The troops are returning to camp. From a slight crest, early morning sun clocking their backs, they come into focus and make a long glide on white-colored skis, single file, towards the next gentle rise in a high alpine glade called Summit Meadows.

In the distance, a dramatic landscape of surrounding Sierra Nevada ridges rise in a series of roiling towers that could keep any backcountry enthusiast busy for a lifetime.

But these skiers aren’t average winter enthusiasts. They’re soldiers of the United States Marine Corps undergoing a winter mountain leadership course. Sweating heavily, several trainees collapse onto brightly-lit snow within the camp’s perimeter. Orders are given by training instructors to wax skis and get ready for more on-snow activity.

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‘It’s a challenge. This program makes them see what they’re really made of,’ says Captain Clint Culp, an instructor at the United States Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center. ‘They were out last night on a cross-country trek, made camp, then went out this morning. They’ll bivouac in the wilderness for six days before returning to base. These courses can have a fairly high attrition rate. They demand physical standards higher than average.’

Captain Culp is no single-minded mountaineer. In his 18 years of being a Marine, the 37-year-old flatlander from Amarillo, Texas has traveled into some of the world’s most remote regions, typically under a cool reception.

He’s hacked through Philippine jungles, waded ashore into Somalia, and weathered Iraq’s desert winds. Recently he returned from a seven-month tour in Afghanistan. He first arrived at the Sierra Nevada training center in 1991 as a student. Today, he remains one of the program’s most valued instructors.

‘These are accelerated courses,’ Captain Culp says. ‘We really only have four weeks to teach skiing. Some of these guys have never seen snow before. But not a whole lot of marines get the opportunity to learn mountain skills than can transfer over into a variety of environments and leadership principles.’

Located north of Bridgeport in Pickel Meadows near Sonora Pass, the year-round training area, over 46,000 acres, rests within Toiyabe National Forest. It’s the Marine Corps’ only base that specializes in mountain operations and remains the premier Mountain Warfare Training installation for the Department of Defense, if not in the world.

‘The base was established in 1951 as a cold weather training camp in response to the Korean War,’ explains Major Scott Pierce, the Center’s operations officer. ‘We train nine battalions and 10,000 marines each year in a variety of both summer and winter courses. Also deployed are Seals, Rangers and Air Force specialists, as well as some foreign personnel including Royal British Commandos. It’s a challenging place. There’s a lot we can do.’

The training center maintains an instructor staff of 68 Marines and 220 Marine Corps personnel overall. Comprised of modern barracks and buildings, the small base includes an airstrip, corrals for pack mules and horses, a 40-foot climbing wall and even a natural gas operated poma ski lift. Since the 9/11 terrorist attack and the following Iraqi war, the Department of Defense has committed $15 million in upgrades, communications and equipment.

‘There’s no doubt we’ve gained a lot of relevance, but our curriculum hasn’t changed: to teach people to move over rough terrain with mobility, and fight and survive in tough conditions,’ says Major Pierce, a 19-year veteran of the Marine Corps.

As a result, training is intense. Known as a cold pocket of the Sierra (the base rests on the same latitude as Korea), elevations rise from 6,700 to 12,000 feet. The camp offers four primary courses: Winter and Summer Mountain Warfare Operations, Mountain Leaders Course, Survival and Wilderness and Cold Weather Medicine. Trainees learn a full range of skills, from swift water rescue and avalanche awareness to ice and rock climbing and skiing. More than 90 percent of maneuvers are done at night. Final field exercises may include 30-kilometer movements in inclement weather with gains and dips in excess of 3,000 feet. Participants are loaded down with weaponry, gear and equipment, some of which appears ill suited for the task. Trainees learn to ski on the famed ‘White Rockets,’ 1950 vintage Asna skis complete with cable bindings and leather boots.

‘There is no doubt we could take them further in ski skills with better equipment, but what they might lack in more modern equipment they make up for by being in great shape, paying attention and being on a fast track to learn. These guys are capable of doing anything,’ explains Bela Vadasz, owner and operator of the Donner Summit-based Alpine Skills Institute (ASI). For nine years ASI has helped design and advise rope skills, ski instructor, technical mountaineering, avalanche awareness and other mountain concepts for the Marine training center. Vadasz and his assistants put in 150 instructor days annually with the center’s mountain warfare programs.

‘There is no real short cut to mountain savvy. You can’t obtain ‘avalanche eyes’ overnight,’ says Vadasz who is also the Coordinator for the American Mountain Guide Association and an IFMGA Internationaly Certified Mountain Guide. ‘You can’t completely reduce the learning curve, but as most of them have never skied before, they don’t come with bad habits that take time to break. I’m typically impressed by how they grasp skiing and mountain concepts and become competent. We bring in a lot of top-notch guides from around the world who are great teachers. We get a lot of graduates coming back from their military tours and acknowledging these programs really work.’

From Summit Meadows the pull of the horizon greets green against white as the Marine platoon mounts up and splits into ten-man groups to begin an extended ski tour towards a distant line of spires keeping sentry over a wilderness as wild as the beginning of time. There’s an adage that a mountain takes its time to tell you what it has to tell you, but don’t mention it to these ski troops.

Captain Culp, a confident smile sculpted into his face, watches the departing Marines.

‘I was deployed near a spur of the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan. You’d be amazed how much it resembles parts of the Eastern Sierra,’ he remarks.’ This is by far, personally, my most rewarding duty station. Growing up in Texas there were no mountains, but now I’m a lifelong mountaineer. I really enjoy all that the mountains offer and I believe it more important than ever to teach others all about them.’

Author

  • Robert Frohlich

    Former writer

    1955 – 2010

    “If Lake Tahoe ain’t heaven, then heaven can wait.”
    ~ Fro fighting for his life

    “The next morning I arose early to watch the setting moon. The sun hadn’t quite broken out of the dreamy foliage of morning, and all was still: the blanketed dells, ridges, and granite domes. No sound. Something almost creepy hovered over the motionless surroundings. The landscape had a fierceness that made the Alps look tame.

    “There is a small stone fortress built in the 1920s that guards the actual point lookout. I noticed the fellow who’d bragged about skating the 11 miles in two hours. He was probably doing yoga, but he looked more like he was praying. Maybe he was praying not for his deliverance alone, but for mine, too, for our mutual enlightenment. Maybe he embodied the form that transcendent figures assume these days. I felt unaccountably cheered that this guy was a sort of postmodern angel, complete with a caption for people too dense like me to know a vision when they see one. How could it be otherwise? Many people wilt when their lives have been gutted. I’d refused to wilt. I’d been given a second life. In my first life I tried to do everything expected of me and had failed somewhat. Now in my second life I’d try to attempt things not expected of me.”

    ~ “Seeking Mojo at Glacier Point,” published in Moonshine Ink, March 8, 2010

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