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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.

Daniel headed straight from high school to the Navy, then got bored and applied for SEAL training. “After all I went through in BUDS, there was no way I was quitting Hell Week,” he recalls. Chris originally wanted to be a “jet jock,” but didn’t like the endless classwork. “I wanted something more physical,” he explains. Out here, Chris is getting his wish, as we head too far south and begin wallowing through a fogbound twilight zone of look-alike knolls and false summits. After a seemingly endless pilgrimage following the dancing red needle, a pair from Delta squad materializes out of the gray. They tell us our rendezvous is just across the next ridgeline.

Charlie One is the second pair to arrive. Hourly radio “comms” indicate the remaining Charlies have grouped up enroute, and they roll in half an hour later. Delta squad, just down the hill, has big fat dome tents, but Charlie is all in bivy sacks. They pitch ‘em in pairs, head to toe, or “nut to butt” in the vernacular, with the two side-doors facing center and a poncho draped between to cover stove glare. Camp bustles briefly until the instructors appear to tell them their diversionary “fishhook” approach sucked, and they’re too damn noisy. Things get quiet quickly.

It’s one of those soggy, sweaty, just-freezing nights when the damp lays like a cold, wet towel across your shivering back. This posthike cooldown is the first real ground-level test of the PCU. Prior to this outing, these trainees have always used old-style military gear. “Man, I am lovin’ all this wickin’ ****,” one guy enthuses. A round of nods follows, a rousing endorsement in this crowd.

While the Charlies decide on night-watch rotations, I kick back to consider this rather conformist wardrobe I’ve been issued. It lacks style, but the underlayers are warm, plush, and quick to dry. Likewise, the cotton combat suit repels rain way better than I expected, it’s tough to overwhelm with sweat, and the cargo pockets gulp down anything you throw at them. But I’m most in love with the puffy Primaloft vest, parka, and pants. Overall, the system’s as sophisticated as any suit you could conjure up wearing the numbers off your MasterCard at REI, but it’s simpler, lighter, and smartly detailed. War may be hell, but at least the swag is good.

Overnight, the skies clear and the thermometer dives. Dawn slides back to reveal a camp frosted over and cardboard stiff. Nothing fits back where it came from, so there’s plenty of fumbling with packs. Even so, the Charlies hit their move-out time at oh-seven-thirty, climbing into a gorgeous sunrise.

At the instructors’ LUP, we receive the day’s mission: Traverse the snowbound western face of Heitman Mountain, cross Raymond Peak’s north ridge, then drop out of the snowbelt and angle down toward the shores of Middle Bay. Tactical movement at all times.

Charlie moves out well-spaced and watchful, while I take up a wheel-sucker’s position behind the squad. Several hundred yards back, two instructors trail along, judging the proceedings through binoculars. Others peer from concealments along the route, checking to see how fast the squad notices. After an early rotation breaking trail, Seattle Chris drops back to fill me in on the finer points of hiking in hostile country.

“You got a 12-man platoon divided into two rifle squads,” he whispers as his eyes move along the ridgelines. “The point man, maybe one other guy, will be out front, and they’ll bird-dog out and back to maintain communications with the main body. Behind them will be the PL [platoon leader] and other guys from the first rifle squad. The second half is the second fire team, with the APL [assistant platoon leader] somewhere in back. That way if the teams have to split up, they’ve each got command.

“Guys alternate field of fire along the line, left-flank, right-flank, left-flank, right-flank, and out behind,” Chris explains. “If we were to get ambushed traveling like this, we’d probably split and haul ***, because 12 of us is not a big force. So one squad lays down a shitstorm of fire while the other pulls back. Then they lay down a storm for the second group.”

We gain the shoulder of Raymond Peak by hiking “military crest,” just below the ridgelines, to conceal our silhouettes. There, we regroup with Delta squad. From our aerie, Middle Bay seems close enough to chuck rocks into, and after 2 days camped among snowbanks, the shiny new SEALs are smelling the barn. They get leave tonight, and a sleazy bar called The Mecca is firmly in the class crosshairs.

Between them and a barstool, however, lies a minor detail called the rewarming drill. The Charlies all ask if I’m going to do it, and I assent without really understanding the procedure. I guess I want to be all I can be.

A bit later, I ask Williams what it’s all about. “It’s not just torture,” the Master Chief offers, a suspicious pronouncement from a man who once spent 23 naked minutes in 38!F water for a media campaign to educate fisherman on immersion survival. “We want these guys to know that even if they get hypothermic, they can recover using the stuff in their pack.” That all seems reasonable, but to illustrate said principle, the class will, upon command, dive into the Gulf of Alaska in January and stand neck deep in 43!F seawater for 9 minutes.

Right now I’m thinking it takes a certain breed of man to be a Navy SEAL, a breed that’s entirely too suggestible. I entertain notions of enciting rebellion, but realize that somewhere along the line, freezing surf has to enter every SEAL training mission.

Of course, none of this imminent misery deters Charlie or Delta even slightly. They just want to get it over with and hit town. “They’ve always gotta make us suffer a little bit,” says Chris from Redondo Beach. “We’re used to it.” First man off the ridgeline, and it’s an instant race, straight down the fall line, testosterone unleashed.

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