The only thing you can be sure of in the Legion is that you can be sure of nothing. Arriving back from a four-week break last Sunday evening saw me mentally prepared for three weeks spent at regiment, calmly and methodically maintaining and gradually improving my physical condition before a two-month promotion course back at the infamous Castel. Cue Monday morning and the sobering news bulletin that I was in fact being sent off up the Alps for a week-and-a-half for the company's annual mountaineering course. Oh joy!
The Brevet D'Alpiniste Militaire (or the "BAM" to those in the know, ya know?) is a three-week mountaineering course undertaken in the Summer months along France's Alpine borders. Comprising of a host of mountain disciplines such as rock-climbing, abseiling, glacier navigation, etc, it is the sister course to the French Army's winter counterpart - the Brevet De Skieur Militaire (BSM).
Not that the course isn't one of the more interesting, challenging and (at the very minimum) physically rewarding on offer within the Legion itself. Rather my surprise and unease at being included on its roll-call stemmed from its chronological proximity to the afore-mentioned Corporal course. Let's not forget that this time last year I was also scheduled to kick off my two-month promotion course, before a terrifically disgusting ankle injury put paid to thoughts of climbing up the ranks. I had received assurances from my lieutenant that the mountaineering course would have to do without my grace of presence this time round, thus avoiding a large threat to my physical well-being so close to the trip to Castel.
But with said lieutenant now (rather timely) departed, I find myself high up in France's (rather spectacular) Savoie region, gulping down lungfuls of fresh alpine air as the skin covering my heels and toes slowly disappears into an obscure and murky maroon swamp of congealed cotton deep inside my steaming boots. Vive la Legion indeed.
But it's not all doom and gloom. Indisputably, this past week of intensive marching, hiking, rock climbing and mountain trail-running has proved just the tonic after a month-long hedonistic binge back home. The thigh, calf and ass muscles may be burning excruciatingly but the cause is just and that self-servingly utopian feeling of getting in to proper shape is slowly flooding over all us Legionnaires. The unavoidable crash courses in blister-treatment also serve as a bonus pre-cursor to the two months of punishment awaiting me in Castel two weeks from now. Fitness incentives aside though, the Legion's chalet here in Valloire is one of the few genuinely enjoyable refuges from regimental life. While most off-base locations encompass sub-standard plumbing, dodgy beds and timetables horribly incompatible with human sleep patterns, here at Valloire we can rely on shiny new installations with ample food and even sleep.
As the old saying goes "The mountains don't joke around". If expected to scramble up to summits ranging from 2,500m to 3,750m, even our occasionally sadistic superiors recognise the need for decent grub and a good night's kip. Combine said altitudes and gradients (a standard climb would see us cover between 900m to 1,750m in under three hours) with a backpack stuffed with the essentials such as helmets, rope, ice axes, crampons, carabiners, helmets, several litres of water, the whole kit 'n caboodle basically, and you've an idea of just how much of a sweat can be worked up on a daily basis up here. In fact, the ascent is undoubtedly the "easy" part. Sure, the thighs are ready to explode and the back burns white-hot by the time we reach the top, but that's nothing compared to the descent. Knee shocks, ankle jerks, uneven surfaces and dislodged rocks during the return down to base camp (undertaken at a frightening speed decided by some rookie lieutenant out to prove something, although only God knows what) leave leg nerves shattered with some twitches continuing well in to the night.
Fortunately I'm only here for a half of the three-week duration, being allowed a week or so to recuperate before embarking on the next major milestone in my Legion career - Stage Caporal! The horror stories emanating from Castel surpass legendary at this point, but alas it is an obstacle that must be conquered in order to continue on my (sometimes rocky) road towards that day in August 2013, that mythical fin de contrat. I should be able to publish at least one more blog post before I dive in to the dauntingly deep blue. But first, I have to make it back to my regiment in one piece.
What? There's a storm brewing? Maybe we should stay inside today Sarge? What? No? Oh, okay……….