HARTFORD, Conn. –
One of the biggest, and often overlooked, perks of serving in the United States military is the ability to travel the world, experience new and different cultures, and work with people from our ally and partner nations around the globe. For Connecticut National Guard Capt. Scott Stone, an infantry officer with 1-102nd Infantry Regiment and high school lacrosse coach, his latest Army adventure takes him to – or should we say back to – the Tyrol region of the Austrian Alps where he and seven other soldiers are representing the United States in the 2023 Edelweiss Raid.
Known in Europe as the “unofficial world championship of military mountaineering”, the Edelweiss Raid takes military teams of eight personnel, drops them into one of the most austere mountain terrains in the world, and pits them against each other in a two-day endurance test sprinkled with mountain warfare skills.
“So, we all pretty much call it ‘type two fun’ which is basically, that it’s not ‘haha we’re all having a good time fun’ but it’s one of things that once you’re done with it, it’s a really awesome experience,” said Stone.
The entire race covers more than forty kilometers of rugged mountainous terrain with more than 4,000 meters of elevation gain. All the while, they’re racing the clock to complete tasks such as avalanche search and rescue, rappelling, high-angle shooting, land navigation, casualty evacuation, and more – all on skis. This definitely isn’t your traditional best warrior competition.
“During the race, it’s certainly challenging; your heart rate’s up, you’re moving pretty quickly through two pretty full days,” said Stone. “So, it’s a lot of hard work; it requires a lot of preparation; it requires a lot of planning as you’re going through on how you’re going to manage your water and food intake and manage your output to make sure you can get through the whole thing.”
This is Stone’s second Edelweiss Raid. His first, and the team’s first, came back in 2019 where they finished thirteenth out of twenty-three teams. While this may not seem like the most impressive placement, it’s actually quite remarkable as, prior to this, no other team in the history of the event had ever finished the race in their first year.
“Our big claim to fame last time was that we’re the first team ever to complete the race on their first attempt, first time competitors don’t usually finish,” said Stone. “What that ultimately means is that if any one member of your team drops out for some reason, then you don’t get to finish as a team.”
For the 2023 race, it’s Stone’s personal goal to try and help the team break into the top ten. It won’t be an easy goal because, as Stone admits, they’re competing against soldiers are the absolute very best in military mountaineering. And while helping increase his team’s position on the leaderboard would be an achievement he’d be proud to bring home with him, he understands his team isn’t the only one that’s been practicing and the competition is only going to be more difficult than it was in 2019.
“[finishing in the top ten] would give us a lot of confidence as a team that we’re on the right path as far as this competition and hopefully can turn that into being on the right path, generally, as a military mountaineering force,” said Stone. “We like to think, as American soldiers, that we kind of do everything the best – and I think we do a lot of things really, really well – but when it comes to fighting in the mountains, those guys that are over there, living it and doing it all the time, are just the best in the world. So, the closer we can get to our NATO partners there and the mountain warfare proficiency they have, the better off we’re going to be.”
The U.S. Edelweiss Raid team consists mostly of soldiers from the 86th Infantry Brigade (Mountain) and the Army Mountain Warfare School. One of the unique qualities of this team is that it’s 100-percent made up of National Guardsmen which provides several advantages and challenges for the team. Those advantages being a wide swath of both military and civilian skills to include former college cross-country skiers, an Army biathlon team coach, a former Olympian, and more.
The flip side to that coin, however, is the fact that few members of the team live close to one another. Although most of the team belong to units that fall under the 86th, that brigade has units throughout New England and as far away as Colorado. One team member was even stationed out in Alaska, according to Stone.
“That is one of the bigger challenges for us, getting everyone together,” said Stone. “One, from a technical standpoint just to build those systems we’re going to use to be successful but also from a team camaraderie standpoint, building the trust that we’re going to need to be successful out there.”
To overcome this difficulty, the team leaders out of the Mountain Warfare school devised a training regiment for each of the team members to execute on their own.
“Major Fry and Sergeant Mclaughlin, who are kind of running this whole thing from up in Vermont, developed a pretty solid training plan for everyone that they can execute on their own, cardio fitness being the most important thing – that’s where you’re going to make up most of your time,” said Stone. “We have gotten together a couple of times, go up to Vermont and we’ll train together, do some ski touring together, work on the systems a little bit, but that’s really just a refresher to work some things out.”
The team’s training method relies heavily on trust and personal accountability. If the 2019 results prove anything, it’s that these soldiers have the drive and initiative to do whatever it takes to succeed on this global stage. But things in 2023 are not the same as they were in 2019.
For starters, the original team came to fruition after Major Fry, who was the Mountain Warfare School operations officer at the time, sent an email to request volunteers to join the team. Stone wasn’t on that original email distribution list, but some of those who were knew of his passion for alpine skiing and told him he should consider joining. Which he did.
“It was one of the luckiest things that I think has ever happened to me,” Stone said. Training for the Edelweiss Raid wasn’t easy for him, however. As a former football and lacrosse player, Stone’s workout regimen revolved mostly around lifting weights and gaining muscle. But in order to be successful in the Alps, he needed to rethink his approach to fitness.
“Training for a multi-day endurance event is very different than training for those sports and it’s different than training for your [Army Combat Fitness test],” said Stone. “It very much opened my eyes to a whole new way of training.”
The team’s training also paid off with the aforementioned historical first-time completion of the event. The success of the 2019 team also sparked interest in the event from a wider population of soldiers, leading to the need for a tryout for the 2023 team.
“They came up with a point system based on different qualifications that guys already have, their skiing experience, previous Edelweiss experience was weighed pretty heavily … and just the physical tryout for it, just making sure that guys were in the cardiovascular shape to compete,” said Stone, also mentioning the big event for the cardiovascular test was a run up the Toll Road in Stowe, Vermont. “It’s just about hardest three-and-a-half mile run you’ll ever do.”
This year, with a better understanding on the event and the terrain the soldiers will be competing in, the team is pulling out all the stops to get ready. The team traveled to Austria about ten days prior to the start of the event so the soldiers could climatize to the weather and get some additional time to practice together as a team before the event begins.
While the team hopes their hard work will pay off on the scoreboard, the bigger prize is getting to meet and work with allies and partners to increase the relationships between nations and experience customs that are not common in the United States. Professional growth aside, the opportunity also allows Stone and his team to broaden their personal horizons by being introduced to new customs and cultures.
“The Austrians do an awesome job hosting the event, bringing everyone together,” said Stone. “There’s a great dinner and party after the race finishes where everyone’s together and there’s a lot of opportunities to talk with people from other countries, exchange patches, share customs, things like that. We all have a really great time that night; it’s a really awesome opportunity to see that we’re all working toward the same goal, we’re all on the same team, even if we don’t get to see each other very frequently.”
To hear the full interview with Capt. Stone, check out the Stand Guard Podcast, an official production of the Connecticut National Guard, available wherever you listen to your podcasts.