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 Ulysses Trust supported the following stages of Exercise Diamond Rock:
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’.
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.