JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON --
Countries worldwide have been affected by the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, with many large gatherings and events scrapped by the twin requirements of social distancing and protective equipment wear combined with the difficulty of near-constant sanitization.
The military has not been able to avoid the pandemic’s reach, but with extra planning and effort, U.S. Army Alaska’s Northern Warfare Training Center (NWTC) managed full student loads for both the Basic and Advanced Military Mountaineering courses at their Black Rapids Training Site in August.
According to 1st Lt. Dani Ayer, NWTC training officer in charge, the center’s leadership worked closely with Public Health and Preventative Medicine to develop a plan that would ensure the proper COVID-19 precautionary measures were followed to allow training to be conducted safely for both students and cadre.
“We then coordinated with USARAK to obtain an Exception to Policy to be able to conduct the courses to full capacity,” Ayer explained. “We did, however, have to adjust some aspects of the way we train. We shifted to a decentralized approach, facilitating squad-level training as opposed to platoon level.”
The two mountaineering courses are part of NWTC’s catalog of training opportunities, which, including cold weather classes during Alaska’s challenging winters, aim to give commanders an edge in mountainous terrain and extreme weather. Arctic, subarctic, and mountain environments are brutally unforgiving to the unprepared. Units that have successfully fought in these environments have historically been those with special individual skills, with personnel who are physically and mentally tough, and who have extensive experience and expertise operating in harsh conditions.
“Military mountaineering is a means to enable a commander to negotiate complex terrain, both ascent and descent in mountainous environments, using ropes and other specialized equipment,” explained Maj. Caleb Goble, NWTC commandant. “Military mountaineers understand how environmental factors and terrain can be overcome and used to gain an advantage over enemy forces.
“Topics such as intelligence collection, offensive and defensive postures, sustainment operations, direct and indirect fires, and communications are examined by military mountaineers,” Goble continued. “Mountainous environments have variables that elevate the risk level because of the lack of mobility or how quickly the weather can change, while the same mission in other terrain would be low risk and routine.”
The Basic Military Mountaineering Course (BMMC) trains Soldiers in the fundamental knowledge and skills required to successfully conduct small-unit operations in typical mountainous terrain found throughout the world.
The Advanced course builds on previous instruction and trains Soldiers in the knowledge and skills required to lead small units and teams over technically difficult, hazardous or exposed (Class 4 and 5) mountainous terrain during summer months. The course is intended for units or individuals who will conduct operations in mountainous terrain and must operate independently of major units or organizations, or who will lead larger organizations over technically hazardous terrain.
Ayer said for BMMC students, it was challenging to digest the extensive quantity of information packed into the two-week course.
“There is also a good bit of rucking over challenging terrain with a heavy pack,” she said. “If you are not prepared, the movements can be rather difficult.”
Students agreed the course was both physically and mentally challenging.
“BMMC is a physically demanding and highly technical course that, upon completion, taught me the skills necessary to lead tactical operations in mountainous and alpine terrain,” said 1st Lt. Christopher Peer, a student from Bayonet Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment. “From the start, the course was relentless as we learned multiple climbing techniques and rope systems daily.
“I would advise anyone considering the course to ensure that they are both physically and mentally prepared to move under load, 40 to 70 pounds, in steep terrain, in poor weather conditions, for extended periods of time,” Peer continued. “Overall, the course was fun and rewarding.
“I am ranger qualified and conducted some mountaineering at Ranger School, however BMMC at Black Rapids was much more in-depth and gave me the tools required to conduct mountaineering operations and training back at my unit.”
Ayer said the biggest challenge for AMMC students was learning mechanical advantage, a series of pulley systems to help move a heavy load.
“An example would be if your climber gets injured and you have to belay them over an edge,” she explained. “Students are taught to employ a system to give them a mechanical advantage and lift more than they typically would be able to on their own.”
Goble said NWTC does accept students from outside USARAK.
“Our main customers are Soldiers from USARAK, however we have slots in most of our courses that are coded for international students,” he explained. “Other DoD services (Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard), conventional and special operations Army units, and some federal employees have attended our courses.
“Since the pandemic we have not had any Soldiers from outside Alaska in our standard courses, though several organizations from across the DoD have reached out to coordinate for either specialized courses or to coordinate for upcoming winter courses,” Goble said.