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August 2003 Soft Shells

Stone Cold Campers

They kill swiftly and silently. They flit like ghosts through enemy forests. And they will brew you a fine cup of cowboy coffee. Meet America's deadliest hikers as we hump ruck with the Special Forces.

Thwack, thwack, thwack, and the Coast Guard H-60 rescue helicopter lifts off into a baby blue Alaskan sky. I strap down my crash harness and gaze around at the goggled Special Forces warriors crammed into the cargo bay, feeling a surge that’s one part adrenaline, one part bile. Choppering into the bush with amphibious commandos is a far cry from my typical outing.

Several weeks earlier, I’d received a call from Rick Elder, special projects officer with the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, MA, inviting BACKPACKER to join in testing prototypes of the protective combat uniform (PCU), a cutting-edge clothing system being designed for Special Forces use. I’d readily accepted, but chalked up the invite to some huge hole in national security that would soon slam shut.

Inexplicably, it didn’t, so now I’m gazing out an open chopper door onto the towering summits of Kodiak Island. To an ex-hippie graybeard whose professional qualifications derive almost exclusively from a woefully undisciplined life of wilderness bumming, the whole setup seems pretty awry. Still, in the 2 days since I arrived at the Navy’s Northern Warfare Maritime Training Center, things have gone better than expected: I haven’t had to drop and give anyone 20, and nobody’s called me maggot. In fact, the OIC (officer in charge) Master Chief Scott Williams is proving to be a righteous dude, and quite possibly the biggest gearhead I’ve ever encountered.

In addition to training SEALs, this brawny redhead with a walrus mustache and a perennial grin is the designated gearmeister for all Special Forces outfits. He and his cadre of instructors are responsible for testing and selecting all COTS (civilian off the shelf) outdoor gear–such as boots, tents, packs, and snowshoes–for 20,000 elite troops.

Of course, that’s not how Williams puts it. In our introductory briefing, he lapses into military code, speaking English in a thoroughly unintelligible way. Our mission, I learn, is to “deploy via rotor-wing asset for the purpose of conducting cold weather operationally representative events to determine PCU system suitability for various modalities, both moving and stationary.” Translation: We’re going to chopper in, then ski, snowshoe, and backpack all over Kodiak to sweat up, chill down, and troubleshoot a nine-layer clothing system designed for temperatures ranging from 60!F to -40!F. My own specific mission profile: Keep up, avoid puking, and later add my token voice to the design feedback.

As the chopper roars over a ridge, I spot our basecamp, perched on a moraine at the craggy foot of Mt. Glottof. Above the tents, acres of perfect corn snow sweep up in graceful bowls. Kodiak’s notorious weather is AWOL, and the needle on my recreation meter is suddenly soaring. A black-clad action figure in wraparound glasses leans over and cracks a huge grin right in my face. “Well,” he hollers over the rotor wash, “I guess this won’t be yer typical op!”

Roger that, brother.

Patriots all, we get right to testing. Rick Elder and I choose skis for our active modality, and climb at aerobic redline toward an appetizing gully on Glottof’s north shoulder. Elder is a lean, droll guy with close-cropped blonde hair who fits the stereotype of the lanky Army ranger, which is what he was before joining the Natick crew.

The PCU is his baby. For the most part, the high-tech-sounding duds are super-efficient synthetics familiar to backpackers: polyester base layers, a Polartec gridded fleece shirt, a fuzzy sweater. For cold weather, there’s a Primaloft vest, parka, and side-zip pants. For wind and light rain, there’s a water repellent but breathable shell made of a silicone-encapsulated cotton. For full-on downpours, we get a coated-nylon rainsuit. The clothes are baggy and basic, but even in prototype form, the PCU is clearly designed to keep sweaty people dry and loads light.

The call for lighter, warmer, faster-drying apparel came from the mountains of Afghanistan, after the boys chasing Osama came up against a little thing called winter in the Hindu Kush. The word filtered back that traditional Big Army gear didn’t cut it for go-fast, bring-on-the-weather special ops, so the military started rethinking its approach to equipment and clothing. Along with the Natick gang and key civilian advisors like extreme alpinist Mark Twight, Master Chief Williams spent a winter cherry-picking the best materials for the PCU. Now, here in Kodiak, we’re trying out the first patterns. For the military, this modified COTS gear represents a new way to do business. Instead of starting with congressional funds and a lengthy development schedule, Elder pried seed money from his boss and scrounged the other 85 percent of his budget from SEAL, Delta Force, and other elite team commanders who ponied up to put their boys in new combat clothes. Now he owes them “deliverables,” and he wants to get the layers right. If he doesn’t, he faces a tough crowd. It’s hard to think of something worse than having a SEAL team pissed at you.

Not that I would know. I spend 3 fine days sweating hard to keep up, glad for the extra 50 pounds the hard guys are hauling. With all the grinding ascents and sweet corn skiing come long, joke-filled evenings on the moraine, offering us hours to lounge in olive-drab Crazy Creeks and feed each other massive piles of grief.

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