The Mountain Warfare Training Center (MWTC), located on California Highway 108 several miles before the intersection of U.S. Highway 395, operates cooperatively with the U.S. Forest Service inside the Toiyabe National Forest.
First established as Cold Weather Battalion in 1951, in the area known as Pickel Meadows, it became a valuable resource providing training and troops bound for the Korean War. Even though many of the tools, techniques, and training have evolved since it first opened, the core concepts taught remain the same.
I arrived at MWTC in February 2004, a naïve 18-year-old from South Texas and at that time, like many Marines, dreamed of training and deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan and other exotic places. Within the first six months, my peers who maintained contact, bragged about Iraq or traveling on ships across the Pacific. In sharp contrast, at MWTC, depending on the leadership, our adventures involved bitter cold snowshoe marches, cross country skiing, skiing down snowcapped roadways and climbing up mountains with sand bags on our backs. Arriving during the winter at MWTC made me feel like Alice falling into Wonderland. Having only experienced mild winters in South Texas, this new bone shattering, and teeth cracking cold sent shockwaves through my body. As time passed, I realized falling into the rabbit hole only marks the beginning of the story and further adventure follows.
Around three weeks after getting fully settled at MWTC, our platoon commander an avid skier, decided to make use of recent heavy snowfall. He ordered everyone to grab skis, bindings, ski poles, and a patrol pack. As my first taste of winter sports, cross country skiing, not everything went well. Mistake number one, still coping with the blistering cold, I wore the wrong warming layers. Twenty minutes into the event, I began to sweat profusely and mind-blown realizing the temperature hovered around 30-degrees. Accepting my amateur mistake would lead to hypothermia, I quickly took off my patrol pack, parka outer shell, fleece and sweaty t-shirt. Shaking uncontrollably on skis, I put on a thin warming layer, the parka outer shell and kept trying to cross country ski. Mistake number two, attempting to emulate the experienced skiers leading the pack. I mastered the art of trekking long distances and climbing small hills with narrow six-foot-long pieces of wood strapped to each foot. However, descending small bunny slopes along the designated path never got easier, since I always found myself falling to the ground on ice thinking I was traveling too fast. To this day, braking on fast moving skis eludes me.
After a few minutes of trekking through the hills outside MWTC, I realized how the cold weather gear worked. Normal body temperature hovers around 98.6 degrees and physical activity forces warm blood flow to all extremities. The parka outer shell traps the body heat emitted from the torso producing sweat. In order to keep the body dry, the thin layer transfers that moisture away from the skin, reducing the probability of becoming hypothermic. The lesson I learned that afternoon, trust the knowledge and gear bestowed upon you. Don’t trust the lies emitted from your body, but trust your mind and your body’s capabilities. With renewed confidence, I appreciated the commonly used slogan at MWTC, keep comfortably cool.
Beyond a minor platoon size function, as mentioned earlier, Marines stationed at MTWC don’t get a taste of the pre-deployment training offered to units bound for Afghanistan or across the globe. They just watch from the sidelines as Marines disappear up Heart Attack Hill, the main foot and vehicle trail into the training area, for weeks at a time. My boss, an adventurous type, saw it differently. One slow winter training season he struck a deal with a young officer in charge of a communications battalion bound for Afghanistan. Part of the deal involved my comrades and I shadowing the students and experiencing the training with gear our platoon issued them.
The week and half of training I didn’t ask for saw me experience the worst MWTC has to offer. Bone shattering -25 cold winter nights of providing “Firewatch” amongst the trees and snow. Spirit shattering miles long snowshoe marches, taking turns pulling snow sleds filled with gear, sometimes up never-ending steep mountain slopes. Part of my misery resulted from following behind a unit training not acclimatized to the temperatures and elevation. It felt good to see their shocked faces as my comrades and I overtook them while marching up Heart Attack Hill and took warming layers off. Imagine it’s snowing high on the Sierra Nevada Mountains and about to start a brutal 30-degree snowshoe march. You look to your left and see a topless 6-foot-4 Hispanic and a short Filipino. Instead of adding layers because of the cold, they are changing over to a single thinner layer and a windbreaker. The lessons learned during that week long training exercise were of humility and teamwork.
With its unique history and position within the Department of Defense, MWTC stands apart from any other military base in the continental United States. Fun fact, MWTC remains the only place within our military that personnel can train with donkeys. Overall, the ultimate test conducted high up in the mountains at Pickle Meadows is dealing with the bitter cold and learning to take advantage of the capabilities and extremes the human body can endure. Like using one’s own body heat and harnessing it to our own advantage when dealing with extreme weather conditions. Finally, after gathering the appropriate tools, knowledge, techniques, and not being afraid of putting them into practice; anyone can be comfortably cool.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a periodic series of Travel articles from UTRGV creative writing students of Philip Zwerling.