BLACK RAPIDS TRAINING SITE, Alaska (Army News Service) -- When it gets negative 60 degrees F here, students learn they can survive, said Staff Sgt. Jonathan Tanner.
They won't be warm at that temperature, but they'll be "comfortably cool" and able to function, said Tanner, who is an instructor at the Northern Warfare Training Center here.
About 99 percent of the time, the weather doesn't disappoint, he said, meaning there will be plenty of snow and temperatures at least negative 30 or 40F.
No other training site in the Army gets this cold, so that's why about 80 Soldiers come here four times a year in winter to attend the 15-day Cold Weather Leaders Course, he said.
The extreme cold validates the skills they are taught to survive in extremely cold regions where they someday might be called upon to fight, Tanner added.
Staff Sgt. Manuel Beza, an instructor and medic, said Soldiers are taught to dress in layers. Even with the full ensemble of seven layers of clothing, students can still feel cold.
Just as important as bundling up is knowing when to remove layers, he said. Many of the activities here like towing a sled --called an ahkio -- and snowshoeing and skiing while carrying a pack and rifle, can be pretty exerting and cause sweating, even in the coldest temperatures.
Knowing when to remove layers and how many layers to remove is an individual decision, he said, since everyone's body is different. But knowing when to do so is important because a Soldier could be sweating one minute and the next all that sweat can freeze, causing frostbite or hypothermia.
GETTING 'ZEN' BELOW ZERO
For six days, Soldiers are out in the snow and cold, skiing, snowshoeing and staying warm at night in either heated tents or non-heated shelters made from pine boughs.
The wind can be very brutal out here at treeless elevations, Beza said. So students are taught to head for the trees to set up camp, away from the worst of the wind.
This isn't a PowerPoint school, Tanner said. "It's mostly hands-on."
Steve Decker, the training specialist here, said the school's curriculum was designed to keep students outdoors as much as possible with a maximum amount of physical activity so they can learn to deal with the cold, use their equipment and gain confidence. "They learn to get in Zen with their environment."
Staff Sgt. Jason Huffman, a student and native of Lake City, Florida, said that he was cold even with seven layers of clothing on, carrying a rucksack and helping to drag a 200-pound ahkio up and down hills.
Even doing simple things like setting up his squad's 10-man Arctic Tent was a challenge in the cold, he said.
DARK TUNDRA MOVES
Staff Sgt. Rexton Christensen, an instructor, said it takes about 25 minutes to set up the tent. He added that the students are woken up at 5 a.m. or earlier and they have to tear down their tent, pack it in their ahkios, along with the stoves and fuel, move out to an objective and then set their tents back up again several hours later in the dark. It gets light around 9 a.m. in February.
1st Lt. Kendall Mhamm, an infantryman and student from Conover, North Carolina, said many units in Alaska, where he's stationed, don't know how to use their arctic equipment properly, much less build a lean-to out of pine boughs to sleep in.
Once he returns to his unit, he said the lessons learned here will enable him to better supervise the training of his platoon.
Sgt. Bruno Freitas, a student and native from Brazil, said that dealing with the cold was tough, particularly in darkness that lasts 16 hours a day.
The cold was hard but so was the thaw on the last outdoor day of training, when it rained and the snow turned to slush. Whenever he fell down during movement over difficult terrain in the slush, he said he got wet and miserable. So he couldn't decide which was worse, being extremely cold or being cold and wet.
Adding to the misery was lack of sleep, Freitas said. Every hour at night, a Soldier would be awakened to stand fire duty, which entailed monitoring the Arctic heater so that it couldn't set the tent on fire. After standing fire duty, it was difficult to doze off again, and when sleep finally came, they'd wake everyone up and it would be time to pack the tent and move out again.
Spc. Arron Noce, a student and combat engineer, said he never learned how to properly set up a tent until coming here. The reward for setting it up right is getting inside out of the cold and not having it burn down.
Mornings are the hardest, Noce admitted. Every morning "it's dark and they wake you up and you say to yourself 'I don't want to do this,' but you do it anyway."
Sgt. Chris Miller, a student, said he learned a lot about how to layer and delayer clothing for the temperature conditions. In particular, it's important to change socks when the feet start to perspire, he said. The native from Little Rock, Arkansas, said this was his first experience dealing with real cold.
HYDRATE TO STAY WARM
Sgt. Jessica Bartolotta, a student and culinary specialist, said an important part of staying warm is also eating right and getting enough water to drink. She credits the instructors with teaching the students how to boil snow to make water.
The Arctic freeze-dried cold-weather rations were made by adding water. She pronounced the meals both satisfying as well as delicious.
1st Lt. Lucas Behler, a Kentucky native, said he "doesn't have a lot of body mass so I wondered how I'd fare in the cold."
The important thing about CWLC was learning how to use all of the arctic equipment, he said. "Once you accept the fact that you'll be cold, you deal with it and try to learn as much as you can."
GETTING COMFORTABLE WITH MISERY
Sgt. Sarah Valentine, a medic and an instructor, said some of these students "are absolutely miserable. This whole course is designed to teach people to bypass their own personal misery and be able to lead others to success. This course does a good job of pushing students to their limits. You get comfortable with being uncomfortable."
Sgt. Derrick Bruner, an instructor, said the motto of the school is "Battle Cold, Conquer Mountains."
He said "the only enemy students really have is Alaska. We teach them how to fight that. This place wants you dead. It does not like us in the winter time. Bad days kill. That day you just don't want to do it anymore could be your last."
Sgt. Duron Berry, a student who hails from Los Angeles, said "I'm a tropical guy. When negative 30 hits you in the face, it's shocking."
One day it was so cold that a fellow squad member told him that he had icicles growing out of his eyelashes.
The six-day ordeal outside in the cold is a gut check, he said. "If you don't have the heart for it, you will fail."
Berry said he learned a lot from the course; "that I'm a lot more durable than I ever thought," he said. "As a person who comes from the heat, I came out on the other side OK."
He reflected on the value of the training: "Times are changing. The Army is changing. The enemy is changing. Maybe we might not fight in nice weather next time. Maybe we might someday be fighting in a very, very cold place like this."
Decker said the Army has been unprepared to deal with extreme cold for a long time and he hopes NWTC can better prepare Soldiers for future operations in cold environments.
He cited the Korean War and the World War II fighting in the snows of Europe and the Aleutian Islands as examples where cold-weather training and equipment was helpful or would have been helpful for those who didn't have it.
Cold weather can be found in places least expected, he continued. During the World War II campaign in the Pacific, for example, Soldiers crossing the 10,000-foot-high Owen Stanley Range in Papua, New Guinea, found themselves woefully unprepared for dealing with the extreme cold at those elevations.
As one of eight Arctic nations today, the U.S. has national interests to protect in the region, he added.
(Follow David Vergun on Twitter: @vergunARNEWS)