Skip to content
Recruiting now.Explore navy careers

Royal Marines face extreme conditions on avalanche rescue training

Royal Marines faced extreme conditions as they skied deep into Sweden’s frozen wilds to practise rescuing casualties buried by avalanches.

Arbroath-based 45 Commando – the mountain and extreme cold weather warfare experts of 3 Commando Brigade – spent two weeks sharpening techniques needed to locate and extract casualties buried by up to 2.5 metres of snow from avalanches alongside troops from hosts Sweden, the USA, Denmark, Latvia, France and Belgium.

It put into practice many of the survival skills the commandos nurture during grueling months in northern Norway every year, including shelter building, navigating frozen lakes and alpine skiing.

The Swedish hosts – specialists from the Norrbotten Regiment – admitted the heavy snowfall and appalling visibility at the Abisko National Park were the worst conditions faced on the course in almost a decade.

“It was a real challenge keeping everyone moving enough to avoid cold weather injury and it demonstrated good drills from the commandos that they were never at risk of becoming casualties themselves whilst working hard to help the weaker group members,” said Marine Harry Mafham, who was part of the Yankee Company group in Sweden. 

“Even constructing the shelters was difficult as the late-season snow had frozen almost rock solid at points.”

The training became increasingly complex as the two-week exercise progressed as the allied group skied for days into the mountains and built shelters to protect them from deteriorating weather. 

After climbing Latnjačorru – a mountain with views north into nearby Norway and south towards Sweden’s highest peak Kebnekaise – conditions forced the group to tie themselves together to reduce the risk of losing one of the patrol in the poor visibility. 

After navigating a frozen lake, the patrol began digging a snow cave, which took eight long hours to in worsening weather. That was relative comfort compared to the more rudimentary ‘snow graves’ the commandos constructed on subsequent nights.

“Although it took some time, sleeping in the shelter was comfortable and out of the elements,” said Marine Joel Hayes.

“Moving from that location the following day, we continued with avalanche scenarios and digging into snow graves. 

“The weather turned even worse, offering only 15 metres’ visibility, and having spent that night in the snow grave we much preferred the cave.” 

During the descent, the patrol stopped in a hut to warm up and were checked by medics before finally coming off the mountain for reindeer stew and relax in a sauna. 

Prior to their mountain mission, the group were taken through lectures on avalanche risks and techniques and issued beacons, probes and shovels. 

“We found this training very beneficial; our knowledge of the beacons and using them improved as we got to watch the Swedish Mountain Leaders, many of whom regularly assist in avalanche rescue parties,” added Mne Mafham.

“Having absorbed their knowledge and processes, there is scope to incorporate it into our annual Norway training.”


Related articles

Navy News

Direct from the front-line, the official newspaper of the Royal Navy, Navy News, brings you the latest news, features and award winning photos every month.