Fancy replicating stunts from The Bourne Legacy? In the Alps? ShortList’s Joe Ellison pulls on his mittens
Standing on the ridge of a 2km-high mountain, faced with a plunging drop into what looks like oblivion, I’m shaking with fear. A body has just flown past me. It’s picking up speed, and the only thing between me and the same fate is a pair of hiking poles.
Some 24 hours previously I was shaking for an entirely different reason: sub-zero temperatures. I was clambering up one of the highest mountains in the Central Eastern Alps to experience the cold-weather survival training that spy Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) undergoes in The Bourne Legacy – and, bar a minor sledding accident in 1995, I’ve never experienced such face-gnawing frost.
“That area would make a great killing field,” says team leader Ross Kane, joyfully indicating towards a gap in a barbwire fence where the enemy could lie in wait. He’s a former Royal Marine sergeant and specialist in cold-climate warfare who now works for Remote Trauma – an elite risk and safety group run by ex-commandos who organise adventures in hostile environments – though I’m more envious of the fact he has the surefootedness of a mountain goat.
In the film, Renner enhances his physical and mental abilities by popping brain-altering pills. Tic Tacs are my substitute, as I’m told that keeping up blood-sugar levels is a good way to harbour energy. Another must is to keep hydrated. I find glugging icy water painful but, as your brain won’t tell you you’re thirsty in the cold, it’s crucial to take on liquid.
Back on the ascent, with dusk closing in, we are 500m from the summit. Now second in the line and acting as spotter, I use a thumb compass to follow co-ordinates, leading us to a care package with a tracking device (which we later use to find dead rabbits) and some shovels, presumably to dig our own graves.
A night on ice
Time to build a snow cave where I’ll spend the night. I’m instructed to dig a deep hole and flatten a bedding area, pile blocks of ice around it for insulation and, finally, use a sheet as a roof. There’s no room for error. One loosely fitted slab of ice could let in a chilly wind and cause frostbite. Keen to keep my toes intact, I dig deep, surrounding my base with high fortifications, before tying over a reflective blanket to help contain my body warmth.
I then watch Johnny Yuill, a former Marine sniper of 13 years, skin and cut a rabbit up before cooking it. He’s the man for the job all right; breaking and tearing off animal limbs with his bare hands. I’d struggle to open a bottle of ketchup in this weather. Once finished, he leans across the blood-splattered snow and hands me the fur to show how a thick coat can be crucial for someone in need of extra layers.
As dusk falls, I crawl into my slushy abode and dive into my sleeping bag with my water bottle in-hand – keeping bottled liquids in your sleeping bag stops them freezing. One hour in, no sleep. My body is shivering too much for my mind to switch off, a problem I put down to the worry of losing a digit, as much as the cold. When my body eventually warms up, my makeshift mattress of pine tree branches (getting off the ground, even by an inch, is key to escaping the cold) is as uncomfortable as it sounds. It’s a rough night.
Wiping off my beard of icicles, I surface from my grotto at 07:00 as a bleary-eyed mess. Ten minutes later, while packing my gear into the rucksack, an explosion goes off. As a burning flame rises 20 metres in front of me, I stand fiddling with a reflective sheet. Three rockets whistle through the air and explode overhead. If this wasn’t a training exercise, I’d be dead.
I quickly scramble up the nearest hill. Irked, sleepless and struggling for breath, I reach team leaders Johnny and Ross who, in full Bourne mode, inform us we urgently need to go down the mountain to our extraction point.
In spite of the eventful check-out, the true Hollywood action comes on our descent. Three of us take the wrong path and are faced with a steep drop, made more dangerous by shallow, slippery snow. Then it happens: one of the party goes somersaulting past me and is flipped over by his weighty rucksack. It’s terrifying. The fallen comrade emits no sound until his journey is halted by some small trees he manages to grab on to. All we can see is his hand holding on to a branch. And then, in a manner befitting Wile E Coyote, the branch snaps, sending him plummeting once more.
My heart is so far in my mouth I can taste my aorta. One step forwards, I’m taking a fall. One step backwards, the same outcome. Remembering what my team leaders had told me about digging in the snow with my heel for grip, I slowly carve a hole to the side of me so I can jump inside with both feet. I land in the divot and repeat the method until I reach relative safety.
Don’t look down
Having landed on a large bush, the hapless tumbler isn’t banged up too badly, just cuts, bruises and dented pride, so we continue. By the time we spot our extraction point, my limbs are aching. More troublingly, the extraction point is across a huge gorge, bridged only by a thick rope.
I lie on top of the rope with a harness attached and yank myself across. Halfway over and my arms feel like jelly, which forces me to use my right leg (hooked over the rope to counterbalance my outstretched left leg) for leverage – an error. The foot comes loose, sending me over. Now, hanging underneath the rope with my legs hooked around it, I desperately attempt to hurl my body back on top for what feels like two hours. Drained of energy, I’m painstakingly hauled across by the specialists – not the heroic exit I’d imagined.
Back in civilisation, my efforts are rewarded when Ross and Johnny present me with a military-issue commando fighting knife. Sure, I might not possess Bourne-esque super soldier abilities, but now I can lop off the top of a ketchup bottle.
The Bourne Legacy is out now on Blu-ray and DVD. Take part in Bourne-style challenges at Jointheprogramme.com
(Image: Rex Features)