CAMP ETHAN ALLEN TRAINING SITE: Mountain warfare can be unforgiving, and if a Soldier is ill-prepared, the mountains and rough terrain can become a terrible foe.
That’s according to Master Sgt. Nathan Chipman, the noncommissioned officer in charge of operations at the Army Mountain Warfare School. Nestled in the hills of Jericho, Vermont, the school gives students the skills they need to navigate and fight in rough terrain. The program is built to teach Soldiers and commanders operational endurance and self-sufficiency.
“I like the mantra of ‘shoot, move, communicate, medicate and evacuate,’” Chipman said. “When you take those real basic Soldier tasks, and you apply them to a mountainous or rugged terrain or cold-weather environments, all of those tasks become extremely difficult. And we haven’t even included the stressors involved with a Soldier’s load, altitude and exhaustion.”
The need for Soldiers with robust mountaineering experience became evident during operations in northern Iraq and Afghanistan. Adversaries often took the fight into the hills because the hills were harder to access and could bog down larger formations, said Sgt. 1st Class Stephen Jennings, assistant operations NCO at the school.
Commanders must take into account a Soldier’s load, including the right amounts of water and ammunition, and determine if it is sustainable at higher elevations over an undetermined amount of days. Soldiers can apply the skills taught at the mountain warfare school at sea level or 10,000 feet — the only difference is the acclimatization process, Jennings added.
“There are 100 things that the [commander] needs to know down to the Soldier level,” Chipman said. “The skill sets that are taught here can reach out multiple lines of effort, in multiple environments. That is the real stuff that we provide.”
“I have a PowerPoint slide of the world with all of the areas that are red where mountains are, and highlighted on top are areas that have problems with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” said Sgt. 1st Class Nick Ash, one of the school’s branch chiefs. “Those areas are chock full of mountains.”
The mountain warfare school offers several different courses. The basic mountaineering course has both summer and winter classes to train Soldiers in the skills required to conduct mountain combat operations under any climatic conditions.
Although the two seasonal classes have their similarities, many students consider the winter course to be the most difficult due to the hostile cold weather, culminating in a field exercise up Smugglers’ Notch, according to Ash.
“We have equipment in our Army inventory that [allows] us to be mountain capable; if no one knows how to use it, people get hurt and die,” Ash said. “If you look at Europe, Central Asia, South America, all those militaries have mountain troops, and they are highly capable. We are no different.”
“Every war that we have fought, with the exception of Iraq, has had mountain terrain that troops have been put into, and they have been ill-prepared or not highly trained to deal with that,” he said. “We can’t have that.”
The school receives a good cross section of students — “from upper-tier units to the cook from some Guard unit in Kentucky,” Ash said. Moreover, the school receives active, Guard and Reserve students from other services, cadets, law-enforcement personnel from city and county, state and federal jurisdictions, and foreign military partners, more specifically from countries that have a need to build the mountain capability.
The mountain warfare school also offers mountain rifleman, mountain planners, and rough terrain evacuation courses. The rifleman course is used to train snipers and squad-designated marksmen a combination of mountain-specific skills and angle marksmanship fundamentals. The planners’ course trains mountain leaders in the necessary skills required to plan, support and execute operations in mountainous terrain under various climatic conditions. Lastly, the rough terrain course provides Soldiers the skills to care for and safely evacuate an injured Soldier over steep terrain under harsh conditions.
As the subject-matter experts in the field of military mountaineering, the command staff and instructors set the curriculum for the course, according to Maj. Ricky S. Trayah, the school’s executive officer. Changes to the program of instruction are approved and added to the curriculum by the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Georgia.
TRAINING THE TRAINER
After students complete the basic course, they can choose to return to Vermont for the advanced military mountaineering course. The advanced course teaches Soldiers the skills required to lead small units over technically difficult, hazardous or exposed mountainous terrain during cold-weather conditions.
Additionally, the advanced course provides a managerial portion that enables Soldiers to become unit trainers, according to Jennings.
An advanced course graduate can assist his commander by identifying a training area and determining what equipment will be needed, the type of training to conduct, and the appropriate safety parameters, Jennings said. Ultimately, the Soldier will teach the unit or company basic mountain warfare skills.
“My personal favorite thing is when I am teaching a topic, and I see someone’s eyes light up, and they come up to me and say, ‘I wish I had known that [information] five years ago during my last deployment. If we only had known this, we would have made a difference,’” Ash said.
MOBILE MOUNTAINEERING TRAINING TEAMS
With a small pool of instructors teaching courses year round, the school still makes time to send mobile mountaineering teams, or MTTs, to locations around the world.
The skills taught at the mountain warfare school are in high demand; in fact, the school turns down more requests than it can fill each year, Jennings said.
“[MTTs] allow the instructors to operate in a different environment and gain more experience operating outside their comfort zone,” Chipman said. They deliver a wide range of mountaineering training to agencies that don’t have the time or resources to make it to Vermont.
Mobile training presents some unique challenges, according to Jennings. It requires the cadre to adapt quickly to generate a safe and accommodating training environment, regardless of the location.
“I have been to central Asia about six times … and most of Europe,” Jennings said. “Our reputation has grown far beyond our little base. We are known in the Special Forces community and combatant and major commands. They know about us because we do a pretty fantastic job.”
In addition to their mobile training capabilities, the mountain warfare school acts “like a Wikipedia for mountaineering,” providing a countless number of resources to all of its students and commanders, Jennings added.
“It’s frustrating because you want them to know this before they deploy,” Jennings said. “Something that we think of as a very simple task could have saved [Soldiers] a lot of pain and suffering. It tells us we’re still needed. There is still a reason to do what we do.”