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.

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.

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’ shit,” 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 ass, 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.

Williams holds back, motioning me off to the left. He’s chuckling again, not a good omen for the lads. I follow him northeast to a knoll with a commanding view across half of Kodiak, where the Master Chief pulls out sandwiches and cookies his wife, Bev, made.

Our already superb repast is further sweetened by an excellent view of one squad, then another, hitting the alder belt and hanging up in narrow, slate-banked gullies. The obstacles weren’t visible from the ridgeline, with its enticing view, but they’re clear enough on the map, had anyone thought to look. It’s all a masterfully orchestrated, albeit sadistic, lesson in terrain entrapment. The poor bastards never saw it coming.

Williams wads some foil, tosses on his ruck, and powers down through steep brush and mud-slick ravines. After an hour, we break out of the woods onto the shore of Middle Bay. Two squads have arrived, number three is pulling in, and everyone’s getting chilled waiting for group four.

Once they straggle in, it’s strip-down time. The beach transforms into a nymphomaniac’s dream sequence: cold gray cobbles littered with shed clothes, a stable-full of sweaty bucks, a sea of welterweight biceps and six-pack abs. A three-two-one countdown, and the whole pack of SEALs, accompanied by one stupid backpacker, surges into the surf with a triathlon roar.

Williams told me that the first 2 minutes would be the worst, and he’s right. The water stings like acid. I gulp uncontrollably for what seems like hours, trying to rein in my bucking windpipe. Then the cry goes out: “Minute and a half in.” All around me, guys are hollering with bring-it-on bravado, shouting off the cold. A couple of instructors and Seattle Chris just tread water with serene smiles on their faces, but most of these guys aren’t having any more fun than I am.

And then a strange thing happens: The fire lessens, and a sleepy acceptance creeps up. My skin still tingles, but it’s more like a down comforter fresh from the drier. Everything will be fine. Just sleep. All you have to do is bob here in the gentle sea.

It’s a bit like a dream, and my mind wanders. I recall how Mark Twight summed up the difference between us and these guys. “I’d always thought I was a cool guy, that I was doing these dangerous climbs and living through them while others weren’t, which made me special. But no matter how important I thought what I did was, it’s simply recreation. I waited until conditions were right. I turned back when I wanted. When these guys go into the mountains, they’re just commuting to their real work. If they haven’t slept for 48 hours, or eaten for 2 days, or the weather’s horrible, too bad. Add to that a bunch of men hunting you, and that’s another level entirely.”

The reverie snaps to a close. “Nine minutes,” someone shouts. “Outta the water!”

We roar out of Middle Bay, stumbling onto the beach to fumble with buckles, zippers, stoves, and sleeping bags. By the time I get my PCU on, I’m normal enough to realize how incapacitated some of these SEALs, graced with far less body fat than me, have become. I watch the stronger ones help their buddies get dry, clothed, and into sleeping bags. More unusual behavior from real men.

Minutes out of the chill water of Kodiak, I’m already anticipating my return to the comforts of civilian existence. Yet it’s just the start of things for these SEALs. They’ll spend 3 more weeks here, then some will go straight into a month of desert training. Quite a few of the Charlies will head to the Middle East. Like Master Chief Williams says, it’s a steep learning curve. Only this time, his boys will be wearing smarter clothes and humping a lighter ruck. And that may make all the difference in the world.

When you buy something using the retail links in our stories, we may earn a small commission. We do not accept money for editorial gear reviews. Read more about our policy.