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From war zone to ski slopes

PUBLISHED: 10:39 04 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:39 07 July 2010

The Light Dragoons ski team.

The Light Dragoons ski team.

FOUR soldiers from the Swanton Morley-based Light Dragoons have been testing their nerves and fitness to the limit during the Army's UK divisional ski championships in the French Alps - just weeks after returning from a tour of Afghanistan.

FOUR soldiers from the Swanton Morley-based Light Dragoons have been testing their nerves and fitness to the limit during the Army's UK divisional ski championships in the French Alps - just weeks after returning from a tour of Afghanistan.

Lieutenant Alexander Pike, Captain Johnny Arkell, Trooper Thomas 'Mandy' Holden, and 2nd Lieutenant Harry Amos were among over 130 soldiers taking part in the Alpine section of Exercise Spartan Hike in the ski resort of Serre Chevalier.

They returned from a seven-month Afghanistan tour in November, and two-and-a-half weeks later started training for the competition in another part of France before moving to Serre Chevalier in January.

During the week-long ski competition they were standing on top of a 2,660 metre-high snow-covered mountain and pointing their skis downhill to compete in the formidable slalom, grand slalom, super-G and heart-stopping downhill races.

Lt Pike, 25, the team captain, had the challenging task of organising the skiing while leading an armoured reconnaissance vehicle troop in Afghanistan during some of the most violent conflict ever seen - and he had only just joined the regiment himself.

“It was a real challenge as I didn't really know anyone, and trying to persuade soldiers in Afghanistan to go skiing in the French Alps almost as soon as we returned from operational duty was very difficult,” he explained.

“In the end we went to the Royal Armoured Corps championships, which was the competition before this one, with four Troopers who had never skied in their lives before and three other more experienced officers, and we qualified for the divisional championships, so I'm really pleased it's all worked out.”

For team member Captain Arkell, 26, it was even more of a personal triumph. He was seriously injured in an explosion while on foot patrol with the Afghan Army last April. One of his soldiers and the Afghan interpreter were killed and Johnny suffered shrapnel wounds to the left-hand side of his body, particularly badly in his thigh, and had to be operated on four times.

“I had a large hole in my thigh which, had it been an inch lower, would have meant me having the leg off, but I was extremely lucky. This has been brilliant fun and it has confirmed in my mind that there is nothing wrong with my leg and I am completely mended.”

He ended up in the top ten skiers and the whole team finished in the top half of the competition.

For 19-year-old novice skier Tpr Holden it was the chance of a lifetime and he won a gold medal in the novice individual super G and a silver medal in the novice individual slalom.

Captain Pike said one of the most important aspects of Army skiing is to give soldiers who have never tried the sport before to have a go. He said it was also important for developing the skills and qualities soldiers need.

“You have all the fears and challenges of operations but in a different environment,” he said. “You are still practising courage, teamwork and resilience which you will be able to take to the battlefield. You are taking people out of their comfort zones, throwing them in the deep end and seeing if they sink or swim - or in this case, ski or fall.”

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