This article originally appeared on Ski Mag
I was driving down the Austrian autobahn when the first dizzy spell hit me.
After a week of training on Austria's Kitzsteinhorn glacier with 16 other ski mountaineers, I was heading towards Innsbruck for the Edelweiss Raid, a unique ski mountaineering race. Unlike modern skimo races emphasizing speed, the Edelweiss Raid is a tactical event on a race course with plenty of technical uphill and downhill sections. Whereas the contemporary skimo athlete competes in lycra with ultralight gear, the Raid mandates participants carry a pack of military equipment, including rifles strapped to the outside. Throughout the two-day event, participants move as military squads through a course in the high Austrian Alps that covers around 27 miles and 14,000 feet of vertical distance. In addition to serious downhill skiing on ungroomed backcountry terrain, teams must complete a series of military tasks interspersed throughout the course--high-angle shooting, casualty evacuation, crevasse rescue, and the infamous roped skiing event, to name a few.
The week of training was outstanding, with bluebird skies and just enough snow during Europe’s low snow year for us to acclimatize and work on technical skills like skiing downhill as an eight-person roped team. However, as the team's co-captain, I was still concerned about our personnel situation. The Raid requires groups of eight soldiers to start and finish together to place. After losing three of our strongest racers to unexpected family situations, we were down to only one alternate. To make matters worse, we lost them only a week before leaving for Austria, so replacing them was impossible. Although we got lucky and managed to pull an all-star skimo racer on at the last minute, we were at risk of losing an entire team due to insufficient numbers. With a sinking feeling, I shook my head to clear my vision, reached over to my water bottle, and pounded half of it. I cannot get sick, not here, not now, I thought to myself. Indeed, plenty of water and sleep would get me through this and into the race.
By morning, I was shivering in bed as purple elephants danced through my vision.
Despite the wild success of the 10th Mountain Division during World War II's Italian Campaign, the US Army disbanded the division in 1945, shortly after the war ended.
As a result, many of the most talented 10th Mountain veterans left the service and went on to found ski resorts, outdoor companies, and athletic brands. Any remaining mountain soldiers shuffled off to units with no mountain capability. Despite mountain combat during the Korean War and over twenty years of conflict in mountainous Afghanistan, the US Army never again reactivated a mountain-capable unit on active duty. Its only mountain-designated unit is headquartered in far northern Vermont, a National Guard mountain brigade comprised mainly of part-time soldiers. And while this arrangement has some negative consequences, it has also created a magnet for a unique breed of ski mountaineers, alpinists, and climbers trying to mix high-level mountaineering with their military service.
Meanwhile, Europe maintains a strong corps of mountain expertise as the US military's mountain warfare capability creeps along in the background, overshadowed by expensive tanks, fighter aircraft, and carriers. Germany and Austria's gebirgsjaeger, Italy's alpini, and France's chasseurs alpins continue to be regarded as elite forces. Given the emphasis on mountain troops and friendly rivalry amongst the various nationalities, in 2001, Austria initiated a competition to test the best alpine soldiers from each country against each other. This Edelweiss Raid," named for the alpine flower that grows only at the highest elevations of the Alps, eventually became known as the world championship for mountain troops. By 2019, the Raid included 20 teams from 10 different countries and spanned two days of racing. The same year, the United States and Russian teams joined the fray as competitors, taking the Raid from a purely European competition to a truly international championship.
Team USA's first year with the Raid was a proper Bad News Bears performance. I was on a temporary assignment in 2017 in Austria from my job at the US Army Mountain Warfare School when I first met Colonel Stephan Lehner, an Austrian Military Mountain Guide and the longtime director of the Raid. In his typical abrupt fashion, Lehner bluntly changed the subject one day and asked, "And can you tell me why the US has never sent a team to the Edelweiss Raid?"
"Sir," I stuttered, "I have no idea what you're talking about."
As he explained the Raid, with its emphasis on working as a team, its high physical standards, and the range of technical skiing and tactical tasks, I became convinced the Raid was what the US Army needed to grow its mountain warfare capability from dormancy to at least infancy. That year, a small, tight group of us spread across the multi-state mountain brigade were actively training in various mountain disciplines-AMGA guides, PSIA instructors, dedicated Aspen ski bums-and attempting to translate those capabilities over to the military. Given the notoriously independent streak in the mountain culture, my issue was finding some unifying event to get us all working together. By the summer of 2018, I had scraped together a team of eight Vermonters, Coloradans, and one outstanding skier from Connecticut to compete in the 2019 Edelweiss Raid. On a shoestring budget with only four training days together, we pulled off a 13th-place finish and became the first team to finish the race in our initial year. More importantly, the shared Raid experience strengthened the networks between our geographically dispersed units. I set my sights on a second Raid performance in 2021, intending to grow the group to two competing teams.
As 2021 came and went in the throes of COVID, we shifted our goals to compete in the 2023 race with two teams. Our initial recruitment process was wildly successful. Not only did we have 30 promising candidates during the initial tryouts, the field included a former Olympic athlete, several professional biathletes, and strong backcountry skiers from throughout the mountain brigade's units. By December 2022, we had narrowed the team to 20 athletes, or two groups of eight and four alternates, with an A Team that I felt was highly competitive for a top-five finish. Things were going too well, as Murphy's Law soon reminded me.
In December 2023, just as the New England ski season started, I enjoyed a leisurely day of family skiing when my ski tip caught a root in the thin snowpack. The fall broke my ankle. Although disappointed, I remained on the team as a co-captain and dedicated myself to rehabilitating my ankle as quickly as possible. Then in early February 2023, two weeks before departing for Austria, two of the top candidates for the A Team each suffered serious family tragedies that took them off the team. Nearly simultaneously, a third competitor's funding fell through. Coupled with my still-healing ankle, we were at sixteen racers and zero alternates--enough to race with no additional accidents or injuries. My co-captain Tim, and I began having serious conversations about whether we needed to reduce to a single team of eight with several strong alternates.
The Sunday before our departure, I went up to the small ski hill on our military base to test how my broken ankle would hold up to downhill skiing. A group of soldiers was staring at something up the ski slope, and as I approached, one turned to me with wide eyes.
"Have you seen Lynch?" she asked. Jack Lynch, a cadet with the unit, is around 6'5" tall. I had seen him around but never noticed the quiet University of Vermont student.
The group just pointed up the hill. I followed their fingers with my eyes to see a tall figure skinning up the lift line on a set of skimo race skis. As I watched, he outpaced the soldiers riding up on the t-bar and ripped his skins at the top of the slope.
Okay, I thought to myself, so he's fast. Let's see how he comes down.
As if to answer my thoughts, Lynch appeared on the horizon, straight-lining it down the slope, popping up on his tails in some acrobatic terrain park move, and then making a clean hockey stop in front of the chairlift. Until then, I had given up on finding alternates for our bare-bones Raid team. This was my guy.
"Lynch," I shouted to get his attention. "Do you have a valid passport?"
Jack looked confused. "Uh, yes," he replied.
"You want to go to Austria in five days?"
Again, the confusion. "Uh, yeah, I think so. I just need to check with my ROTC instructor."
"I know your ROTC instructor. He's a friend of mine. I'll take care of that part. You just clear your schedule."
After several phone calls and bureaucratic wrangling, we were up to seventeen racers, and Jack "The Lynchpin" Lynch had a plane ticket to Austria. Although Tim and I still weren't thrilled with only one alternate, it was enough. And it was all we had.
We arrived in Austria in mid-February to clear weather and a decent snowpack in the high mountains despite nearly no snow in the valleys. As with 2019, the lack of funding and the dispersed nature of our group meant that many racers were meeting each other for the first time at the Munich airport. Although we had lost some of our fastest ski mountaineers, the team still had a lot of collective technical experience and strong skiers. Even more interesting, we had wild cards like The Lynchpin, who by now was also answering to "Lurch," and newcomers such as Jake Remick, a former youth FIS skier who came to us from outside the mountain brigade. In only seven days, co-captains Tim and I had to assess our racers, organize them into two teams, and ensure the teams were trained to do the many tasks that the Raid would demand of them. Although our ski mountaineers had practiced these tasks individually or in small groups, none had worked together. We went to work with only a week to go before the race.
Our home base in the resort village of Kaprun, Austria, was ideal for maximizing our training time. We commuted via gondola and ski lift to the Kitzsteinhorn Glacier daily. As the time at altitude slowly raised our blood-oxygen levels, we methodically ticked off the required training tasks. Tim and I began to sort the group into a fast competition team and a slower development team. By our third training day, we were ready to hold our final time trials and make a decision on team rosters. To simulate a strenuous race day, we started our 20 candidates at the base of the Kaprun ski resort. In the first stage of the time trial, we pushed together at a moderate team pace to a crossover gondola that took us to the high base area. Then, in the second stage, the candidates conducted a release ascent at their own pace to a saddle below the Kitzsteinhorn. With Jack "The Lynchpin" in the lead, we dodged through the adolescent British snowboarders that plummeted uncontrollably down the slope, slowly stringing out into a long line of the two teams. Within three hours, the lead candidates reached the narrow saddle. My broken ankle nearly mended, I arrived seconds behind Jack to find him staring off into the abyss on the other side of the ridge.
"Jack, you okay?" I shouted above the wind.
"Yes, sir. I've just never been in mountains like this before."
I smiled. "Great! Well, enjoy the view while I beat your ass back down!"
The small group on the narrow saddle grew as additional competitors skinned up our track. With the clock ticking, we ripped skins, hop-turned down the steep slope to the piste, and then rocketed down to the base area. Everyone arrived tired, with huge grins on their faces.
"Did you see me catch an edge and eat shit?"
"Some ten-year-old almost smoked me from behind!"
"I took a wrong turn and had to duck walk up 50 meters to get here!"
"Has anyone seen Murphy?"
After searching for our last few lost sheep, we skied down to Kaprun and reassembled in the hotel dining room to announce the teams. Charlie Flood, a snowboarder-turned-skier who worked at Special Operations Command; Africa; and Pantelis "Jerry" Geralis," an Aspen-based ski bum, would lead the fast competition team. Their six team members included The Lynchpin, a Green Beret named Brad; a quiet biathlete named Cooper; Scott, a high school teacher and lacrosse coach; Will, a philosophy grad student who rips on skis; and me. Tim and Sam, an active duty Army officer turned farmer, led the development team. The remaining six people on the development team were first-time racers, all intent on finishing and moving to the race team in 2025. Despite our personnel issues before departure, both teams were strong, although we had zero margins for any injury or illness.
For the remainder of the week, we focused on honing the teams' ability to work together on the technical tasks and acclimatizing to the higher altitude. As the training week wrapped up and we prepared to depart for Innsbruck, we were encouraged to see the weather shifting in our favor. What had been a quiet week of sunny high pressure seemed to be sliding towards a sizeable storm in the western Austrian Alps. This would provide some much-needed refreshment to what was rapidly becoming a spring snowpack. We departed Kaprun on Saturday morning in a drizzle but could see a white haze of snow falling in the high mountains. After stopping at an Austrian base to pull our weapons from their storage facility, we continued west. It was during this drive that I started to feel dizzy. I drank water and tea during the drive, willing myself not to be sick.
We arrived late at the Austrian mountain base, Lizum-Walchen Training Area. Here, we left our vans, transferred ski bags and weapon cases into idling military trucks, and hopped in the back of the canvas-sided cargo vehicles for the ride up to the high camp. Snow was falling heavily by now, and the truck tire chains slapped against the frozen dirt road as we slowly climbed the last few miles to our home for the next week. I dozed as the truck rocked, head buried down into my puffy jacket. It will all pass if I only get a good night's sleep.
After about twenty minutes of driving, the road leveled out. Through cracks in the canvas cover, we could see lights glowing.
"Welcome to Camp Lizum," someone said out of the darkness in the back of the truck.
The vehicles slowed and stopped. Then the tailgate dropped with a clang. We stepped into about a foot of fresh snow and the high-altitude cold air. Around us were the two-story stone buildings of Camp Lizum, a cluster of structures at the bottom of a glacial cirque of towering stone and snow. Though tired, the team popped into action, unloading bags, dragging them into our quarters, and drawing additional gear from the Austrian quartermaster. After about an hour, we shoved ourselves and all our equipment into two rooms designed for half of what we had. As the guys gnawed on the simple bread and sausage dinner, I wrapped myself in a sleeping bag and passed out. Just one night's sleep...
The next day saw the weather conditions improve, but my condition deteriorated. After a quick, hearty breakfast, the US team gathered gear for our final uninterrupted training day before the competition’s start. Other teams had also arrived, and by daylight, we began to get acquainted. The Polish, Bulgarians, and Romanians were all there, along with three teams from China’s People's Liberation Army. Other teams had also arrived, and by daylight, we began to get acquainted. The PLA regarded us cooly, not saying much, occasionally nodding in the hallway. It was the first time they had contact this closely with American soldiers, as this was also the first occurrence any of us could find about Americans training this close to the PLA.
Outside, about 16 inches of new snow lie in the parade field. Intent on using the new snow for avalanche beacon searches, we set first tracks up towards the end of the valley, where the race would start in a couple of days.
I woke up to the setting sun streaming in through the window. At noon, as the team headed in for lunch, I waved off food and went to lie down. My appetite was gone, and my head pounded. I'll just lie down for a bit, I thought. Then I'll be okay to go out this afternoon for more training. The team was back from their afternoon training, shuffling around the room, drying boots, and snacking. Brad, the Green Beret, leaned to look into my lower bunk.
"You should probably go somewhere else," he said in his typically blunt manner. "You look fucked up and we're all going to get it if you hang out here."
He was right. Like a sick toddler, I dragged my sleeping bag downstairs to a double room set aside for any US VIPs and promptly passed out. After a fitful, feverish night, I woke up late on Monday feeling marginally better. I can race, I thought to myself. I just need to sweat this out. Changing into soft shells and buckling my boots, I moved slowly outside with my skis, put on my climbing skins, and started up the hill behind the barracks. Halfway up, leaning on my poles for support, I tried transitioning from uphill to downhill. I barely had the strength to rotate the bindings around to lock in my heels. So much for that, I thought as I stumbled back into the barracks and back into bed.
At some point during the delirious evening, Tim and Brad stopped by to check in, bringing with them a glorious pack of Nyquil. Although the details are hazy, I told them to plan to replace me with an alternate. Their response wasn't encouraging. Our one strong alternate was already in the game, but Tim agreed to pull one of our support crew onto the team to start training. During the training that day, Cody had tweaked an old knee injury and now found his knee swollen and nearly immobile. I popped a double dose of Nyquil and passed out for sixteen hours.
The next morning, the day before the race, dawned clear with a bluebird sky and temperatures just around freezing.
Although I was still dizzy and nauseous, I felt much stronger and watched out of my window as the competition team worked with a rescue sled near the snow-covered helipad. Austrian rescue helicopters and a large UH-1 "Huey" buzzed in and out, ferrying mountain guides and hand charges out to toss into loaded avalanche paths.
The race was ramping up, and I even felt the excitement building. Overnight, our team broke the ice with the Chinese by helping them cut their climbing skins for their skis, and our guys proudly showed off Chinese patches as they popped in to check on me.
After yoga, I hauled myself to lunch with Tim and Sam, the co-captains of the development team. I had known both of them for years and spent considerable time with Tim, particularly in as a roped team on climbing trips worldwide. I fully trusted their judgment.
"So how's it going with integrating the alternates?" I asked as I sipped hot soup. Tim winced, a characteristic move when he was about to tell you something that was bad news but true.
"Well, okay. We're working through some issues with one." He paused. "We're probably not going to finish the race. He just doesn't have the uphill stamina. And he struggles on the downhill."
I looked at Sam. He nodded in affirmation. I put my head in my hands. After four years, the last-minute personnel losses, knee injuries, and sickness brought us to this.
I looked up at Tim. "I'm going to race."
Tim, as always, was cool and calm. "I trust your judgement." As anyone who knows Tim will attest, that's the best compliment he could ever give someone.
Sam, Tim, and I quickly hashed out a plan to ensure that I wouldn't get us into deeper trouble. After lunch, I would attempt a 1,000-foot ascent up a spur above camp. If I could make it to the top faster than the development team's pace, we would bump Hunter, the medic and mountain warfare instructor, from the development team to the competition team. I would take his place on the development team and our strong alternate. That would give the competition team the strongest, fittest guys we had while stacking me on the development team to maintain a slower pace but help Tim and Sam manage the less experienced racers. As they broke away to continue training, I again pulled on my ski gear and headed up the hill.
Thankfully, my condition had significantly improved after another day of recovery. I ascended the hill faster than Tim's expected pace for the development team and had a little fun shredding the new snow down the untracked summit. I skied back down to the camp and sent a short message to Tim:
1000 feet in 32 minutes. Painted you a picture from the summit. I can race if you need. Your call.
Then I collapsed back into bed. I woke up to the door opening and Tim, Sam, and Jerry walking in. Jerry, as usual, had a massive smile on his face.
"Get out of bed and stand on one foot," Sam commanded. I obeyed. "Now touch your nose." I wobbled on my injured leg and touched my nose.
"Good enough for me," said Gerry. Tim nodded.
"Okay," said Sam. "You're in. Get your stuff together. We start at 9 am tomorrow."
"We're in bad shape when the fate of the team is relying on a dude with a broken ankle and the flu," I quipped.
The guys were already walking out the door, avoiding being in my stuffy room. The door slammed shut. It was time to get to work.
The leading mountain warfare teams from Europe were assembled in Lizum, prepared to showcase their capabilities on the international stage. At 8 am the following day, our two teams stood outside the barracks, ready to head up to the start line. As we filtered up to the starting line, teams from Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic, Poland, and China all mixed, laughed, and snapped selfies with each other. The Chinese teams lined up beside us, laughed, and fist-bumped with our guys.
"Zhe shi hun hao," I said in my limited Mandarin, "Nimen hun bao." This is very good. You all are very fast.
"Xie xie," they laughed. "Zai jian!" Thank you, see you later!
The sky was still clear and the sunlight bright, with high pressure sitting over the region for at least the next few days. Ahead of us, the first climb of the race loomed up from the valley floor--a 2,600-foot climb to the peak of Lizumer Reckner. At 9 am sharp, the start gun popped, and teams surged ahead. Green Beret Brad, a successful Crossfit competitor, surged towards the initial avalanche beacon search area, pulling yards ahead of the next closest racer. Both US teams quickly found our two avalanche beacons, stowed shovels and then joined the line of teams jockeying for position on the skin track up to Lizumer Reckner. As most teams settled into a moderate uphill pace, there was a clamor from the back, then the sound of chanting. Looking over my shoulder, I saw two Chinese teams breaking trail uphill, parallel to the established skin track. Although they had fumbled the beacon search, they now seemed intent on making up lost time. Despite the heavy new snow, they set their own track, bellowing a Chinese word with each step up the slope. Without looking at us, they passed on what would end up being a nearly uphill track as the rest of us switchbacked up the slope. Within minutes, they were spots on the horizon, and then they were over the hill.
As the order settled, the development team found itself near the back of the pack. We worked uphill to a stunning ridgeline vista, descended to a rappel, and then roped up for the terrifying roped skiing event. Tim called speed commands from the back and kept the pace deliberate and slow as we worked deliberately downhill with the eight of us attached to a 40-meter rope. His method soon showed its wisdom as we watched a member of the Czech team somersault into the snow and emerge with a broken arm. Even before the end of the first day, one team was already out. We learned later that a Chinese team had also dropped due to a broken leg. The remainder of the day passed uneventfully for both teams. After the roped skiing, we finished several other skills events and made a sunset descent through evergreen glades before linking up with our supply sled near dark. We pulled into the bivouac site just after dark, greeted by the competition team.
"You guys good?" they asked.
"For sure," we replied, "just ready for dinner. You guys?" They laughed.
"Well, other than Tim's jaegertee busting in his sleeping bag, not a bad day!" Tim had stored a bladder of Jaegermeister tea in his sleeping bag as a celebratory drink that night but had not gotten the cap on tight enough. He later laughed that he spent the night drunk off the fumes of jaegertee.
We pulled up our tents and piled in for the night. Soon, stoves were hissing as we boiled water for drinks and dehydrated meals. I tried to eat but fought back a wave of nausea. I was still not 100 percent.
After around five hours of sleep, we slipped out of our bags, pulled down the tents, repacked, and threw our supply bags into the back of Austrian utility trucks. The start gun for Day 2 popped as the sun's first rays peaked over an eastern ridgeline and painted the valley orange and red. The race’s second day was longer, with more horizontal movement and more challenging technical tasks. With everyone tired from the previous day, the start was more muted--teams trickled rather than surged forward and settled into a similar order as the day prior. The competition team was soon out of sight, and the development team was positioned between a Czech and Austrian team. As the sun climbed higher in the sky, we summitted our first peak, loaded Paul into a rescue sled, and evacuated him down the slope as part of our first technical skill test. This brought us to the rifle range, where teams were required to fire at inflated balloons from a 200-yard range. Tim, a sniper, and Cooper, the biathlete, coached the rest of the team as we popped our balloons one by one. After packing up, we prepared for our last long ascent and a technical ridgeline traverse on boots--the last significant challenge before the end of the race. A bright overhead sun slowly dropped into the western horizon as the development team traversed the ridgeline with skis strapped to our backs, snapped into our bindings, and then navigated along a downhill ski-orienteering course to the hand grenade throwing event. Nick, one of the few ball sport players in a group of skiers and endurance athletes, easily mopped up our missed grenades with his rocket arm.
As we ascended the final hill towards Camp Lizum and the finish line, an Austrian colonel joined us for the final miles. The development team was the last to finish, passed by the Czech team on the ridge earlier in the afternoon. The team moved along mostly silently, our racers exhausted from two days of effort. In the back, I chatted with the Austrian colonel, who wore the distinguished insignia of an Austrian Military Mountain Guide. My vision had cleared, and my appetite returned, signaling the passing of the worst of my flu. Despite my disappointment at not having raced with the faster team, I was proud of our development team's performance and was glad to have been there to help Tim and Sam lead them through some of the trickier technical sections. I shared this with the colonel, and he nodded in agreement.
"Your team does it right," he observed. "You're not the fastest, but you keep everyone together. You teach them. They learn. This is what mountain warfare is actually about." He paused. "I would rather ski in with you than some of the others, because I know this team really understands why we do this race."
There was nothing else to say after that. The ski track leveled off, we joined a snow-covered road, and then the stone buildings of Camp Lizum peeked out above a rise ahead of us. The other teams, including our 10th-place finishers, were already on the parade field for the award ceremony. Everyone began clapping for us as we appeared on the road leading into the camp. Tim and Sam led an eight-person team across the finish line as the sun set on the second day of the 2023 Edelweiss Raid. We would receive no trophy, but recognition from an Austrian Military Mountain Guide meant more to us than any scrap of metal.
Nathan Fry is an Executive Officer in the 3-172 Mountain Infantry Regiment, an AMGA Assistant Alpine Guide, and Apprentice Rock Guide.
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