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Reserve Forces & Cadets Association
Northern Ireland



02 March 2016

Captain Wilson gives a fantastic account of Exercise (Northern) Wild Gunner, 105 Regiment's Winter adventurous training exercise in the Cairngorms:

You know it’s going to be tough when the minibus can’t make the icy gradient up to Rothiemurchus Lodge and you have to wade up a snowbound track with your bergen on your back just to arrive at the Lodge!  Abandoned 105 RA vehicles littered the approach route and the first half of the exercise became a logistical nightmare to get anywhere, not just for training purposes but also for food shopping.  Mountaineers have to eat….lots!!  They were a small mixed merry band of Reservist soldiers from 105 Regt Royal Artillery (RA) (drawn from Btys in NI, Arbroath and the Central Scottish belt), taking part in a week’s winter AT in the Cairngorms.   The event was designed to introduce the novice winter hill walker to the extremes of Scotland’s mountains, with the aim of achieving the JS Winter Mountain Foundation (WMF) qualification.  We did indeed pick a week of ‘extremes’!

Day 1: Due to being effectively snowbound once in situ, Day 1 involved  a ‘shake out’ walk direct out the back of the Lodge, up the Lairig Ghru, that great divide between the Cairngorm and Braeriach massifs.  Deep snow obliterated all tracks.  From the onset, students were leading navigation ‘legs’, reading the signs on the ground and relating them to the map, adjusting clothing layers and co-ordinating the extra personal administration necessary to ensure that all the expensive AT loan pool kit signed out didn’t disappear into the snow surrounding us.  Students covered ice axe arrests, moving over steep ground and dealing with poor visibility in increasingly frequent heavy snow showers.  One group (after checking the local snow conditions), explored the area of the Charlamain Gap, site of such a tragic avalanche a few years back.  The day ended with the burly chaps (PTIs et al) trotting off down the Rothie track to collect the shopping, with that usual Reservist ‘volunteer’ ethos.

Day 2: With a bit of a hike down the drive, the two groups were able to get the biggest, newest minibus out the gate and along to Glen More. A long haul ensued up to Meall an Bhuachaille - 810m in deep snow.  Breaking trail is hard work and the instructors took up the rear (experience is a great asset)!  Given the sunshine, low winds and clarity of air, the views were exceptional from the summit.  A bit of crampon work on the neve and then the long wading descent down to Ryvoan albeit following the trail of others ascending by that line.  Students were able to observe the complacency and ignorance of fellow walkers, ascending very ill-equipped for the fickle nature of the weather in the Scottish hills, but fortunately no storm followed on this occasion.  A woodland walk exploring the flora and fauna of the Caledonian pine and then the Squirrel café, finishing the day off nicely.  There was even a little sunburn from the suns reflection on the snow, but mostly a healthy ‘glow’.  Evening lectures covered some of the gaps not achieved physically that day. The bonus was (thanks solely to the MTWO and QM civilian staff ) the arrival of a landrover, to at least support transporting rations from the track end to the Lodge in continued icy and treacherous conditions. 

Day 3: How can, in just a few hours the weather turn so hostile?  With ease…trust me. 55-80mph winds put pay to any overnight expedition plans even at a low level.  We covered remaining lectures and the ‘test’ discussion. Unfortunately the intent to at least stand outside the bus at Cairngorm ski Centre to ‘experience’ the wind force and visit the Ranger office to read Avalanche and weather forecasts in detail was abandoned due to the Ski road being closed to all vehicles.  We ventured into the Rothiemurchus woods and secured a sheltered spot to practice the avalanche search and rescue drills. Transceivers (battery operated signal devices worn by mountaineers and off piste skiers in the event of an avalanche) ‘on send’ hidden in heather and rabbit holes works far better than intentionally hidden in snow because there are no subsequent tracks to that location for the searcher to follow!  So imagination was required for the searcher pairs to then set their transceivers to ‘receive’ and locate that poor buried mountaineer!  Probe searches then worked in formation to gingerly locate the actual buried position before the dig out can commence!  The reward was a break in Aviemore and an avalanche and Met forecast on a shop window.  All the while the storm raged overhead and the mountains were lost in the heavy swathe of cloud and gales.

Day 4: This was to be the pinnacle of the week’s achievement and whilst ideally we would have wished an even longer ‘journey’; logistics decreed an ascent of Cairngorm via the Fiaciall a Choire Chais and descent down the long east spur back to the bus at Coire na Ciste.  This was undertaken with vigour and tenacity and as we ascended, so the temperature dropped, the wind bit and the skiers on the lower slopes disappeared into a haze of mountain bleakness, synonymous of Cairngorm alone. Point 1141m presented the students with the plateau at its most savage albeit the weather was ‘benign’ today!! Arctic tundra swept across as far as the eye could see -with goggles on!  The views were extensive, but it was not a day to sit and admire.  Cairngorm summit was covered in thick rime ice. The windchill was evident and it was not a place to linger trying to eat a sandwich without thick mountain gloves on.

The descent included a tangent by some, to locate the Highland Division “El Alamein Refuge Hut”.  Quite a feat finding a stone refuge in a boulder field, all under deep snow on the lee side of Cairngorm.  This find was particularly poignant for us as Royal Artillery. As Maj Niall Archibald (Edinburgh Garrison), instructing one WMF Group defines:-

 “It is often supposed that the 2nd Battle of El Alamein (23 Oct – 4 Nov 1942) began with a barrage of 1,000 guns. In fact it was 882 guns from Fd and Medium Batteries. This was codenamed Operation LIGHTFOOT. The incredible weight of fire across the 40 mile front, disguised the locations of the main Allied thrusts and allowed the Infantry to advance through anti-tank mines with Royal Engineers following up to create lanes for the tanks; one SW through the New Zealand Division’s sector and one westerly straddling the 9th Australian and 51st Highland Divisions’ sectors. In the course of the battle, fought over 12 nights and days, Allied armour passed through these corridors to defeat the German armour.  The resulting decisive victory turned the tide in the North African Campaign and revived the morale of the Allies. The Fire Plan of 5 ½ hours required each gun to fire about 600 rounds, a total of 529,000 shells.  

“Out of the desert, out of Cairo, there has come tonight the news for which we have been waiting, the news that all the world that fights for freedom has been wanting to hear, the news that the desert and Cairo has been expecting to be let loose all day: the Axis Forces in the desert are in full retreat”. These are the words of Godfrey Talbot, the BBC War Correspondent conveying the electrifying announcement 74 years ago following the victory at El Alamein; a victory enabled and secured by Artillery.”

Day 5: This was spent consolidating skills learnt and filling in the gaps  Actually, much of it wasn’t spent ‘filling in’ so much as ‘digging out’!  There is nothing quite like a bunch of Reservists with a snow shovel when given the task of completing an emergency snow shelter or an intentional snow hole.  The enthusiasm was infectious and all set to digging a palace, hotel, or at least a house out of a good snow bank.  I am not confident such mansions would have succeeded without the tools, time, benign weather and solid quality snow but the results were exceptional.  More cramponing, kicking and cutting steps and avalanche pits (to test snow layers) followed before the retreat to the bus and …. the café.

The next day, troops dispersed to their various Bty and RHQ locations, safely, tired and triumphant.  The reward and pay back, is the sheer overwhelming evidence of their personal development. Overcoming fear factors off the normal scale.  Demonstrating resilience to adverse weather whether standing still in a blizzard under skills instruction, or trudging up the final slopes of Cairngorm, with rime ice forming around their goggles and a biting wind at their back, right down to managing their admin in crowded bunk rooms and swirling spindrift.  They have a little more confidence, stamina and tenacity and everyone felt the wiser for the experience.  Certainly the camaraderie was great and the spirit and overarching desire to succeed shone through.