THE CHALLENGE OF a lifetime awaits a team of personnel from RAF Lossiemouth when throughout November they attempt to reach two summits on foot in the Annapurna Sanctuary Range in Nepal.
Half of those taking part from the Moray base are novice climbers who will challenge their physical, mental and emotional stamina by taking part in ‘Exercise Victrix Aquila’ – a three-week trek and climb on an extremely high altitude mountain range.
The mastermind behind the idea is Sergeant Lee Birbeck, who is an experienced mountaineer working on 6 Squadron at the base. He said: “Exercise Victrix Aquila is a major overseas expedition to summit Tharpu Chuli (5,663m) and Singhu Chuli (6,501m) in the Annapurna Sanctuary Range of the Himalaya and has been a year in the planning.
“The expedition will enhance each team member’s attributes of team work, planning and leadership, and reinforce their emotional intelligence, bolstering their ability to make cool, calm and collected decisions whilst under extreme physical and mental stress.
“The expedition will take place during one of the coldest months in Nepal at the very end of the winter climbing season, when the average temperature at summit altitude is expected to be around -20۫C.
“Our team will experience an arduous 18 days of ascent, all the while keeping vigil for signs of acute mountain sickness and pulmonary or cerebral oedema – both of which are fatal if not treated immediately.
“The experiences gained in undertaking an expedition of this nature will be a defining point in many of the team members lives and demonstrates both the true expeditionary nature and fortitude of Service personnel.”
Training and preparation has been vital with the mixture of climbing ability in the team – each member has completed a Mountain Foundation Course before leaving the UK. This course is designed to ensure a high level of competence in disciplines such as map reading, and weather appreciation, as well as outdoor survival skills.
Cpl Victoria Needham, the team’s most junior member, was only posted to RAF Lossiemouth following her specialist trade training in October 2015. She said: “I am feeling very privileged right now that I was chosen as one of 12 station personnel to take part in Exercise Victrix Aquila. Despite being the most novice of the group, I am more excited than nervous to be taking on this epic challenge.
“The support from the station and service has been amazing, help with funding, training, the issuing of high tech, excellent quality kit, and advice and medication from the Station Medical Centre to help us battle the acute mountain sickness we all expect to be hit with at some point on our ascent.”
Squadron Leader Simon Moore is head of the RAF Mountain Rescue Teams and one of the most experienced climbers taking part in the expedition: “This expedition will be a significant challenge for many of the members, who will encounter aspects of life they may never have experienced before.
“Nepal is a very poor country and poverty is widespread, so some will find the sights and smells in Kathmandu and some of Nepalese villages particularly disturbing, but the Nepalese people are happy, extremely friendly and welcoming.
“Trekking in the mountains at altitude will provide challenges that everyone will find difficult at first and there is little that one can do to prepare yourself for the effects of altitude on the body – symptoms will include nausea, headaches and breathlessness, but these do improve as the body acclimatises.
“Generally maintaining a positive attitude to the hardship will see most through these difficulties, and everyone will feel elation when they achieve the summit and will look at this as a major life experiences.”
Lossiemouth’s OC Base Support Wing, Wing Commander Dan Lunnon-Wood, has been in charge of training, welfare and development: “The scale of this expedition is impressive, and completely in line with our initiative to provide our personnel with ample opportunities to push themselves to the limit and expand their horizons.
“Adventurous training within the Royal Air Force, whilst popular and enjoyable, is an important tool that can be used to improve personnel’s resilience and simulate the high risk environment they may face on military operations.
“By placing them in arduous, demanding conditions that require a display of leadership at all levels, we are preparing our people for future operational challenges.
“Lee and the team have set themselves a testing and robust challenge; the Station has provided them with every support in the build-up, and now wishes them the best of luck in their challenge.”
As well as challenging themselves on this expedition, the Exercise Victrix Aquila team will be raising money for the Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Anyone wishing to donate to this cause can do so using the team’s Just Giving page: https://www.justgiving.com/chuli-challenge, or they can donate by texting Y JOX 53, followed by their donation amount to 70070.