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Arctic edge: Battling cold

By Bonney Bowman Photojournalist: Rick Rysso - 10:52 PM July 30, 2014

Serving in the cold doesn’t just include the temperature.

A summer day on a glacier can feel like winter, but if that’s where Alaska soldiers are called to fight, they have to be ready.

That’s where the Northern Warfare Training Center in Black Rapids excels, training soldiers for every mission.

West Point Military Academy Cadet Jeff Steiner is one of the soldiers taking part in glacier training.

He says he’s surprised by the rapid temperature change from the ground to the glacier.

“We put on cramp-ons and our harnesses and learned how to walk around on the ice which I thought, sounds kind of self-explanatory, but it’s a little harder than it seems,” Steiner said.

The ice becomes a classroom and the soldiers, students, but the lesson is potentially life-saving.

They form rope teams, the best defense against some of the glacier’s deadly hidden dangers.

“Glaciers have crevasses and a few other obstacles or other dangerous areas that we wanted them to be able to navigate safely,” said training officer Capt. Justin Lynch.

A crevasse is easily concealed by a snow bridge, but if the soldiers walk on one, they could fall through.

“You look down and you thought you were standing on ground, just like normal, but you’re actually standing on hundreds of feet of ice most likely, so looking down and not being able to see the bottom was a little eerie,” Steiner said.

They practice a fall and a rescue, ready to react if it ever happens for real.

The training then moves off the ice and into a glacier-fed river.

“I took the temperature earlier. It was about 42 degrees, so it’s going to teach them how to remain a little bit more calm under that temperature change as soon as they get hit,” said training specialist Karl Slingerland.

The soldiers get the feel of the river with a shallow crossing alone and as a team.

Then they have to cross in a deep section of river.

“They have a one-rope bridge, basically from one river bank to the other river bank and then they’re hooked in, belayed from either side in case something does happen,” Slingerland said.

It’s an effective way to move a whole unit across the watery obstacle, but it’s not easy.

Whether it’s frozen or fast-moving water, it’s cold and now the soldiers are prepared to handle it.

“We don’t get to pick where our nation needs us. We’re going to go serve anywhere that the country needs us to,” Lynch said.

Steiner says when he graduates from West Point, he hopes to come back to Alaska and put the skills he learned here to good use.

“I think this is some of the best training I’ll really ever receive,” Steiner said. “This is going to be one of the top five experiences of my life. It’s really been amazing.”

The Northern Warfare instructors hold classes year-round, from mountaineering in the summer to extreme cold survival in the winter.

Around 1,200 soldiers go through the various courses each year.

They’re then expected to take that knowledge back to their units and use it on missions.

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