Winter to the Corps
The marines' mountain warfare training center is the ultimate test for some of the world's toughest troops: a make-it-or-leave regimen of backcountry ski combat, torturous night maneuvers, and deadly cold. Any volunteers?
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“Suffering is mandatory,” Captain Clinton Culp shouts, an egg-size plug of chewing tobacco in his mouth. “Misery is optional!” He spits in the snow and grins.
It’s meant to be a joke, kind of, but the marines, 20 of them, are too cold to laugh. They’re standing in a foot of snow in a clearing in central Alaska. It’s 3 p.m.—already dusk, the sky and the snow an ice-pale blue, another endless arctic night descending. The temperature is minus 15, with a scalpel-like breeze, and the marines are doing everything they possibly can to stay warm: stamping their white skis, clapping their heavily mittened hands, turtling their balaclava’d heads into their hunched shoulders. The men aspire to become instructors at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center. After months of classes and exercises at the center, about 20 miles north of Yosemite, they’ve been flown up to Alaska to find out if they have what it takes to teach at the toughest school in the Corps.
Captain Culp, 35, a lean, tall Texan, could pass for a country singer. Now Captain Justin Anderson—29 years old, 215 pounds, with flat eyes and a redbrick corner of a nose, the reincarnation of a 19th-century Scottish boxer—steps forward. Anderson comes from a military family—one uncle took shrapnel to the head in Korea, one uncle was gut shot in Vietnam. Anderson would have joined the Marines right out of high school if his parents hadn’t insisted he go to college. So he did, at the Citadel.
“Marines! If you’re cold it’s your fault!” The clouds of Captain Anderson’s breath swirl in front of his face. “Now fucking pay attention, this is how it’s supposed to be done! Sergeant Tooby.”
Colour Sergeant Steven Tooby, 34, is a British Royal Marine with a scarlet face, who refuses to wear a hat no matter how damn cold it is. Instead Tooby wears an indomitable, elfish smirk. He can ski like a Swede, telemark like a Norwegian, curse like a sailor, and gladly informs any marine at any time how “‘orribly foken bahd” he’s fucking up.
Tooby raises an arm and four skiers in white arctic camo come gliding into the clearing in single file. Even the M-16s strapped across their chests have been carefully wrapped in white tape. Suddenly the lead skier is firing—crack-crack-crack-crack-crack—and the ejected shells arc into the snow. The second skier has already veered right, dropped to one knee, swung his poles forward, planted them in an X, set his M-16 in the notch, and is firing. In seconds the team is fanned out and advancing; three skiers provide cover fire while one bounds forward, kneels, and starts shooting. The fighters hopscotch forward, swiftly skiing and shooting their way toward a line of green cardboard targets—silhouettes of enemy soldiers—at the far end of the clearing.
It’s a deadly display of precise choreography. This is a live-fire immediate-action drill; if any of these guys were to trip, slip, or miscalculate, they could instantly execute a fellow marine.
They start retreating. Again, three skiers provide cover fire while one drops back, kneels, makes the ski-pole X, and begins firing while another marine is falling back. They retreat all the way back into the trees; silence returns to the snow-laden landscape.
I’m standing to the side with 35-year-old Major Craig Kozeniesky—”Major K,” the boss—and Captain Mike Andretta, 27, his second-in-command. I peer through my monocular at the cardboard soldiers. In their chests are ragged holes the size of silver dollars.
Culp, Anderson, and Tooby stare dourly at the huddle of marines. The four who just performed are their finest instructors. They created them. Someday a few of the men gathered before them might be that good, and thus qualified to teach other marines how to fight in the mountain cold.
“So!” Captain Anderson says, cocking his square head, “Sergeant Tooby and I don’t care if your tits are frozen solid! Your job is to do what they just did.”
THE MARINE CORPS Mountain Warfare Training Center was founded in 1951 in response to the losses suffered by ill-prepared U.S. forces in the Korean War, where more than 3,000 soldiers sustained severe frostbite during the Chosin Reservoir campaign alone. Over the last half-century the MWTC, headquartered near Bridgeport, California, has trained nearly half a million members of the Corps, other branches of the U.S. military, and armed forces from other nations. Every year approximately 10,000 marines undergo training at the MWTC. By comparison, the Army Northern Warfare Training Center in Fort Wainwright, Alaska, sees fewer than 500 servicemen annually, and the Army National Guard Mountain Warfare School, in Jericho, Vermont, trains several hundred soldiers, National Guardsmen, and reservists each year. The Army’s 10th Mountain Division, despite its name and history, has not trained units in mountaineering, avalanche work, or cold-weather survival since World War II.
When the U.S.-led campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan was launched in October, the relevance of mountain warfare was thrown into sharp relief. The withdrawal of the Soviet military in Afghanistan in the 1980s was attributed not only to the ferocity of Afghan guerrilla fighters, but to the region’s vast, rugged, and remote mountain landscape. Despite the anti-terrorism coalition’s overwhelming air superiority and the panoply of new technology available to American forces, the prospect of U.S. soldiers helping to hunt down Osama bin Laden and his Taliban allies in harsh winter conditions across some of the most difficult terrain on earth suddenly became very real.
In the past, it was widely assumed that civilian mountain guides, rock climbers, and avalanche specialists were far more advanced in technique and equipment than their military counterparts. “Military climbing” has sometimes been used as a term of ridicule. Today, however, a strong liaison exists between adventure athletes and soldiers. In recent months, for example, Exum Mountain Guides in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, has been training military personnel on their way to the front lines in Afghanistan.
Among the members of the 15th and 26th Marine Expeditionary Units deployed near Kandahar in late November were a number of “mountain leaders” and assault climbers who have received advanced training at the MWTC; hundreds of other marines who were sent to Afghanistan have also been trained at the center. But according to Major General Thomas Jones, the Quantico, Virginia-based commander of training and education for the Marine Corps, the mission of the MWTC goes beyond preparing units to fight in places like Central Asia.
“Training in a cold, mountainous environment is the closest thing we have to approximating the stress a soldier undergoes in combat,” Jones told me. “If a marine can learn how to fight in the cold in the mountains, he can fight anywhere—desert, jungle, anywhere. Severe cold and rugged terrain force soldiers to work together, to share and eventually overcome incredible adversity. It builds cohesiveness.
“You can’t simulate humping a 70-pound pack up to 11,000 feet,” he continued. “You can’t simulate climbing or skiing. You can’t simulate cold. You can’t simulate fear. You have to experience these things—experience them and learn from them. That’s how to make a soldier. Even if we never fought another day in the cold or the mountains, we would still train there, because it teaches marines how to handle extreme conditions. That’s the real power of the Mountain Warfare Training Center, and the brass know it.”
I arranged to visit the MWTC in California and then accompany about 60 marines on winter maneuvers at a training site south of Fairbanks, Alaska. In addition to the ten battalions that receive summer and winter mountain-warfare training at the MWTC each year, some 300 marines come annually in hopes of either becoming MWTC instructors or mountain leaders for their own battalions. One purpose of the trip to Alaska is to evaluate the program’s would-be leaders. Nearly a third of these hopefuls don’t succeed.
“It’s the most physically intense program in the military,” Captain Andretta told me when I first spoke with him by phone. “It’s an elite posting. You have to want to come, and you have to pull strings to make it happen. Those marines who survive to become instructors are the cream of the crop: the strongest, the toughest, the smartest in the Corps.”
THE MWTC LIES IN THE BELLY of the central Sierra Nevada, on 46,000 acres leased from Toyaibe National Forest. Elevations range from 6,000 to 11,500 feet, and the terrain rises from creek-bottom brush to towering ponderosa forest to sheer granite walls. Much of the alpine portion is buried beneath six feet of snow half the year. The base itself resembles a community college—a cluster of brown and tan buildings cradled by mountains. The day I showed up, there was a foot of new powder on the Sierra crest.
Captain Andretta is the OIC of the IQC for the MCMWTC. In civilian-speak, that’s the officer in charge of the Instructor Qualification Course at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center. He showed me around, starting with a gleaming, state-of-the-art fitness center and weight room.
“Instructor candidates spend a month straight in the field,” he said, “and are taught and then tested on such subjects as advanced avalanche skills, rock climbing, ice climbing, mountain navigation, cliff assaults, cold-weather weapons operations, survival, water procurement, wilderness first aid—everything that fighting in the mountains entails.”
Passing into the gymnasium, Andretta flicked on the lights to reveal a 35-foot-high climbing wall stretching the length of the basketball court, with radical overhangs, cracks, pockets, and chimneys. He asked if I’d like to climb. We spent the next several hours on the wall, flailing up one route after another.
Andretta is a kayaker and a vegetarian, drives a hammered Toyota pickup with the radio locked on NPR, and has a degree in civil engineering. He loves the satire of The Onion, and the furniture in the house where he rooms with a Marine helicopter pilot has been arranged according to the principles of feng shui. His dad was a marine. “Antiquated as some may think it sounds,” he told me, “I joined because I wanted to serve my country. My mom keeps asking me when I’m going to use my degree, but to me, I already have: I used it to get a commission in the Marine Corps.”
In the morning I worked out with the mountain instructors and then showered with a bunch of muscled guys—clean-cut military men who, naked, turned out to be inscribed with tattoos: barbed wire, battle cries, babes.
I spent the afternoon with the quotable Captain Culp, a 17-year career officer who’s been deployed in Korea, Somalia, Norway, and the Philippines. He loves the life: “Hey! If it doesn’t give you a woody, you’re in the wrong fuckin’ business.”
Culp drove me up toward Sonora Pass, pointing his bulging cheek full of chaw at a snow-caked peak. “Every morning the men run, ski, or snowshoe four miles straight up from the base, a gain of 3,000 feet.”
I must not have seemed appropriately impressed.
“With an assault load, of course,” Culp added. “Daypacks, full canteens, full magazines, M-16s.” Culp took me to the granite cliffs where the marines practice rock climbing.
“Thirteen different knots, 12 different rope systems. To pass the course you have to lead 5.7.”
Well, I thought, 5.7 isn’t that difficult.
In standard-issue combat boots, Culp went on, again with an assault load and loaded weapon.
“With a headlamp?” I asked.
Culp shook his head. “Nice big target smack-dab on your forehead.”
For downhill-skiing instruction, the marines are shuttled to Kirkwood, a nearby ski area to learn and then practice telemarking. This, too, must eventually be done with a full load, in the dark.
“All the flat-ground training we teach right here,” Culp said. “Diagonal stride, V-1, V-2.”
Back at the base he loaned me a set of manuals and textbooks. The avalanche material, I saw, came from the most recent edition of Snow Sense, the best book on the subject; the alpine-climbing sections featured the latest information from Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills, sixth edition; the river- and canyon-crossing procedures reflected the most sophisticated canyoneering techniques in use anywhere. The gear, too, is first-rate: Capilene long underwear, Polartec fleece, Gore-Tex jackets and bivy sacks, Alico three-pin boots, The North Face tents, MSR WhisperLite stoves.
Culp has one implacable expectation, and it is not simply to create skilled outdoorsmen. “We teach them how to climb and ski, and most of them love it,” he said. “But those are just the means to an end. After they ski up through a pass or climb to the top of a cliff, they still have to have the capability and the strength and the will to fight. To hunt down the enemy and kill the bastards.”
WE FLEW IN A C-130 transport plane to Alaska, sitting in nylon-strap seats in plane-length rows. The engine was too loud for conversation. We wore earplugs. Several guys played chess. Most of the men read. Andretta: ‘Tis, by Frank McCourt. Captain Anderson: The Trial, by Kafka. Culp: The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan.
We landed after dark at Eielson Air Force Base and were bused south to the Fort Greely Military Reservation and its absurdly named Texas Range. It was ten below zero.
The marines unloaded their gear, set up tents in the snow, and began what would become a ceaseless struggle against the cold. Every hour a new shift of sentries would crawl out of their sleeping bags, take up their M-16s, and stand guard in the cold.
The weak dawn illuminated a forbidding landscape. To the south was the Alaska Range, its thousands of peaks and valleys eternally encased in ice. To the north stretched a black, primeval forest. And all of it as silent as Siberia, as if the cold itself had strangled all attempts at communication.
Forty of the 60 instructor candidates were ranked “Tier Two”—experienced, proven men. Twenty of them were “Tier One”—beginners struggling to pass the Instructor Qualification Course. On day two, Tier Ones practiced flat-ground skiing exercises while Tier Twos were trucked up to the Black Rapids Training Site to practice telemarking. That night both groups did long, exhausting, lightless forest recons.
On day three both groups spent the day doing live-fire drills. They practiced skiing and shooting. They practiced snowshoeing and shooting. They practiced wearing 70-pound packs and pulling sleds and breaking through willows and shooting. That night they practiced tracer-fire ambushes.
Everybody camped out in the snow, snatching what sleep they could between night maneuvers, night watches, and the never-ending winter-camping necessity of boiling snow for water and meals. I shared a tent with Captain Andretta and Major K, both of whom brought tiny black electric razors and, every morning, shaved sitting up in their sleeping bags.
Major K does everything his men do. When they ski he skis, when they snowshoe he snowshoes. And when they boot across some endless snaggly creek bottom with a 70-pound pack he follows right behind—bearing his own load, observing, listening, saying very little. General Jones described him as “tougher than a woodpecker’s lips,” adding, “He’s precisely the marine to train our marines.”
Major K has been in the Corps for 13 years and has a degree in political science from the University of New Mexico. He has a wife and two sons, and doesn’t know what he would do if he weren’t a marine. “My mom and my old man were marines,” he says. His father lost both legs in Vietnam. “He used to say that he had six good years and one bad day and that he’d still be Ôin the suck’ if he could be.”
On day four, maneuvers are supposed to begin at one in the morning and include ice climbing, but there have been several “environmental casualties” among the novice instructors. One marine got his hands severely frostbitten and may lose several fingers; one scalded his hand while boiling snow water; one went down with vomiting and dehydration. And another was struck in the eye by an M-16 shell casing and burned his cornea during a midnight live-fire ambush. At 5 a.m. the remaining 16 or so novices, some of whom have frostnip on their fingers or toes, some of whom are obviously hypothermic, are once again standing in the black cold, shivering, waiting for their orders.
Captain Andretta is glowering. He looks furious—it’s a side of him you might never know existed.
“What time is it?” he screams.
“0500, sir!” the marines shout, their breath instantly freezing.
“What time were we supposed to move out?”
“I gave you four extra hours to unass yourselves. Why?”
“That’s right. Goddamit, pull your heads out of your asses! You’re fucking up! You have to take care of yourselves. You have to take care of each other. You haven’t even met the enemy yet, but already, one by one, you’re going down!”
These men have hardly slept in four days. They’ve been skiing with a pack and firing their frozen M-16s and moving all day and deep into every night. They don’t have the experience of the seasoned instructors. You can see the fear of the cold in their glazed eyes and rigid postures.
Their orders: to attack an observation post (held by Tier Two veterans), rout the enemy, and consolidate the captured terrain. The observation post is on a bluff above the brush-choked, mile-wide Delta River. With a bare, windswept ridge to its back, birch draws buried in deep snow to either side, and an eagle’s-eye view of the entire ice-coated river valley, the post commands a devastating 360-degree view.
The attack takes all day. The marines are exhausted and chilled to the bone and thus extremely slow. Some of them are carrying almost 100 pounds. The snow varies from six inches of powder to thigh-killing crust. The marines trudge up through the hellish deadfall of the forest. They trudge across boggy open meadows. They trudge through pack-snaring willows. By the time they finally straggle up to the observation post, each of them has been “killed” by the enemy a dozen times.
Major K takes pity and allows them into the hut for their debriefing. Too often, he says, they were moving out in the open—directly in the enemy’s line of sight—rather than utilizing the microterrain. Too often they were bunched together, ensuring mortar fire from the enemy. They attacked uphill rather than circling around and attacking downhill.
They also made simple winter mistakes. They didn’t eat enough. They didn’t drink enough. Worst of all, they failed to layer and unlayer properly. Terrified of the cold, most of them wore their heavy fleece throughout the movement. Sergeant Tooby is outraged.
“You know why you’re all so foken exhausted? You foken sweated too much! You’re totally dehydrated.” He picks up one of their fleece jackets and wrings a torrent of sweat out of it. “It’s absolutely foken mad!”
That night three more soldiers are pulled out of the squad. All have potentially severe hypothermia and will require warm-fluid IVs and a night in the heated operations trailer to recover.
High winds are predicted for sometime in the early hours. They arrive at 2 a.m. By 3 a.m. the 60-mile-per-hour gale has snapped the poles of many of the tents, including ours. Major K and I dismantle the wreck, pack it away, and crawl back inside our bags.
I AWAKE SOMETIME LATER and sit up. There is a sentry standing watch beside me. He is motionless, rifle shouldered, staring out into the night.
I don’t know this marine. It occurs to me how little of themselves—their individuality, their singularity—these would-be instructors have revealed in the past few days. Each of them has volunteered to live in a world where personalities are less important than the task, and the task can only be accomplished by a team. They have subjugated their own egos in order to work together, to stay focused, to forge a unified fighting force. So they don’t whine. They don’t psychoanalyze. They don’t obsess. They do.
This absence of self-dramatization is a rare phenomenon. I’ve been on dozens of expeditions. Whenever one fails we blame it on the weather, the avalanche conditions, the rockfall. And sometimes such objective factors are decisive. But often it’s about failing to figure out how to pull together.
Before I fall back to sleep, I remember asking Captain Culp to define, in one sentence, what it means to be a marine.
“It’s all about discipline,” he replied, and his smile seemed to acknowledge that, imbedded in this cliché, there was life-or-death truth.
The next night—our last—after a day of patrols and ambushes, the final stage of the Instructor Qualification Course begins: another grueling cross-country attack.
“Men,” says Major K, “I know you’re cold. I know you’re exhausted. Sometime tonight you may feel so whipped that all you want to do is stop and lie down in the snow. Well, listen up, marines, that’s what this field exercise is all about! This environment is enemy number one. You have to whup the cold before you can whup the enemy. You have a mission. The mission is to attack the objective. That means to kill somebody who’s trying to kill you. Don’t fucking forget it.”
He stops and looks for a long moment at his haggard men.
“Suck it up.”
The squad is under noise-and-light discipline. Signals are passed along by hand; no one is allowed to use flashlights or headlamps.
Starlight reflects faintly off the boundless snow as the marines fan out on snowshoes behind scout skiers who have already vanished ahead. The soldiers are all but invisible in their overwhites—huge, hooded jackets and baggy pants—and their bulbous white vapor-barrier boots, white mittens, and white backpack covers. It’s a squad of ghosts.
After four hours of continuous movement, they reach the edge of a forest. They slip into the woods, then stop. A message is whispered back from man to man—”Overwhite top off.” The men are staggered through the dense forest in a wedge formation, each man kneeling behind a tree. Every other man silently drops his 70-pound pack and strips off his monkish cloak while the rest stand watch. In minutes the squad is retailored to match the black-and-white terrain.
Once again the scout skiers are sent ahead to recon the approach. As they have a half-dozen times during this night attack, the rest of the marines wait. Kneeling in the snow, acutely alert, wordless, they’re motionless as ice sculptures. Something has coalesced inside these men. They seem to have regained their strength and confidence. You can feel it.
When the scout skiers return, another message is passed back through the men: “Ranger file.” The marines slide laterally into a strung-out line, ten meters between each soldier, and begin walking through the forest, M-16s in their arms.
Twenty minutes later, barely enough time to get the icy sludge of blood flowing again, the patrol halts. The men wait. And wait. No word is passed. The marines kneel in the snow beneath their giant packs with their weapons on safety and stare into the darkness.
Finally word comes: “Column file, five meters.”
The men form two lines with five meters between each soldier, and advance. They halt again in less than ten minutes. A string of commands and information gradually moves back through the platoon. The objective is fewer than 150 meters dead ahead. Drop the packs. Have weapons and magazines ready.
Major K touches me on the shoulder and we walk up through the heavily armed men crouched in the snow. To the right is a clearing. We step to the edge and Major K hands me a pair of infrared night-vision goggles. Instantly the cover of night is obliterated. Black is transformed to a ghoulish green, all lighter colors to shades of orange. Everything is fuzzy but visible. Through the pines I can clearly see the objective: a group of metal buildings. There is a chain-link fence around the compound. The platoon commander’s navigational skills are impeccable. After moving for miles in the dark, sometimes through open country with no landmarks, sometimes through thick forest, he has hit the objective precisely.
I turn and study the soldiers. They are all kneeling beside their packs, rifles up, eyes burning blindly in the dark. I can see the tension in their bodies, their predatory anticipation, their primal desire to fight.
Major K and I move back to the rear of the squad and wait. He leans over and whispers, “By God, they pulled themselves together.”
Apparently the scout skiers have breached the chain-link fence. The marines remove their snowshoes and begin advancing very slowly, carefully stepping in the snow holes of each other’s footprints, ducking beneath branches.
In what happens next, the bullets and mortars are blanks. And yet, stripped clean by exhaustion and suffering and their shared ordeal, the men become what they’ve trained to become.
Somebody snaps a trip wire and the entire forest explodes. The detonation sends a concussive wave slamming through the air, and burning flares light up the night. The noise is shattering: machine-gun fire and mortar rounds. The marines rush forward, plunging through the trees, the whole scene lit up by a shifting incandescent glare, orange muzzle-flashes popping everywhere. The men are running for the breach in the fence, firing their weapons and screaming, tripping and falling in the drifts and pulling each other up.