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Arctic edge: Conquering mountains

By Bonney Bowman Photojournalist: Rick Rysso - 10:31 PM July 29, 2014

Soldiers come to Alaska from all over the country and once they get here, they have to learn how to survive in our often harsh and unforgiving climate.

That’s where the Northern Warfare Training Center in Black Rapids comes in.

The motto at the Army training center is “battling cold and conquering mountains.”

But to climb a mountain, you have to start from the bottom.

The soldiers start on a small hill, mastering the basics of mountaineering, including learning to belay, rappel, set up safety anchors and tie knots. Once they know the basics, the soldiers move on to more daunting challenges.

Spc. Reiner Huesler was one of the first to cross a deep gorge on a single rope bridge. He didn’t always feel comfortable swinging through empty air, he said.

“I knew I could trust the gear, but the first time we did it when we were practicing I was kind of iffy. I was kind of like, I know people have done it, but until I do it myself I don’t really want to trust it,” Huesler said.

The exercise doesn’t just test the soldiers’ courage. It shows them how to overcome obstacles.

“If you have a huge ravine you need to get people across, we can set up the near and far anchors, which will allow any number of people to cross that open ravine,” said Lt. Matthew Mitchell. “You can’t say ‘well, the mountains are in our way, we can’t accomplish our mission.’”

They’re practical skills, learned in the Alaskan wilderness and put to use on the battlefield.

“This area is very familiar to certain regions in Afghanistan — mountainous, extreme temperature swings,” said training center commander Lt. Col. Mark Adams.

Alaskan soldiers also have to be ready to deploy to countries in the Pacific, where similar challenges await.

“All throughout the Ring of Fire and throughout the Pacific AOR [Area of Responsibility] there’s lots of different terrain that in order to accomplish and successfully defeat any enemy within their hometown, we now know that we’re capable of operating in that area,” Mitchell said.

“This makes them better Arctic soldiers because it tests their mettle, their intestinal fortitude,” Adams said. “We put them in some very unique and challenging situations that stresses them, not only physically but mentally.”

The training course hasn’t just given him the tools he needs, Huesler said. It’s built a new level of trust in his platoon.

“Definitely something that we can build upon. Made us better as a unit, made us stronger,” he said. “Gives us more flexibility to go on, train, be prepared for whatever mission would come our way.”

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