BRIDGEPORT, Calif. -- More than 800 Marines hiked atop the Sierra Mountains, in the midst of whistling winds, snow up to their knees and temperatures cold enough to mold icicles during Mountain Exercise 1-16 for cold weather training at U.S. Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center, Bridgeport, California, Jan. 4-23.
Of those 800 Marines, Nearly 80 were 2nd Low Altitude Air Defense Battalion, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, Marines based out of Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point were spread across multiple units and took part in the nearly three-weeklong exercise, designed to be a warm-up to Exercise Cold Response 2016 in Norway. ECR 2016 is a NATO-level exercise involving 10 countries pitting themselves against each other in a simulated force on force live exercise in a cold, harsh environment.
“The training serves as a pre-deployment requirement for mountainous terrain or cold weather climates,” said 1st Lt. Craig Waldman, executive officer of Battery B, 2nd LAAD Bn. “We are covering basic mobility, movement over terrain, patrolling and setting up basic defensive positions and offensive tactics such as ambushes and deliberate attacks in this environment.
“Finally during our culminating event, there will be practical application, like an attack, casualty evacuation and avalanche rescue,” said Waldman.
The first challenge Marines encountered was acclimating themselves to elevations that exceeded 8,500 feet above sea level.
“The obvious dangers in the cold weather are frost bite and hypothermia; the most common injuries,” said Waldman, “But with it being such high elevation, Marines who aren’t properly acclimated can get altitude sickness, which would lead to a casualty evacuation of that Marine off the mountain.”
Altitude sickness, aka Acute Mountain Sickness, is the effect of climbing altitude at a rate exceeding the appropriate acclimatizing process after they are 8,000 feet above sea level.
The MWTC instructors, aka “Red Hats,” provide the necessary training needed to overcome the treacherous terrain and frigid challenges.
From ice-cold condensation in tents raining down on the Marines while they slept, to having to boil the snow around them to have clean water— they endured the little challenges that constantly gnawed at their will power.
“Winter time is ninety percent mental and ten percent physical,” said Sgt. Jarrod Bolden, a mountain warfare instructor at the MWTC. “A hike is a hike, but when you add the winter element, your mind goes into overdrive and a lot of people burn out and do not have the mental strength to get through it."
In preparation for Marines to be ready to fight in different climates around the world, the cold weather training pushed Marines to their breaking points in order to strengthen their resolve.
“Some Marines are from warmer parts of the country and are not used to exercising in a cold environment,” said Bolden. “You still have to be a leader and deal with your biggest opponent… yourself.”
With the potential of sustaining a cold weather injury, 2nd LAAD Bn. was the only unit that left the training completely unscathed.
“Everyone dreads coming to Bridgeport,” said Bolden. “But once they leave, they are a better unit because of what they went through.”