“I’m just lucky to be here.”
It was a thought that had crossed my mind repeatedly in the days leading up to the 2019 Edelweiss Raid.
Held in the Tyrol region of the Austrian Alps, I was incredibly fortunate to be selected to be among those vying for one of the eight spots on the first team to ever represent the U.S. at, “the unofficial world championship of military mountaineering.”
My competition was stiff: several instructors from the Army Mountain Warfare School, former college cross-country skiers, a coach from the Army Biathlon Team and a former Olympian, to name a few. I’m just an Infantry Officer that likes to ski, and I was extremely honored to be selected for this historic event.
The Edelweiss is an alpine flower that typically only grows in rocky terrain above 5,000 feet and has become a symbol of mountaineers around the world. This competition, the Edelweiss Raid, took over 200 military mountaineers from Europe and eight from North America into that extreme environment and put them to a grueling, two-day endurance test on a variety of tasks essential to mountain warfare.
As the plan for this historic first trip to the competition came together under the leadership of Maj. Nathan Fry Army Mountain Warfare School operations officer assigned to the Vermont National Guard, our goal become clear: finish.
This was easier said than done, however, as no first-time competitor in the event had ever completed the course which calls for over 40 kilometers of movement and more than 4,000 meters of elevation gain, all on skis.
The elite team that was chosen for the raid hails from all over the 86th Infantry Brigade, with representatives from units in Vermont, Colorado and Connecticut. Given the geographic dispersion of our personnel, a great deal of the training and preparation was done individually with only two collective train-ups conducted prior to boarding our flights to Austria. In addition to the endurance training required, there were many specific mountaineering tasks that had to be mastered.
Along the raid course, teams were required to demonstrate proficiency in avalanche search and rescue, rappelling, rope-team skiing, lowering a rescuer to a casualty, reconnaissance, construction and movement of a sled to pull heavy equipment, cold weather bivouac, high angle shooting, route planning, land navigation, evacuating a casualty down a mountain, hand grenade throwing and finally a, “quick march,” in which the time it took to move the final three kilometers of the course would be tripled.
Upon our arrival in Austria, we linked up with two members of the Austrian Mountain Warfare School who had previously completed the race. They offered us some insider advice on completing the tasks correctly and efficiently. The training opportunity proved invaluable, as it not only showed us new tactics, techniques and procedures, but gave us a chance to acclimate to the high alpine environment in which we would be operating.
Two days prior to the start of the race, the international community of military mountaineers began to arrive to the Austrian training area at Lizum-Walchen to make final preparations for the event. This active Austrian military base is nestled in the bottom of a, “bowl,” nearly 1000 meters high on all sides and is accessible only via a one-lane road in which tactical vehicles are required to use chains. It is one of the most beautiful places in the world but it is also the perfect environment for mountain warfare training and thus this competition.
On the morning of Feb. 27, the competition kicked off. A sprint start to the avalanche search area to locate and recover two of the beacons that would be required equipment for the rest of the race was followed by a long slow slog up nearly 900 meters to the top of Geier, the highest peak we would reach that day.
At this point, the top teams in the competition already began to separate themselves as they climbed away and out of sight.
The first technical task was the rappel and we quickly worked our way down the 15-meter cliff face under the guidance of Staff Sgt. Tim McLaughlin, an Army Mountain Warfare School instructor assigned to the Vermont Army National Guard. What followed was perhaps our best event: the roped ski. This is a technique that would be used to ensure safety when crossing a crevasse-laden glacier. It isn’t meant for speed. Despite that, and as a testament to American teamwork, we passed several other teams on the way down.
The remainder of the day was a grueling up-and-down test of endurance and mountaineering skill. We received a bit of extra motivation part of the way up our last big climb of day one when the U.S. Ambassador to Austria, Trevor Traina, greeted the team and offered his words of encouragement. We all very much appreciated the willingness of Mr. Traina and his delegation to make the trip to cheer us on.
Day one ended several hours later as we dragged our sled full of our overnight equipment uphill into the bivouac site after dark. Dehydrated, hungry and exhausted we began making camp with the assistance of the neighboring German team. The tents we were provided were Austrian issue and in the dark, in our exhausted state it is likely that it would have taken us hours to get them configured properly. We can’t thank that German team enough for their generosity.
Day two began promptly at 3:00 a.m. with breakfast before we broke down camp and moved to the start position. For about an hour, we climbed by the light of our headlamps until the sun rose over the Alps. It was a beautiful morning, but the day was just beginning. There were many miles and tasks to go.
The second day was slightly shorter in distance and elevation gain but required more technical skill. Following the high-angle shooting event in which our team was one of only two in the competition to hit all 16 of our targets, we began our biggest climb of the day, about 700 meters, to a very windy and exposed ridge.
The skis came off and we climbed utilizing fixed ropes and hasty rappels to move several kilometers along the ridgeline to our final technical tasks of the day, land navigation, casualty evacuation, hand grenades.
The team performed well at each of these events, given our wide variety of talent and experience, as well as our ability to make up for each other’s weaknesses. After throwing our last grenade, it was time for the three-kilometer, 400-meter climb to the finish: the quick march.
Speed was imperative here as our time would be tripled, but after two days of near-continuous movement through the mountains it was crucial that we all finish strong, but together.
We crossed the line together with a total race time of 20 hours, 27 minutes, good enough for 13th place out of the 23 teams that started. What came next was an unforgettable military ritual highlighted by a formal awards ceremony followed by a more informal dinner for all the competitors. We had the opportunity to meet and talk with mountain warriors from all over Europe late into the night.
We exchange stories and patches, found common ground, and congratulated each other on our accomplishment.
It was an incredible honor to represent the 1-102nd Infantry Regiment, the state of Connecticut, and the United States at the 2019 Edelweiss Raid. This experience taught me a great deal about myself both personally and professionally. Training with and competing against our allies in the mountain warfare community was one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life. I really was lucky to be there.