On a gloomy afternoon on 6 December, after many months of preparation and anticipation, the 2019-20 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh Alpine Ski Team assembled on the parade square of Lucknow Barracks. We eagerly loaded seemingly endless pairs of skis, poles, ski maintenance equipment and bags into the vehicles and set off on the long drive to the skiing mecca that is Val d’Isere, France. This season the team was comprised of six novices and two experienced skiers so the majority of the team were unsure of exactly what to expect on their arrival.
We departed at 1600hrs with Fus Jones 37 and Sgt Jones taking the first shift behind the wheel to the Euro tunnel at Folkestone. We arrived on the continent just after midnight when Fus Palmer and Fus Crook took over driving duties and we began the long drive South to the Alps. After several rotations through driving and many coffee stops, we arrived in Val d’Isere at about 1300 on 7 Dec, settled into our accommodation and kitted the team out with their skis, boots and poles. Our novices spent the evening watching ‘how to ski’ videos online and wondering how their first day with a French ski instructor would go. Unfortunately, the team would learn the risks involved with skiing from Cpl Jones who ended up visiting the med centre and hospital after the first hour of skiing with a dislocated thumb, a bloody nose and a concussion.
For the next few weeks, we remained injury free and the team thoroughly enjoyed the steep learning curve implemented by their respective ski instructors whose challenge it was to take a group of enthusiastic novices from beginner to race training in a remarkably short period of time. For the next two weeks an intensive and physically demanding programme of ski training, beginning at 0800 and rarely finishing before 1600, took all novice skiers from the basics of the snow plough through parallel turns and, for some, onto carving. Those of us with previous experience who turned up thinking we were good skiers spent that time re-evaluating the level of skill we thought we possessed as we had our technique meticulously picked apart!
Before we knew it we were into gate training and, for the first time for all of us, we had a chance to tackle the technical demands of Slalom and Giant Slalom before later getting to grips with the speed events, Super G and Downhill. For gate training we commuted to Tignes, and by commute, I mean we enjoyed an early morning ski on empty pistes’ taking the opportunity to warm up our legs and implement the techniques our instructors had impressed on us the previous day. Unfortunately, during this training week, we were reminded again of the dangers of skiing when Fus Palmer was stretchered from the mountain and returned home with a knee injury.
On return from a few well-earned days of Christmas leave, which saw most take the opportunity to spend Christmas with family, we were straight back into gate training and now looking forward to race week in the New Year. Happily, this period was punctuated by a fancy-dress Dual Slalom knock out competition in which 1 R WELSH put in a respectable performance, by progressing to the quarter finals out of some forty teams.
After the effects of New Year’s Eve had worn off and we had found our ski legs again, we were into race week. The team, now made up of six competitors, was divided into the A Hill and the B Hill based on their timed performances from gate training. The racing began with Giant Slalom on both hills to give racers a seeding and to put them into a start order for the following race. Having seeded fairly low down initially on the B Hill both Fus Lewis and Fus Crook consistently beat their bib numbers and steadily rose up the rankings throughout the week. On the A Hill, I just about managed to stay in the top 30 while Sgt Jones, Fus Jones 75 and Fus Jones 37 put in some very respectable performances in the Super G and Downhill. These are the two speed events which take significant courage and commitment to tackle, especially as a novice.
Come the end of the week all members of the team had put in great performances, an enormous amount of effort and had spent the majority of their time on skis pushing past their comfort zone. Almost all team members finished the week ahead of their starting bib number while I was thrilled to creep into the top 20.
As Sgt Jones disappeared back to Tidworth to prepare for the battalion’s deployment to Germany, the remaining five of us packed up and headed to Les Contamines-Montjoie for Ex PIPEDOWN, the Divisional Championship where we would compete with skiers from an Army wide range of cap badges. Here the courses were longer, more challenging and the B Hill skiers in Val d’Isere had their opportunity to compete in the Super G and Downhill which Fus Jones 37 described in the finish area as one “hell of an adrenaline rush”! Once again, all four novices stepped into the start gate for each race and threw everything they had at the course. During one race, Fus Crook fell four times and twice lost a ski but got back up every time climbed back up the hill and carried on. If that isn’t grit and determination then I don’t know what is. At the final prize giving, Fus Jones 37 was presented with a cowbell by the mayor of Les Contamines for ‘Best Endeavour on the Downhill’ for. In the start referee’s words he was, “the novice who most fearlessly threw himself into the Downhill course”. I was thrilled at that point to find out I’d qualified for the Army Championships in Serre Chevalier and would be sticking around in France for another 10 days to ski with the Infantry Alpine Ski Team.
Once again, the courses became even longer and more challenging. The Giant Slalom courses, for example, were another thirty gates longer than the courses we had experienced in Val d'Isere and now presented an even greater physical challenge. I placed 48th in this event which I was extremely happily with and was looking forward to the rest of the week. Unfortunately, what followed was a frustrating two days of Slalom followed by a shoulder injury sustained during some speed training which prevented me from competing in the Super G and the Downhill. Despite the obvious disappointment with my injury, it was a great experience to represent the 1st Battalion the Royal Welsh at the Army Championships. Equally, our novice skiers had thrown themselves into an enormously challenging two months learning, from scratch, how to slide down a mountain with two planks of wood strapped to their feet. From novice to racer they all did brilliantly, made the most of a fantastic opportunity and plan to pursue skiing in the future.