British army invades Verbier
18th September 2009
2,500 soldiers have been to the Swiss ski resort as part of the â€œWhite Knight Exerciseâ€ where they train, race and relax. Some of them after serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.
An average of 100 soldiers have been to the resort each year for the past 25 years and a celebration was held in London this week to mark the occasion.
The soldiers are in the resort for 6/7 weeks from early December through to mid-January where they train, race and of course participate in a bit of après ski too.
“It’s superb adventure training as they learn to ski with the Swiss ski school and it takes guts, courage and serious team work for a novice skier to come down some of Verbiers steepest terrain and then take part in a race too,” says General Richard Sheriff.
It is also used as payback time for some soldiers to relax after operational deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.The soldiers are well-known in the resort, easy to recognise and have helped out on many an occassion.
They have provided manpower to clear away the snow after heavy snowfalls and one year a disused helicopter, that is used as a bar, became frozen to the ground. The soldiers dug it out and then simply picked it up and carried it away.
Of course, over the years there have been a handful examples of mis-behaviour and here at PlanetSKI we have been told unofficially of one soldier being sent home for drunken behaviour. Others have been disciplined.
They actually get a pep talk from the head of the tourist office, Patrick Messeiller, at the start of the exercise where he welcomes them to the resort, and warns them to behave too.
“It’s more of a fatherly talk as I tell them what they can’t do and what the resort expects of them,” says Messeiller with a twinkle in his eye.
Messeiller organised the event at the Knightsbridge Barracks in London to celebrate the 25-year relationship.
There were representatives from the Verbier Tourist Office, Officers from the Swiss army, soldiers past and present and many of the resort’s well-know characters.It was a raclette evening with entertainment provided by the Swiss Army Gala Band.
Sadly though one of the former soldiers, who has been on Exercise White Knight, and who is rather famous in the music world was not there – James Blunt.
The singer completed the exercise when he was in the army and likes the resort so much he now has a chalet there and is often spotted on the slopes of the resort.
However in these tough economic times the future of the exercise is not secure says General Sheriff.
“We have to see what Verbier can offer us in these tough economic times and our sponsors must continue to support us,” he told the audience in a speech. “We also need to have our race on the appropriate course.”
The exercise is seen as good for Verbier as a large number of people are in the resort at the beginning of the season when it is usually quiet and off course they spend money in the bars and restaurants, hire equipment, buy lift passes and usually employ around a dozen ski instructors from the Swiss ski school.
Despite the constraints it looks like Exercise White Knight will continue for some time to come.