As Reported by Nathan Fry
Hinesburg’s Texas Hill is quickly catching up with Cochran’s Ski Area as a center for producing world class ski athletes. In early March 2023, one former and two current Hinesburg residents raced with Team USA in the Austrian Edelweiss Raid military ski mountaineering championship. The race, an international competition for the top mountain troops in the world, takes place every two years in Military Training Area Lizum, a rugged proving ground located in the Austrian Alps south of Innsbruck. In 2023, the race directors turned up the difficulty level and pushed the competitors to cover 27 miles and 14,000 feet of elevation gain and loss over only two days. Of the 22 teams that started the race, only 18 finished. And there was plenty of drama along the way for Team USA…
In 2023, I had the privilege this year of leading the USA Raid team for the second time since USA’s debut in 2019. Due to COVID, the race was cancelled in 2021, so the soldiers of the Vermont National Guard were incredibly excited to make our second showing in 2023 after a four-year hiatus. After the team’s strong 2019 showing, we found ourselves with significantly more team experience and support from our higher headquarters. This enabled us to start our team selection in Fall 2022, with the goal of fielding two teams during this year’s race. Our initial tryout was a hill time trial up the Mount Mansfield toll road, which yielded a team of 20 strong competitors at the start of Winter 2022-2023. Our team at the start of the winter included seven veterans from the 2019 race, instructors from the famed Army Mountain Warfare School, several championship biathletes, and a former Olympian. As our funding flowed and the team equipment trickled in, everything seemed to be going much too smoothly for a military operation. In keeping with Murphy’s Law, everything started to fall apart with only two weeks left before we flew to Austria.
In the span of only several days, the team lost three crucial members due to a combination of unexpected family issues and a funding problem. We had counted me out of the competition due to a broken ankle I sustained early in the ski season, but I was suddenly vaulted out of just being a team captain to at least filling in as an alternate on the team. But even with me in the wings, we were still one racer short of having enough people for me to feel comfortable with fielding two teams. Essentially, we were one cold or sprained ankle away from one of our two teams dropping out of the race. With only six days remaining before we were to fly to Austria, I happened to meet another Soldier who was race-ready and, most importantly, available on short notice. We scrambled to get his travel documents together and the Edelweiss Raid team departed Vermont on Saturday, February 18th after scraping together the 20 racers we needed.
After arriving in Austria, the team spent a week training on the Kitzsteinhorn glacier to hone our skills in the many military tasks that the race demands teams complete. Although most civilian ski races have trended towards a “light and fast” model, the Edelweiss Raid is unique in that the Austrian military keeps it a decidedly “tactical” race. In addition to the rugged skiing on the demanding backcountry course, teams operate in squad-size units to simulate combat operations. Skills stations are interspersed throughout the racecourse, requiring teams to conduct tasks such as high angle shooting, casualty evacuation, range estimation, crevasse rescue, and the infamous roped skiing event. Of course, teams also need equipment to conduct these tasks, so instead of light packs, Raid teams carry 40-pound packs with weapons strapped to the outside. If you’ve ever skied a Mad River mogul run after a big snowstorm while carrying all your kids’ snacks and water and your father’s hunting rifle just for fun, you may know how we felt. During our training, two things happened that would drastically affect our performance during the coming race. First, we sorted into two teams – a “competition” and “development” team – based on uphill speed and downhill ski ability. Second, someone got sick, who then passed their bug on to me.
On Sunday, February 26 we arrived at Austria’s Training Area Lizum, a tiny cluster of stone buildings set in the center of a ring of towering, craggy mountains. The camp was alive with activity – the People’s Republic of China, Poland, and Bulgaria had already arrived and were busy with final preparations for the race. As we settled into our crowded barracks room, I began to feel feverish and dizzy, but attributed it to dehydration and the altitude. By now, I had been practicing with the competition team for a week, as my ankle felt nearly healed and my uphill time was one of the fastest on the team. However, by Sunday afternoon, I was shivering in my bed as purple elephants danced in front of my eyes. The team quickly shifted me down to a single room in the hopes of preventing the spread to other team members, and we all held out hope that the sickness would pass quickly. Meanwhile, the teams continued to train and prepare for a race that would start in only three days.
From Monday to Tuesday, the team drama peaked in a frenzy of replacements. A development team member aggravated an old knee injury, forcing us to pull him out and replace him with our strongest alternate. The other alternate who was to go in for me struggled as an East Coast skier to handle the deep Alpine powder, creating concerns that one team would not be able to finish the race. With only 12 hours to go before the race started, I hauled myself out of bed after two nights of dousing myself in Nyquil and found myself capable of at least keeping up with the development team. After shuffling me down to development team and another guy up to the competition team, we at least had two complete rosters to start the race the next day. One team was just reliant on guy with a broken ankle and the flu to finish.
At 9:30 a.m. on March 1, the start gun for the 2023 Edelweiss Raid fired. 22 teams representing the nations of Austria, Germany, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, the United States, and China all surged forward for the initial test of finding two buried avalanche beacons before starting the first long uphill climb to our first summit. Over the course of the next two days, four teams would drop out due to injuries, while 18 teams jockeyed for position under bluebird skies and a deep blanket of fresh snow. Although initially disappointed to race on the slower development team, I found myself grateful to watch our less experienced Soldiers take the lead in building snow anchors for rappelling, taking well-aimed shots with their rifles, and fighting through cramps and sore feet. Team USA’s competition team crossed the finish line in a respectable 10th place on Day 2, with plenty of daylight and tall Austrian beers waiting for them at the finish line. Our development team, slow and steady, crossed at dusk in 18th place, accompanied by an experienced Austrian colonel who tailed us for the final few miles of the day. “I like skiing with you guys,” he noted. “You do it right – you are teaching, you are pushing everyone but also staying together, you work as a team. This is the way mountain troops should be.”
I would not trade that compliment for any number of first place trophies.
Warrant Officer 2 Nick Pileggi, formerly of Texas Hill, and Sergeant Travis Cooper, who lives at the base of Texas Hill, raced on the 2023 Edelweiss Raid team along with Texas Hill resident Major Nathan Fry. Nathan is convinced that there is something in the water or soil of Texas Hill for it to produce such outstanding athletes and dedicated Soldiers. And, yes, everyone on the team did eventually get sick… after they returned to Vermont!
Nathan would also like to thank Leanne at Dee PT, Sarah and Travis at Vermont Chiropractic and Sports Therapy, and Stephanie of Vermont Massage for all their help in making his broken ankle race-capable in only 9 weeks.