A Troop Royal Artillery
Glasgow & Lanarkshire Battalion ACF
Downhill Skiing, Alpe d’Huez, France January 2019
The record-breaking heat of summer 2018 was a hazy memory at 0430 hrs on Saturday 5 January 2019. 30 Cadets and 10 CFAVs of Glasgow & Lanarkshire Bn AFC gathered to reap the reward of 12 frenetic months of planning, fundraising, saving, begging, borrowing and fitness training! The excited crowd pulled on their bright orange Alpe d’Huez hoodies and boarded the transport to Glasgow Airport. Jet2 were flying us to Grenoble – and this was the first time some Cadets had been in an aeroplane.
The flight left on time, and after a couple of short hours and a little turbulence, we landed smoothly on the tiny runway of Grenoble. We learned that this airport only operates during the winter months as visitor numbers in the summer are insufficient to justify year-round opening.
Our French coach and driver were there to meet us and transported the excited group through some picturesque alpine scenery to our resort. The final 2km involved a hair-raising climb up the route which forms the closing leg of the famous Tour de France. 18 hairpin bends, each named after a winner of the famous Yellow Jersey. Not that all of the Cadets were interested – after all they were there to ski!
The hotel Vallée Blanche was a large, modern affair and we soon found we were sharing with 4 school parties from different parts of Scotland and England. Bunks were allocated, luggage unpacked, and then it was down to the serious business of fitting ski boots, skis, poles and helmets. All this work led to a queue of teenagers anxious for their first taste of French cuisine. Fortunately, it was thumbs up, and everyone crashed out in bed after an extremely long day.
Next morning, we woke to an incredible sunrise and found our village was sitting above the clouds which were gently floating in the valley below. Baguettes / pains au chocolat / cocoa-pops consumed and then it was time for kit check. “Helmet! Goggles! Gloves! Lift-pass! Sun cream! Skis! Poles!”
We gathered nervously at the ‘Lobster Pots’ – a system of 4-man cages which whisked everyone from the base station to the ski school. The French instructors divided us into groups according to experience. Two groups of complete beginners, one group of intermediates, one ‘advanced’ group, and the adults. Those with previous skiing experience slid away with gusto, keen to find their ski-legs again and prove that they hadn’t forgotten their skills. The main priority however was to give the novices intensive tuition and to prove that with the right attitude and determination, anyone can master the mountain and feel like James Bond escaping from the Russian agents in The Spy Who Loved Me …
… but back to reality, and the mandatory drills in snow plough techniques, how to get up after falling and how to sidestep back up the slope – over and over and over again. SMI Quin and SI O’Neill escorted the beginners to give extra advice and help pick up the fallers (only after they’d been photographed!). But their help wasn’t needed as an extraordinary scene unfolded. By the end of their first 2-hour lesson, every one of the beginners was vertical; starting, stopping, turning left and right, and able to handle a button tow!? This was impressive progress. On previous ski expeditions, new starters typically didn’t ‘get it’ until around Day 3. Who knows what made this bunch special, but in the afternoon, they had moved off the green slopes and were happily tackling the blues!
It was a weary party who were almost nodding off at the dinner table that evening. Bum-boarding had been penciled in as an evening activity, but with exhausted legs and extremely icy conditions, we opted for a quiet night in to explore the games and indoor activities provided by the hotel. All eyes were shut before lights out…..
Day 2 brought more impressive skiing from all groups. Back to the blue slopes for the beginners. More snow ploughing, more sidestepping! “Bend the knees! Keep your weight forward!” More slips, crashes and falls. The intermediates were working hard to prove they were ready for reds, and the advanced were champing at the bit to be let loose on some blacks! The adults were in constant conflict – the young SIs who were obsessed with recording the fastest speed on their Ski Apps; and those who “aren’t getting any younger”, and selected their preferred slope according to the quality of the café au lait served at the bottom J
The Cadets were once again tired little warriors on their way back to the hotel, but showers, good food and a visit to Spar to stock up on sweets brought them all back to life. The evening entertainment was karaoke, and a surprising level of talent emerged – and it wasn’t just the girls. Next stop the X Factor.
Overnight and into day 3 saw a deterioration in conditions. Gone was the bright sunshine, replaced by thick cloud and a windchill factor which took the temperature down to -10 degrees. The snowfall was welcome however as it brought soft, deep powder which gave the Cadets the chance to experience different conditions and new techniques. The French instructors led their groups through the pristine blankets of deep snow, and the resulting collisions and wipeouts brought much hilarity.
The après-ski activity that evening was a trip on the Luge – individual carts which were hauled up the mountain and were then released down a railed track, twisting and turning at speed. Great fun and a new experience for everyone.
Into the second half of the week the sunshine returned, and each day brought further improvements in the confidence and competence of our skiers. Any fears of falling were gone, and a strong competitive element took over. The beginners began to count their falls to see who was best at staying upright. The intermediate and advanced Cadets skied faster, higher and further, making the most of the impressive lift network to explore new pistes. They were also actively seeking out those humps and bumps to see who could pull off the most spectacular jump. The adults maintained their reputations, although SI O’Neill’s pride took a knock when he accidentally lost control and sent Capt Stirling into a 360. It was caught on the Go-Pro and we hope to win some cash towards next year’s trip by entering it to “You’ve Been Framed”!
Over the final 2 days the improvement in the competence of all of the Cadets was clear to see. Early rise and a substantial breakfast? Done! Correct kit gathered and everyone ready on time? Certainly! Warm up exercises done prior to the start of lessons? Obviously! A full day of fun skiing, thrills and spills and absolutely no moanin’ or greetin’? That’s the A Troop way! The French instructors were impressed with each and every Cadet and complemented them on their attitude, determination and stamina. On the final evening they gave individual feedback to each skier and presented the Cadets with log books documenting their achievements. Hugs and kisses on both cheeks (that’s the French way!) and a few tears were shed. No one was quite sure which was worse – no more skiing, or the thought of school on Monday??
What a fantastic week it was. Amazing snow, great instructors, superb skiing, French cuisine and culture, rounded off with a fun apres-ski programme – karaoke, high-wire course, disco, and LOTS of hot chocolate.
“What do you think of skiing, then?”
“Amazing! Can I go again next year?”
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done in Cadets!”
“I’m going to ski every year for the rest of my life!”
So everyone agreed that the trip was a tremendous success. However, we couldn’t have got there without the support of parents, family and friends who contributed to our fundraising activities, and the management of B&M for allowing us to bag pack in their stores. We would also like to express our sincere gratitude to the Ulysses Trust for their most generous grant, and to Lt Col Dougie Peters, Adventurous Training Group (Army), for his invaluable support and advice.