm rain and the free on-deck showers; favourable winds producing record speeds; line fishing and catching elusive tuna; ever-present ocean swells which began hampering even the most basic tasks from cooking to basic admin at a 30 degree pitch and the inevitable sea-sickness; and the heat and cramped spaces challenging the field trained crews skills and their senses of humour.  This was a sensational trip which saw Adventure battling the big swells and strong winds that many associate with ocean sailing but very few ever get the chance to experience in real life.

This type of ocean sailing – long legs unsupported in the shortest possible times – is normally only undertaken by professional ocean racing crews not novices who have undertaken intense but limited training.  The challenges for these young men were numerous and varied; from Force 8 storms battering the boat in the supposed calm of the Caribbean to the other extreme of trying to get a 57 ton boat moving without any wind and a temperamental engine. All of the legs reported that the experience was amazing, and whilst not all will sail again, visiting Brazil, South Africa and the West Indies has given the RAF Regiment a core of experienced sailors to continue the legacy of Diamond Rock for years to come.  No matter what the problem, the Regiment’s motto of Per Ardua – Through Adversity – is a worthy description of how the crews dealt with the challenge of trans-ocean sailing.

In sum, as a multi-activity, multi-phase, multi-country expedition, Diamond Rock has proven to be an ambitious, truly adventurous and challenging endeavour that has enhanced the personal resilience that military personnel require on operations, by developing self-reliance, fortitude, rigour, robustness, and initiative. It has re-introduced and highlighted to all RAF Regiment ranks the AT opportunities which the Service provides, after an extended period of commitment to deployed (and concurrent) operations.  It has also allowed us to integrate our Whole Force (Regular and Reserves) into cohesive teams, understanding a bit more about each other’s unique skills and strengths.  Finally, it has built a lasting legacy of experience and qualifications to ensure there is sufficient human capability to plan and conduct demanding AT pursuits into the future.

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With thanks to:

Ulysses Trust