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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.

These guys are veterans of Nicaragua, Somalia, Desert Storm, and Afghanistan. They’ve boarded ships in the Arabian Sea and rescued Third World ambassadors from riot-torn streets. Most are special ops heavyweights, and several lead secret, need-to-know-only teams. I am encouraged “to actively forget” most names, but I quickly find myself warming to them like a fun bunch of regular guys, albeit fitter than the average civilian homeboy.

Truth is, there’s a lot more bluster on Fox news than I see out here. Strolling the camp one evening, I mention to Elder how surprised I am at the lack of full-metal-jarhead culture. “Brother, these guys are all special operations officers, and they are two full levels beyond that,” he says. “Quiet competence is what they’re selected for.” Even an old ski bum can feel the pull that comes from living among this crowd. It’s an urge to improve, to contribute, to rise to the level of your peers. The uplift is so inspirational, it’s easy to forget that all these men are trained killers.

Six months later now, January 2003, and the world is a different place, all of humanity hollering for or against an invasion of Iraq. In the boat garage at Detachment Kodiak, however, there’s no mention of Baghdad or weapons of mass destruction. Instead, rows of square-jawed young men in identical gray-green suits and camouflage vests listen to lectures about winter survival. Compass vectors. Hypothermia. Rope skills.

“They’re all shiny new SEALs,” whispers Williams, surveying his domain with hands folded behind his back like a genial Captain Bligh. “They’ve been through 6 months of BUDS (basic underwater demolition school, including Hell Week), then 3 weeks of jump school, then SEAL qualification training for another 4 months. They graduated and received their trident on Friday. They flew in here Monday. Now they’re taking our 24-day advanced course in cold weather survival.

“These guys are tough, probably none tougher, but they’re inexperienced,” continues the Master Chief. “Some have never seen snow, so it’s a steep learning curve. Up until now, instructors have always been the guys yelling in their faces. But that’s not our job. We’re here to help them learn how to win the environmental war against the human body.”

To that end, the 42 students, along with their instructors and one pet journalist, will test the first upgraded PCUs on another campout. As soon as I pull on the new suit, I note a clear improvement over the rudimentary black outfits we hamstered around the glaciers last August. Virtually every fix we proposed at the postmortem has been incorporated.

Along with the clothes, the atmosphere in Kodiak has changed. The informal air of Glottof has vanished, and the instructors have donned their game faces. One winds up a course on compass navigation. Another steps to the podium for a review of camouflage and concealment, and I get a revealing snapshot of the differences between civilian and military backpacking.

Your average hiker heads into the woods with a couple of friends and a vague strategy about having some kind of fun. SEALs never deploy without a plan. It’s all about the mission profile, whether it’s forward scouting, rescuing hostages, or testing clothes. SEALs employ two types of backcountry camps: LUPs (lay-up positions) and OPs (observer positions). LUPs are set back far enough from enemy patrols and firepower that they’re relatively secure. Observer positions are forward, carefully concealed, and vulnerable in the extreme. In other words, ixne on the hot cocoa and candle lamp.

You and I would just walk up to a site and drop our packs, but a SEAL platoon approaches using a circuitous course, laying in deception trails enroute to delay and split trackers. They post lookouts right on arrival and maintain a constant awareness of their visual, thermal, and night vision signatures. By the time a squad beds down, they already have a rendezvous point for regrouping in case of mayhem, and they’ll be partially packed for quick move-out. Social trails are kept to a minimum to conceal used camps. Nothing is left behind. For SEALs, Leave No Trace isn’t just an ethic, it’s a matter of survival.

The wilderness they move through is also far more complex. They never get to space out on a log or wallow in reverie atop a high overlook. Imagine if hikers had to elude grizzlies hunting in packs, and you get a rough idea of the constant focus needed to carry big loads through mountain country while staying hair-trigger combat ready.

For the shiny new SEALs, all this is simply a review of rules they’ve been taught. Now they get to combine that learning with the challenge of an Alaskan winter.

It’s dusk and spitting rain when the trucks arrive at the trailhead and the students pile out, wobbling under huge green rucksacks. They’re not marching far. Tonight is just a shakedown, a chance to wrestle with strange gear and new boots. A few sleeping pads and snowshoes still have hangtags attached. These guys know how to jump and dive and fight hand-to-hand, but yesterday was the first time many of them ever pitched a dome or primed a stove.

Kodiak’s letting them off easy tonight. It’s 40!F and snowline is a thousand feet above, but sleet squalls are cranking up, and it’s going to get wet. Master Chief Williams moves through the young campers, doling out help where it’s needed and jerking chains when it’s not. “Awful warm this winter,” Williams muses theatrically. “Don’t think the grizzlies ever went into hibernation.”

Dawn. Voices echo across the marsh, then fade in the distance. “Wonder how long it’ll take ‘em to realize they overshot our checkpoint,” laughs the Master Chief. It’s barely light, but already the class is humping in pairs over a brush-filled orienteering course under “full ruck.” They’ve been split into four squads; Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, and Delta, each composed of numbered duos.

Despite the snowy ground and present cold rain, all the SEALs who stagger up out of the swamp and into our checkpoint are stripped down to T-shirts, learning the hard way about old maps with 100-foot contour lines. Most teams have it dialed, but a few flounder with the navigation. Still, they’re smart kids who believe in teamwork, not a bunch of “Yes sir, No sir” zombies. They cooperate, communicate, trade ideas, even ask questions of the instructors. Apparently, real men do ask for directions.

After the last pair moves through, I grab my overnight pack and begin climbing to the night’s LUP. It’s a rough clamber through snaggly alder thickets and waist-deep grass; I grab game trail when I can and suffer when I can’t. After a short hour, I run across boot prints in the snow. Minutes later, I overtake Charlie One, perched in a glade, checking maps.

Chris from Seattle is a tall, strapping guy with a square jaw and a subtle Chuck Connors frontier air. He’s pretty comfortable in rough country, having backpacked the Cascades with his dad since age 13. Daniel, a compact snowboarder from Corning, NY, is less at ease with the stiff boots and slippery sidehills. Together, we high hurdle the tussocks in Chris’s wake.

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