By Captain Gary Peacock
Ex DRAGON EAGLE 16 is a 14 day Skiing ExPed in the Austria Alps for 58 members of 6 Regt Army Air Corps and attached Arms Ski Instructors, broken down into two, one week periods. Beginners, novices and experienced individuals have the opportunity to develop their knowledge of Alpine Skiing and Ski Touring on the challenging and rewarding terrain on the Stubaital Glacier, a twenty minute drive south west of the town of Neustift.
On Saturday 02 April 16 members of 6 AAC gathered together at their Sqn Army Reserve Centres to begin what was to be a memorable drive to Neustift, Austria, some thirty miles South West of Innsbruck. On arrival at the Schone Aussicht Apartments high on the slopes of Neustift, we were greeted by our host Howie, his wife Franziska and Capt Colin Jurgens with support from Major Bryan Jones and Capt Martin Walkinshaw, the three ‘snowboard cool dudes’ made our arrival a welcome sight after a very long drive. The apartments with en suite washrooms, adjoining kitchens and individual dining rooms are located in a three story wooden building overlooking the town, and are best described as the ideal Alpine lodge which has seen many years of hard winter weather and hot summers, making it an ideal location to explore the stunning mountains of the Austrian Alps. Outside the front door is a pine tree which extends to the height of the roof, and is used by the locals to judge the weather on the Glacier. If is swaying only slightly, then it is blowing a gale on top.
Capt Colin Jurgens AAC, the ExPed Officer, was keen to see us settle into a routine as soon as we arrived, with the mandatory arrival safety briefs out of the way we proceeded to the local ski hire store to be fitted with our boots, ski’s and warm clothing for the first week. Once fitted and ski passes issued we then had time to settle into our new accommodation, this was to be a trip to remember. The last six months of planning that had gone into this trip had paid off, with a smooth administrative process in place; the pressure was off for now to enjoy this great skiing experience. Howie and Franziska laid on a truly amazing evening meal to get us all settled in for our first night, and the food continued to be delicious for the next two weeks, supported by our delivery of HP Sauce from the UK which was by now in short supply in Howie kitchen.
Week one would see thirty one members of the unit broken down into ability groups. Beginners, under the guidance of LCpl Stewart Bottom RE would work towards their first Award of Ski Foundation Level 1 (SF1), and those with more experience conducting Ski Touring with WO1 Sean Carty REME and Lt Sam Smith AAC work towards the SF2 qualification. The more professional ‘Snow Boarders’ kept a watchful eye on our progress over the first week, and showed us how the world of snowboarding could be our next alpine challenge once we had mastered the ski’s. With ‘cool’ looks they showed off some slick moves on the slopes, and gained the odd bruise along the way.
Our first day was to see us drive through the Alpine valley to the ski resort of Stubaital Glacier passing through the well managed farmer’s field, steep sided pine forest passes, with melting ice waterfalls in hanging valleys. We passed the remains of a landslide from November 2015, which had engulfed the main link road to the Glacier and surrounding meadows. It had only taken the local authority’s days to reopen due to a mammoth task of clearing boulders the size of a 4 x 4 Jeep and rerouting the stream from the mountain side. Once aboard the ski lifts we heading up to Gamsgarten station at 2630 ft where we gathered to start our first day on what was to be a fine sunny first day. Gamsgarten Station Restaurant, Ski Shop, and Bar Area are the ideal location for adults and children alike to rest during the day. Those who were attending the SF2 training proceeded to the more challenging red slopes on the Stubaital Glacier to start there Ski Touring lessons. Avalanche rescue with transceivers, probes and shovels on the higher slopes, with a long ski touring approaches, was to see more physically demanding days ahead for this team. After evening meal, laid on by our host Howie and Fran, the evenings were set aside for teams to attend presentations, on mountain weather, cold weather injuries, equipment care, and avalanche awareness in preparation for the next day’s activity.
With the first few days under our belts, sore feet, bruised body’s and damaged egos we began to push ourselves on the more demanding slopes. The long gondola rides to the summit of “Jochdohle” at 3150m would see us start the long decent to Gamsgarten along wide blue routes with ample space to put long turns into practice, and see the occasional embarrassing fall to confirm we all were still learning our new skill. As teams stacked up after ten or so turns it would not be unusual to feel the crash of body’s as a member of our team would lose control and wipe us out, resulting in the falling domino effect on the slope. This was to be normal for our first few days as beginners, but this was to be short lived, as the confidence grew we pushed ourselves in all areas of skiing. It was with great delight to see the professional conduct of the local Austrian skiers, if someone fell over they would stop and ask if they were ok or needed help. This would be the same for our teams, but more often was accompanied by great outbursts of laughter and nomination for “Moose of the Mountain Award”.
As the first weeks skiing came to a close, the beginners group were tested on their new skills they had learnt that week, and with great pride they passed SF1, resulting in a light refreshment in the Umbrella Bar at the bottom station. The Intimidate and ski touring teams also expressed their jubilation at completing an exhilarating week of skiing, with outrageous stories of their time on the mountain slopes that final day. However, as with every evening briefing after dinner, the nomination for “Moose of the Mountain Award” would confirm the wild story’s to be true or not on a very open and non-biased voting means?
The start of week two saw twenty eager new faces ready to throw themselves into the “ski off” to see which group they will be in for the week. With five instructors now on the team, we were now able to achieve more with smaller classes. This was evident on day three when all the groups were able to attack red routes with confidence. Two intermediate groups join together to perform a human slalom on a blue route. The man over was to ski between each skier, who were in single file down the slopes, some ten meters apart. This gave skiers time to practice there long edging turns in a small space.
Intermediate groups continued to work hard on the red routes throughout the week. Teams were able to push their skills on black routes with small turns on the steep technical slopes to enabled skiers to build confidence, with longer gliding turns at speed. But, this did result in some spectacular falls. The slopes do not discriminate your skiing ability, with skiers and instructors alike falling in flamboyant style, resulting in a sympathetic assistance to gather the individual to their feet, and in good humour, fall around laughing at each other’s predicament.
As the final few days approached, team members encouraged each other to push themselves on the more technical slopes. Off piste skiing, alongside makes routes in newly formed deep powder snow was the order of the day, as beginners, intermediate and those who had completed their SF2 during the week, enjoyed this new experience in skiing. We drew powder snow skis from the hire shop, which are wider, to enable skiers to glide through the powder, but now a new style of skiing had to be taught. Leaning back in your boots enabled your forward edge of your skis a clear path through the powder snow. This was a new challenge that had gone against all we had been taught throughout the week of leaning forward on the clear open and well defined routes.