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Soldiers Hone Cold-Weather Survival Skills at Vermont Site

By Sgt. 1st Class Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 4, 2001 – Soldiers who find themselves in the path of an avalanche are taught to try to ski out of the area. But if they're caught by sliding snow, there are ways of helping themselves.

"You get rid of your rucksack. You get rid of your skis. You swim," Col. Gary Varney explained. "You do your best to swim in it, try to stay on top."

Varney is the plans and training officer for the Vermont Army National Guard and a former commandant of the Army's Mountain Warfare School in Jericho, Vt. He spoke to Pentagon reporters here Nov. 20 about what the Army does to prepare soldiers to operate in extreme winter conditions, such as many are likely to face in and around Afghanistan this winter.

Several hundred soldiers attend the school's two-week basic mountaineering course each year, current Commandant Lt. Col. Terry Lambert said. The Mountain Warfare School opened in 1983. The Marines conduct similar training for their forces in Pickel Meadows, Calif., Varney said.

"We teach soldiers to operate in cold weather and mountainous environments," Lambert explained. "We do that under all climatic conditions, both day and night."

Historically, cold weather has taken a terrible toll on combat forces. Up to 60 percent of soldiers who came off the line in Korea in the early 50s did so because of cold- related injuries, Varney said. Infamous cold weather conditions led veterans of the Chosin Reservoir campaign to become known as the "Frozen Chosin."

Lambert said students at the Mountain Warfare School train extensively in the proper use of the Extreme Cold Weather Clothing System, a variety of Gore-tex and polypropylene garments soldiers wear in different combinations depending on the weather conditions.

Students also learn to keep their individual weapons dry and cold once they're in the cold. If you bring a weapon in from the cold, condensation forms and then freezes when you go back out, Lambert said. Your weapon becomes non- functional.

Cold weather has a different effect on other types of weapons. "Bursting munitions" -- hand grenades, mortars, artillery shells -- are very effective on dry ground because they can break up on rocks and create a lot of additional, shrapnel-like projectiles. They're less effective in snow, which muffles the shrapnel effect, Varney said.

Mountaineering students learn how to navigate using an altimeter, which is often more useful than a compass in mountainous terrain, Lambert said. "With a compass you would do dead reckoning and pace count," Lambert said, referring to common land navigation practices. "That's very difficult to do in mountainous terrain."

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