FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska – Braving icy cold water in central Alaska, students of the Basic Military Mountaineering Course offered by the Northern Warfare Training Center conducted the final event of the course August 18: a river crossing on foot.
The 48 students in the course waded through the swiftly flowing water of Phelan Creek, which is located about 20 minutes south of the Black Rapids Training Site. The bulk of the course takes place in the mountains and rocky cliffs in the vicinity of Black Rapids. Gulkana Glacier, one of the multiple terrain features the students train on and the creek’s source, chills the water temperature to about 38 degrees Fahrenheit.
“It was very cold water,” said Sgt. Brody Gragg a BMMC student. However, Gragg also noted that “It was a good experience. It’s good to get confident with these [rope] systems and know that this is a feasible way to cross the river.”
Maj. Gen. Brian Eifler, U.S. Army Alaska’s commanding general, was present at the river crossing and participated in it himself. He stated that he had “surfed in really cold water before, but not like this.” Eifler took command of USARAK in July and wanted to experience firsthand some of the training his soldiers participate in.
According to Maj. Caleb Goble, the commandant of NWTC, the students start off learning “a series of basic knots that they use in different military mountaineering systems to move personnel and equipment around.” Through the course students also gain “technical expertise on glaciers and how to use crampons and how to be part of a rope team.”
Such skills are crucial for the crevasse rescue training the students participate in. They also learn how to evacuate casualties from mountainous terrain, both dry and snow and ice-covered.
A particularly unique aspect of the course is that students “learn how to estimate weather and weather patterns based on the clouds,” Goble said. This allows individuals in remote mountainous environments to better estimate and understand changing atmospheric conditions and determine whether a dangerous storm is on its way.
On the final day of the course, student Spc. Earsey Toney said, “It was a pretty good course. I’ve learned a lot. It teaches you a lot that you’re really not going to learn anywhere but here.”
Eifler’s remarks echoed that sentiment when he stated, “We are trying to help educate the rest of the Army up here. It’s different up here, it’s not just ‘oh, it gets a little cold’—30 below changes everything and how you do things. We’re trying to do more things like this [the mountaineering course] and more training in the winter. That’s what gets us the expertise in extreme cold weather operations.”
The BMMC and other courses offered by NWTC are open to service members from all branches of the U.S. military as well as Department of Defense civilian employees and other federal civilian employees and international military students. Other courses offered by the center include the Cold Weather Orientation and Cold Weather Leaders Courses, Advanced Military Mountaineering, Mountain Warfare Orientation, Isolations Cold Region Survival, and several courses for instructors.