Meet the Chasseurs Alpins, the French Army’s elite mountain infantry unit

  • 08 Feb. 2022 -
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  • Last updated: 08 Feb. 2022 17:46

What does it take to survive in the mountains? NATO video producers found out as they spent a day and night with the Chasseurs alpins (“Alpine Hunters”), the French Army’s elite mountain infantry unit. Over the course of 24 hours, they trekked deep into the French Alps, where they set up camp and ran training drills in the challenging mountain terrain. Military operations in the Alps aren’t for the faint of heart, and the Chasseurs show how demanding training pays off in expertise.

24 hours in the French Alps with the Chasseurs Alpins

Interview with Lieutenant Benoit, Platoon Commander of 13th Battalion of Alpine Hunters

How long have you served in the French armed forces?

I have been serving for five years now. I joined the French Army in 2016 as a reserve officer during my studies and, after graduation, I decided to join active service through the Military Academy of Saint Cyr.

How long have you served with the Chasseurs alpins specifically?

After the Military Academy and one year at Infantry School, I chose to serve in the 13e bataillon de chasseurs alpins in 2019. Therefore, I have been a platoon leader in the Mountain Troops for two years.

Why did you choose to join the Chasseurs alpins?

I had several options at the end of Infantry School, including paratrooper units or the Légion étrangère (French Foreign Legion), but I was deeply convinced that working with people in hard conditions like mountains would be highly intense and interesting. I also wanted to face new challenges, like increasing my knowledge in the field of alpinism and combat, and working hard in order to join the mountain commandos.

Have you always loved the mountains? What is your earliest memory of climbing a mountain, skiing or being in the Alps?

I discovered the mountains and alpinism quite late. My parents preferred tropical weather to snow, so I had more opportunities to swim than to ski! I really only discovered the mountains during business school thanks to my classmate, who had a family house in the Mont-Blanc valley. The love story with this environment started from there. 

When we see your unit training in the mountains, with all of the loud sounds of gunfire, it recalls the avalanche scene from Mulan. Do you train for avalanches? What do you do to prevent an avalanche, or react if one happens?

Good reference! Indeed, we train regularly:

  • First, to avoid avalanches! To this end, we receive and deliver precise instructions to understand where avalanches come from. This makes it easier to spot any dangerous snow or terrain conditions that could jeopardise the activity.
  • Second, to know how to conduct searches for victims of avalanches.

We are trained for safety above all, because our final goal is to bring a troop to a certain objective in order to fulfil a mission, not to push the limits of freestyling.

What happens if an igloo collapses?

It should not happen! But just in case, we do have procedures to avoid injuries or casualties. Indeed, for both tactical and safety purposes, there is always somebody monitoring outside as well as checking that there is no particular issue with the construction.

The main issue we have to deal with more frequently is the lack of oxygen in the igloos. To help with this, we use a good tool to alert the person in charge: a candle. Indeed, every igloo has a candle burning all night long. If it stops burning, it could mean that there is a lack of oxygen and it is a good sign to go and check if everybody is still OK inside.

What’s your favourite item in your meal ready-to-eat (MRE) kit? How many calories do you have to eat to maintain your strength as you hike up mountains all the time?

Our MRE kits are not illustrative of the best French gastronomy but they are still tasty and complete (about 3,200 kcal), especially the ones we receive when we go mountaineering (which are mostly dehydrated MRE kits, but also special ones developed for extreme cold conditions). My favourite item in that type of kit is probably the chocolate bar! I always keep it to relax during a break.

Tell us a funny story from your time working with the Chasseurs alpins!

I remember when I tried for the first time with some other mates to downhill ski as fast as possible with a fully equipped pulka attached to us (a sort of big sleigh that we use to transport special gear during some missions on the snow). Memorable plunges that day!

Skiing or snowboarding?

Skiing, definitely! It offers a wider range of possibilities.

What hobbies do you have? What do you do to keep yourself and your unit entertained on the top of a mountain at night?

The main hobby for soldiers is to talk and share stories while drinking coffee. During the evening and the night, it is also the appropriate moment for subordinates to share things with their superiors (like difficulties, personal issues or good news).

Do you know anything about the history of the Chasseurs alpins? How long has the mountain infantry unit existed? Are there any unique traditions that you carry on?

The Corps of Chasseurs alpins is part of a bigger entity called “Chasseurs à pied”, created by the Duc of Orléans in 1838 and originally famous for the speed and the particular spirit of the troop (later defined by Maréchal Lyautey). The first battalions of Chasseurs alpins were created in 1888. There were 12 during the first World War. Nowadays, only three remain.

Indeed, we do have some original traditions like:

  • We don’t say “jaune” (yellow) but “jonquille” (the name of a yellow flower that is common in the Alps).
  • We don’t say “rouge” (red) but “bleu-cerise” (literally blue-cherry), except to describe:
    • the colour of the French flag;
    • the highest French distinction (the Légion d’honneur); and
    • the lips of a loved one.

Do you encounter any wildlife up on the mountains?

Of course, during summer mostly. Chamois and bouquetins (types of mountain goats), marmots, choucas and other birds, and even wolves are good friends of ours!

In recent years, we have seen the increasing effects of climate change on snowy environments, with glaciers melting and land shifting. How does the changing climate affect the operations of the Chasseurs alpins? What do you do to help preserve the natural environment?

The main issues we encounter because of climate change are the consequences on our training “facilities”. Training on snow and glaciers is less and less safe. To be able to train in good conditions for long enough, we need to go higher, which is not very convenient for manoeuvres, especially with young soldiers who are still learning.

Mountains are our special field of expertise. We respect this terrain and we do everything to neutralise our impact on it (we clearly understand that mountains are not trashcans, for example).

In addition, our battalion is deeply committed to reducing our energy needs through the renovation of facilities and the increasing production of sustainable power (especially thanks to the first army biomass boiler). Indeed, we have reduced our energy bill by 40 per cent since 2011.

In the video, you talk about mastering your fear while being in this isolated environment, up the side of a mountain far away from any help. How do you master your fear?

As a platoon commander, it is probably the easiest because you have no right to let your fear dominate. As Michel Menu, a famous Boy Scout leader, wrote about the relationship between leaders and their subordinates: “If you slow down, they stop. If you show a weakness, they crack up. If you sit down, they lay down … But if you lead the way, they exceed your expectations. If you help them, they give their blood.”

For any soldier, it is mainly a question of experience. The more you go into the mountains and face danger and solitude, the better you are able to deal with them. Fear also disappears when you feel that your comrades and the person in charge will do anything for you – and are competent enough – if something happens. We have our own concept of “brotherhood in arms” in the mountains. We call it “l’esprit de cordée” (that could probably be translated as “the rope spirit”) in reference to the rope creating a particular link between the people tied together while mountaineering.

What does it mean to you to be part of the NATO Alliance?

To me, it is mainly being part of a huge group of Allies training together in order to be ready to cooperate when necessary. It is also a real opportunity to discover different cultures and to share experiences.

Is there anything else that we should know about the Chasseurs alpins?

Come and see for yourself! We are always glad to welcome newcomers! The “accueil aimable” (“friendly welcome”) is definitely part of our traditions.