24/01/17 to 03/02/17 – By Lt Col Bee Smith (Alpine Secretary)
Most of 2016’s planning was taken up with trying to minimise the impact, across Army Alpine, of the calendar clash that had Ex LIONS CHALLENGE, the Army Championships, programmed at the same time as the Inter-Services Snow Sports Competition (ISSSC). After exhausting the options of moving one or the other, the combination of French holidays, other international competitions, contracts and the Nordic competition, the Army Alpine Committee had to accept this was what was going to be. It meant that either the Army did not enter a ski team in the ISSSC (not ideal and unpopular) or that there was a certain amount of risk in selecting the Army Team skiers directly from the Divisional Championships at Ex SPARTAN HIKE and Ex PIPEDOWN and leapfrogging them onto Meribel and the ISSSC without the benefit of a further ten days of challenging competition. We knew this might cause concern both with the Regiments that expect to win trophies at Army level and with the skiers who were being compared with others not racing the same courses. And so, an Army Team Manager was appointed – Maj Rob Ronz RA, an ex-Army Ski Team member who was accompanied by ISSSC veteran and assistant coach, WO2 John Mac to both Ex PIPEDOWN and Ex SPARTAN HIKE to pick the male and female team captains and start the process of selection. The last few places on both teams proved tricky, but without the further ten days of consolidation, a decision was made and the Army Team disappeared straight to Meribel for the ISSSC.
That left Ex LIONS CHALLENGE in a somewhat unique position – an open competition for both individuals and Regimental teams. With 15 of the top seeds out, there was no foregone conclusion. The atmosphere at registration was one of excitement and of opportunity.
The new TD, in the form of Maj John (JP) Poole was at the helm and our referee WO2 Thommo Thomson was making his last appearance before retiring from the Army. Onto the committee, we welcomed Capt Jess Baxter, who has taken on assistant timings and calcs and WO2 Andy Dawson as finish judge. We took 106 racers through from the two Divisional championships and started with the GS competition. Immediately the name of LCpl James Oldham from 1 LANCS became known as one to look out for as he finished over three seconds ahead of his closest rival. Unfortunately bib number 13 proved its unlucky fate with Capt Fergus Anderson RE taking a tumble in the first run, which saw the end to his racing for the remainder of the championships. In the Team GS, LCpl Oldham proved it wasn’t a fluke and put a clear nine seconds between himself and the next racer, leading 1 LANCS to a comfortable Team GS win.
Once again, we were joined by many of our sponsors, as well as AWSA committee members and visiting regimental personalities. The atmosphere was no less thrilling with the Army Team already departed and there was genuine excitement amongst all predicting who might win each race. Another fall out of the clash of dates was that the races had to be re-ordered, with the biggest challenge being running the Down Hill Training days straight after GS and over the weekend, when the slopes are busier with holiday makers and weekenders wanting to ski the Luc Alphand run down into the resort. Closing it for six hours a day was not going to prove popular. The resort staff and pisteurs worked long and hard and made as much snow as possible to ensure that we could get the four days needed for the speed events. As expected, despite security netting the entire length of the piste, there were more than a few incursions onto the piste, meaning that racing had to be stopped whilst the course was cleared and skiers and boarders were escorted out of the way of the 90mph missiles on downhill skis that were being released from the start every 40 seconds. This added time and frustration into the mix, but with no injuries, we managed to get the piste clear in time for the holiday makers to enjoy the last four hours of each day on the iconic piste.
Luckily, the DH competition took place on the Monday and the resort had emptied. The competition was held in excellent weather and on good snow and we were again blessed with an incident free race to determine both the team and individual results. LCpl Oldham won, but this time Capt Lee Stoddart RA was right on his heels with only seven hundredths of a second between them. For the ladies, Pte Amy Brookman RLC won comfortably with a four second lead. In the team competition, 4 Bn REME triumphed. Super G took place the following day and Capt Rebecca Ritchie RLC won for the ladies with LCpl Oldham staying true to form and 4 Bn REME taking the team trophy.
The competition finished with Slalom on the Stade Piste over in the next valley in Villeneuve. A beautiful piste in great sunshine, but the long and technical course saw a quarter of all competitors either not finish or get disqualified. Spr Kieran Southall RE won for the men, whilst LCpl Sheona Macmillan won the ladies competition but despite everyone’s best efforts, 4 Bn REME could not be dislodged and they won their third team trophy .
The championship was rounded off with the ‘President’s Race’; a dual slalom with teams made up of senior officers, sponsors, Team Army personnel and the odd racer thrown in too. Hilarity ruled as dirty tricks and nobbling came into effect! It was a treat to see the President himself, Lt Gen Sanders take to a pair of Alpine skis after a career of Nordic competition.
A new scheme was initiated this year to connect the racers with the sponsors who enable this event to take place. On four evenings, two teams each hosted a couple of sponsors in their chalet for dinner. The brief was clear – “the sponsors will eat whatever you are having and will be out by 9pm”. However, not to be outdone by each other, the teams entered another unofficial competition along the ‘Come Dine with Me’ theme, and reports started to filter back of amazing three course menus cooked on a small cooker in a tiny kitchen. The AGC raclette with all the trimmings on day one was out gunned by the QRH duck and so it went on – more elaborate each time. And needless to say, some competitive card games meant that the sponsors were held hostage in the team chalets well beyond 9pm! The upshot was that the sponsors immensely enjoyed their evenings meeting the teams, seeing how they lived and prepared for races and hearing their stories, unfiltered by senior officers! The racers also got much from these interactions and the trial scheme was hailed a big success to be continued in future. It was fantastic to see at Prizegiving that the sponsors, rather than sit together on one big table, sat with their ‘adopted’ teams that they had been hosted by during the chalet suppers. This connection and mutual understanding of our soldiers with those Defence Contractors who enable the activity they enjoy and are good at must surely be an incredibly positive outcome for Army Sport.
Throughout Ex LIONS CHALLENGE, daily updates on the progress of the Army Ski Team at the ISSSC in Meribel were coming through and we could update the racers at nightly Team Captains’ meetings.