The Cast: Myself (heater of spaghetti), Neilson (digger of caves).
If you ever find yourself on a frozen mountain top, on the verge of having your innards become outards, while the UCMJ* does its best to keep you properly motivated, let me know. We’ll get together and swap stories.
Last week I mentioned that I and my daughter went for a snowshoe expotition†, and that reminded me of an event that occurred well over a decade ago.
Cold means snow. Snow means winter. Winter means winter training. Winter training means cold. This is what happened every year during my time in the Marine Corps, and lucky for us, the Uinta Mountains were nearby and could provide my unit with not just cold weather training opportunities, but arctic-like conditions—when it got cold enough.
One particular winter, during our annual cold-weather training, I was excited to head up into the Uintas, dig our snow caves, eat, train, and shoot things. During these drills, we would practice snowshoe maneuvers or cross country skiing to improve our winter weather snow skills. I always enjoyed these particular drills. This was going to be fun.
The rations and snowshoes were issued and then packed. As I packed, I had the same thought I had had year after year: Just how heavy is all of this stuff? Between the flack jacket, ammo, gear, helmet, food, water, sleeping bag, secondary warm gear (for when the first got wet), and whatever-elses I had packed (you gotta stay warm), it weighed a lot, and this was before newer tech made for lighter and warmer sleeping bags—and the magical lightweight Gortex outerwear.
I was discussing my question with fellow fire team member, Neilson, and he admitted that he too had had the same thought. Well, as we headed outside to our transport, we happen to pass by a scale. And we found out the answer to my/our query. While I don’t recall now, how much Neilson weighed (at the time) with all his gear, I do know that I weighed in at 350 pounds with all that quality Uncle Sam stuff strapped onto my back. And just for clarity, my measly little frame came in at a whopping 150 pounds—sans pack. Oh boy!
I was about to haul 200 pounds of military-grade gear (and food) up some snow-covered mountain trail. Before, when I didn’t know how much weight I was slugging about, it wasn’t so bad. But now that I knew… A sinking feeling was beginning to develop in the pit of my stomach that will become more important later in the story.
Our transport deposited us at the base of a trail in the Uintas, and fortunately, we bunked for the night in arctic tents. The next morning however, we deployed, put our packs on our backs, and prepared for the uphill march—in the cold and snow. This was easier for some, and harder for others (not everyone could snowshoe easily—especially newbies).
The weather was bad that morning. Winds and snow-fall made visibility difficult, and the temperature made finding the right balance of layering impossible. If you put on too many layers of snivel-gear‡ you would overheat during movement, sweat, and then get cold because your clothes were wet—and maybe develop hypothermia. If you didn’t put on enough, your core-temperature would drop and you might develop hypothermia. Unless you were Capt. Maples.
Capt. Maples was no mere mortal Marine. At about half of the way up the mountain I spotted the good Capt. walking about with just his tee-shirt (well, okay, he had on pants and boots and stuff, but no gloves, or scarf, or hat, or jacket. just a friggin’ tee-shirt!). I—like a fool—simply asked if he was cold at all. This simple query translated across to him in the worst possible way and he immediately, and almost violently, inquired as to whether or not I was calling him something that I will not repeat (this is a family blog). I calmly (and a little terrified—especially after seeing the Marines around me shrink back in fear) replied, “No, sir.” To which he responded with, “Good.” and moved on. If I recollect proper-like, it seemed the snow just vaporized right off his form. He wasn’t wet from perspiration or the snow. He just was…
Once at the top, our company separated out into duos and trios to dig out the snow caves that we were to—later that night—sleep in. When building a snow cave you have to do it right or you don’t stay warm. Too much space and your body heat can’t warm it up. Too little space and you get cramped, or your body heat could melt the snow, then you get wet, and maybe develop hypothermia. Neilson and I paired off (we were aces at snow cave building). I understood the mechanics well—as did Neilson—but he is so Marine (I think he bleeds red and gold) that he needed to ensure the mountain was issued its official Marine Corps snow cave. And the work commenced.
About halfway up the mountain I had begun to not feel very good but I just shrugged it off as the cold getting to me a little, but now I could tell it was something more. And, it was beginning to affect my stomach. So, Neilson took the first shift of digging in the hopes that I would be fine in a little while. While he dug I went and got orders, found out schedules and such, and tried to get our gear ready for whatever else was to come that day. I tried to relax and let my stomach settle. It wasn’t happening.
Eventually, it was my turn to dig. That wasn’t going to happen. My gut was doing more flip-flops than all the acrobats of a Barnum & Bailey Circus, combined. If I moved, it was going to be bad. I didn’t know how, I just knew it would be. Reluctantly, Neilson took my shift as well. As part of the trade-off I lent him my dry gloves (you always have a spare pair for when digging in the snow) and was put in charge of heating up some chow. No problem. A simple MRE heat’n eat. At this point, every move was painful and threatened to set off a phantasmagorical gastronomic nightmare. So, I found an easily consumable MRE: Menu #5, Spaghetti with Meat Sauce (one of the better meals, especially when warm).
And now, a musical interlude (to the chorus tune of Mambo No.5—Lou Bega):
Spaghetti with Meat Sauce in my life 🎵
A splash of tabasco on the side 🎵
The packet of cheese spread is what I knead 🎵
Beverage base powder is sugar-free 🎵
Heat stable candies, really yum 🎵
The handle of the plastic spoon sure is long 🎵
Pound cake calls out, “Here I am!” 🎵
While the crackers have zero bit of flavor, man 🎵
As Neilson dug away, I endeavored with all I could muster, to not lose gastric integrity. Something was most assuredly wrong. With all the adverse weather conditions it was difficult to tell if what I was feeling was the beginning stages of hypothermia or some sort of stomach-bug. Every movement threatened some kind of danger. And the worst part was, I couldn’t tell how it was threatening me. Was it going to come up? Or, was it going to go down? Or both? (please not both)
When it came time to eat, I was shaking so bad that I couldn’t even open the packet—something was wrong. For those unfamiliar, the MRE uses an FRH (flameless ration heater) chemical reaction to heat the food and it works very well. And some water, the stuff inside the FRH reacts to it, and it begins to boil in no time. But it was so cold that the spaghetti packet only felt thoroughly warm, but it was actually only warm in small patches that were dispersed throughout icy cold chucks. I almost threw up. It wouldn’t go down. Neilson almost threw up—but for different reasons. A spaghetti-sicle was not a good menu choice. Well, technically it wasn’t really a spaghetti-sicle, as it had some frozen chunks (like ice-cubes of meat sauce with pasta bits) surrounded my warm mushy bits of pasta and military-grade marinara. So, I don’t know what you would call it besides ‘nasty’.
I needed an evac. I had been hoping that with some warm food, and a little rest, all would be well. But, no. I needed off that ridgeline. Now.
Following protocol, I went through the chain of command—which wasn’t easy (command was scattered about doing all manner of coordinating jobs). As mentioned before, every movement hurt and risked the release of something awful from any direction that my body provided an opening. Eventually I tracked down the right people, and they agreed that I needed to get to the warming tent (the warming tent was just a tent at the bottom of the mountain for all the cry-baby sickies—like me). Luckily for me, one of the corpsmen was getting ready to head down to the tent to check on some other Marines who were not doing so well.
There was an ahkio sled loaded with gear and weapons—attached to the back of a snowmobile—that the corpsman was going to take with. I had the choice of either riding on the snowmobile or laying in the sled. Knowing how insane our corpsman was on a snowmobile, I thought it best to just lay on the gear and hope to make it. With all the physical movement I knew he would have to do to drive, I didn’t want to risk unexpectedly unleashing whatever was inside me all over him. I was already disobeying orders—as nobody had authorized my illness. I didn’t want to make things worse by issuing unsanctioned vomit (or worse).
So, I layed down, grabbed the sides of the ahkio, and hoped for the best. Within only a few feet I knew I was in trouble. See, on one side of an M-16 there is a wedge-shaped metal protrusion that is referred to as a brass deflector, that was pressing into my sternum.
Every bump, every jostle, every subtle gravity-defying moment sent that metal corner hard into my chest. There were a couple of times I thought for sure I was going to need that same corpsman who was taking me to the medical/warming tent, to perform field-surgery to fix my broken chest-bones. But I held fast, and eventually, we made it to the tent at the base of the mountain. I unloaded my gear and asked one of the other Marines at the tent if there was a head nearby, or would I have to relegate myself to dealing with my forthcoming unpleasantness in the tree-line? He assured me there was one, not too far away—he had just recently returned from it, himself. As I walked off, in the general direction I had been pointed, that’s when the number two emergency happened. Or, should I say a number two emergency happened. But, you’ll have to wait until next week to find out how that story comes to an end.
To be continued…
*UCMJ: The Uniform Code of Military Justice defines the military justice system and lists criminal offenses under military law.
†Expotition: See Chapter Eight: In which Christopher Robin Leads an Expotition to the North Pole
‡Snivel-gear: Any article of clothing, or equipment, that makes a Marine more comfortable in the current environment.