Exercise Vixen Eagle
Early on a cold January Saturday morning 8 personnel from RAF Benson departed for Bavaria for a week of Nordic skiing.
Although some had Alpine skied before, that wouldn’t help much with the unfamiliar variant of Nordic Skiing.
The journey took us to Stansted, then via a short flight to Memmingen, and finally a coach trip onto our end destination. As we pulled up in the coach the conditions looked promising for a week of skiing, as everywhere you looked was white with a fairly heavy snowfall.
The Exercise takes place in the small German town of Zwiesel located in the South East of the country and close to the border with the Czech Republic. We were accommodated in very comfortable 6 person chalets, and were self-sufficient for the duration of the exercise. As we had arrived for the second of the 2 weeks skiing, the Instructor and Staff team were all ready to meet us on arrival.
The first evening was our own, with briefs and kitting starting the next morning, leading into skiing in the afternoon. Our skis, boots and poles are all hired on site so the only thing needed to be brought was clothing – most of which can be borrowed from the PEd Flight. Layering is preferred because although you can be skiing in cold conditions, you quickly get warm due to the physical nature of Nordic skiing.
Everyone was looking forward to getting onto the skis and meeting our instructors and groups whom we would be spending the majority of the following week with. Sunday afternoon’s skiing took place only a couple of hundred metres away from the chalets. As none of us had done it before we were all placed into beginner groups with the end goal of completing the Nordic Foundation 1 Qualification or Bronze award on the German scheme.
Our mixture of British and German instructors were patient with us all as we did our best Bambi impressions whilst trying to pickup the basics. The techniques of the herringbone, double poling, half-snow plough and track changes were practised repeatedly as they are the fundamentals of Nordic skiing, and being able to do these would stand us in good stead for the rest of the week. The majority of Nordic skiing takes place in tracks which allows lots of people to be on the slope at the same time.
As there are miles and miles of these tracks around Bavaria, as this makes Nordic skiing a useful skill allowing a person to move from town to town and even country to country. After 4 hours of practice and post the students’ introduction to the lesser known ‘fall on your backside’ technique, we called it a day ready to hit some larger routes the next day.
On Monday we travelled about 15 minutes by coach to near the Czech border, and after a morning of practising the fundamentals, we complete a 9km route, which took us to the Czech Border. The weather was still pretty poor at this point with less than a kilometre’s visibility, so although the sights were pretty impressive we’re certain there was much more to come. The cold temperatures allowed for the best skiing conditions we would see during the week.
By the end of the second day most people were getting to grips with it, and whilst burning a good 4000 calories a day people had no trouble getting to sleep! Another coach trip on the Tuesday morning took us to a busier public slope where we would spend the rest of the week. All of the groups went their separate ways, and with a maximum visibility of 200 metres we were lucky to see our own groups never mind others! Some even appeared to miss the locals but got to know them very well when their skis met on the tracks; we all very quickly learnt the German translation for ‘I’m sorry’ (‘Es tut mir leid’ if you were wondering).
These conditions are where teamwork really comes into play, and good communication between team members was really essential for teams to stay together. Longer routes with trickier terrain were conquered by all; we were even introduced to ‘carnage corner’ where many a person (locals included) would take a tumble; fortunately the only injuries suffered were dented pride and bruised egos. The Wednesday was used as a bit of a rest day (only 3700 calories burned) due to the plan to reach the summit of the Arber on Thursday, which stands at 1456m tall (over 100m higher than Ben Nevis).
The weather improved and the temperature rose above freezing, as a result of which the snow started to melt making going uphill and stopping much more difficult, and presented us all with a new challenge just as we thought we had cracked it.
Each week of the exercise 20 individuals are invited to a small reception in the local town to celebrate the relationship between Zwiesel and the Royal Air Force. This year is the 25th Anniversary of that relationship and coupled with RAF100 celebrations a huge event was hosted for all 90 students plus instructors and locals in the perfect location of a cellar of the local brewery for a 3 course meal and a tiny indulgence in the Dampfbier.
All raring to go, we all started Thursday off keenly with one thing on our minds, defeating the Arber. This was no easy feat climbing uphill in melting snow with the final climb particularly steep and icy, so much so the chief instructor made the call that particular part was too dangerous for a descent on skis so we made that part of the journey on foot.
The top of the Arber was a sight to behold and was most certainly the highlight for all of the students on their first visit. Although we had been plagued with poor visibility at the start of the week, the weather improved and the skies were as clear as you would see anywhere. From our elevated position we could see into the Czech Republic, the Alps and all the local towns. The atmosphere was electric with the sense of pride and realisation of what we had achieved. A lunch stop allowed us to take it all in and quickly recharge the batteries before we headed down.
Friday was our final day on the slopes and the day we would all put our speed and stamina into practice with an individual time trial followed by an Interstation relay. The time trial was a 3km route which took around 20 mins to complete; this was quite a gruelling route and everybody, regardless of ability and fitness levels gave it their best effort. In great tradition the last person over the line received a much larger ovation than the first. After a quick rest it was onto the Team Relay, the mood being slightly more jovial for this one. Benson were the only station to enter 2 teams for this race and although we didn’t win, we produced moments of hilarity when crashing into the person in front on the final straight and losing a ski on the final corner. If you can’t be good, be funny! After a week of very hard work it seemed a fitting way to end it with a bit of a fun.
That night was our final one and we had an awards ceremony. Schnitzel and chips was the food of choice and helped to curb very healthy appetites after a week of physical exertion.RAF Benson had 1 medal winner for the fastest skier in his group, the rest of team Benson were so proud (jealous) they forced him to wear it all the way back to Benson the following day. Everybody on the Exercise (barring an injury or 2) reached the required standard for their desired test. People collecting their gold award after at least 3 years of hard work were clearly emotional and proud of their achievements. The ceremony wrapped up the whole exercise and was a great way of ending an excellent week.
Over half of the Eagles schemes have been ended due to funding issues however Vixen Eagle is still going strong. It is the very definition of Adventurous Training as it pushes you to your physical limits to make you achieve something to be proud of. You build bonds, not only on the slopes but in the chalet where everybody shares the cooking, the washing up and cleaning. It will push your boundaries, make you fitter and teach you how to Nordic Ski, all whilst having a great time! The best way not to lose opportunities like this, is to use them and take full advantage of what it offers. I hope to return to Zwiesel next year and hopefully I will see you there!
Sgt Russ Vickers, A Flt 33 Sqn