Every year, the Italian Army’s Mountain Troops organise a skiing championship called CaSTA, which is now in its 70th year. The event takes place over the course of one week, during which the soldiers undertake a range of races in different disciplines – giant slalom, biathlon, cross-country skiing – as well as military activities. Sounds fun, right? Well, yes, but in fact, CaSTA is actually organised to test the operational capabilities of the Mountain Troops, and the stimulation of the competitive challenges pushes the soldiers to try their hardest, even though the aim of the event is training for military activity. More than 1,500 soldiers took part in the most recent CaSTA, in which 10 other nations participated, thus offering a training opportunity to increase co-operation and interoperability between elite units of allied armies.
The rescue teams are dedicated to the recovery of Alpine Troops and military departments in general, and are trained and equipped to that effect
The Mountain Troops (or Alpine Troops), constitute a significant part of the Italian Army, deployed throughout the northern Alpine arc of the country, as well as in the central Abruzzo region. Each Department, at a regimental level, has an alpine rescue team made up of at least eight people who are trained specifically for mountain operations – as experienced with skis as they are with snowshoes. The members of the team are qualified to provide first aid, holding BLS-D and BTLS licences; there are dog drivers, plus at least one radio player to guarantee connection with other teams and helicopters.
The rescue teams are dedicated to the recovery of Alpine Troops and military departments in general, and are trained and equipped to that effect; this makes them suitable for use even at night and in particular emergency situations, such as when normal communication systems cannot be used. These skills, though, can also be used for civil emergencies, where the prefecture or the national civil protection system may request their involvement in a rescue scenario.
Thus, in 2017, a historic battalion was recreated – the Vicenza – whose configuration is specifically adapted for intervention in the event of natural disasters when the civilian population needs them. With the challenge of a new mission profile, and working in collaboration with other civil organisations, the Army identified the need for targeted training for the integration of their respective skills, knowledge and operating methods. For this reason, CaSTA 2018 included an avalanche rescue exercise, conducted in co-operation with Army helicopters, the CNSAS National Alpine and Speleological Rescue Corps, the rescue teams of the Guardia di Finanza (Italian Treasury and border police), and units and staff of the Carabinieri (Military Police).
Chaberton 2018 rescue scenario
In the small village of Monte Rotta, consisting of huts scattered on a plateau at an altitude of 2,100 meters, there are some families, mainly elderly people, who have been isolated as a result of recent heavy snowfall. An Alpine Troop rescue team approached at night, with the help of night vision goggles and moving on fresh snow, reaching the first homes early in the day. Via radio, the rescue team communicated to the operations room that the residents needed to be evacuated due to their dangerous situation and their poor health status. Other rescue teams were sent in using Army and Carabinieri snowmobiles, and BV-206 tracked vehicles of the Army moved in a medevac configuration, towing a team of CNSAS using the skijoring technique (skijoring is a winter sport where a person on skis is pulled by a horse, a dog (or dogs) or a motor vehicle). The vehicles also carried a DRASH (Deployable Rapid Assembly Shelter) tent, which was used as an advanced rescue station.
However, as that rescue was in progress, an avalanche overwhelmed a group of tourists who were skiing off-piste nearby. In order to cope with the new emergency, other rescue teams were needed, and the intervention of the Army Aviation helicopters became essential.
A CH-47F Chinook of the 1st AVES Regiment (Army Aviation) ‘Antares’ was the first to arrive in the avalanche zone, deploying two army rescue teams using the fast-rope technique – a rapid deployment and retrieval method, carried out at a maximum height of 20 metres. Staff descend on the rope without constraints, and two or more ropes can be used at the same time, and more people, spaced at least three metres apart from each other, can fall in sequence. It is a technique that requires specific training and physical training, and in Italy at least, it is implemented only by military personnel.
The first teams arranged themselves in orderly rows in order to probe the avalanche in search of the missing, while at the same time, a second CH-47F reached the area with other rescue teams, and an AB-205 of the 4th AVES Altair Regiment / 34th Squadrons Group Toro landed two K9 units of the Guardia di Finanza and of the CNSAS. Dogs that are trained for avalanche research are still the most effective tool if people who are buried do not have an emergency rescue beacon on them.
An operations director managed the influx of personnel throughout the morning, dividing them between the surveyors and the diggers, and placing them in the correct position on the avalanche so as to maximise the safety of the personnel as well as give them the best chance of locating the missing people.
The first people extracted from the avalanche were taken to first level tactical triage, then depending on the severity of their health condition, an evacuation was arranged with the helicopter or with the BV-206, or even on a stretcher pulled by snowmobile.
Co-operative working environment
The training event was a complex exercise that saw the use of various structures and techniques for transport and research, and put to the test the logistical, communication and co-ordination skills of the various operators. For the Army and its Alpine Troops, meanwhile, this was a first step towards the realisation of a new project, in which at least eight rescue teams will become part of the national civil protection system, with full integration and operational readiness 24/7.
All images by Dino Marcellino