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Knots, Pulleys & Climbing: This Is How Military Mountaineers Are Made

Imagine racing up the side of a snowy mountain to rescue an injured person, then, despite your fatigue, having to figure out the best way to secure that person and bring them back down safely. Using a minimal amount of rope and other supplies you carried with you, do you tie a bowline or clove hitch to start making a pulley system? And how do you communicate with your fellow rescuers who might be further down the hillside?  

A man lowers a litter carrying another person down a vertical wall using ropes.
Litter Lowering
A student at the Army Mountain Warfare School’s advanced military mountaineering course practices lowering a litter with a mock victim down a vertical wall, March 9, 2024.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. Eugene Oliver, DOD
VIRIN: 240309-D-VS137-1022

This knowledge is crucial to those in the mountaineering community. And while learning these skills isn't easy, service members often need to know them to perform their missions successfully. 

Thankfully, the Defense Department has the Army Mountain Warfare School to train them.  

Operated by the Vermont National Guard near Jericho, Vermont, the Army Mountain Warfare School has been the DOD's main school responsible for teaching military mountaineering for the past 20 years. Its students hail from all service branches, as well as militaries from partner nations and even civilian rescue teams looking to standardize their techniques.  

The school hosts about 10 two-week basic military mountaineer courses a year that teach students how to use adverse terrain to their advantage under any weather conditions, day or night. From knot tying to climbing techniques, the course teaches some of the most experienced climbers new ways to overcome obstacles.  

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The school also teaches four additional courses: winter and summer advanced military mountaineer classes, rough terrain evacuation courses, a mountain planners' course for operations planners, and a mountain rifleman course for snipers and other qualified marksmen. 

Learning the Ropes 

The school's basic course teaches students important knots and how to use them in rope pulley systems. It also teaches navigation skills, rappelling and belaying, as well as how to perform basic mountain casualty evacuations. That includes how to prepare a litter and successfully carry a person through rough terrain in one. Students spend about 10 hours per day training, with additional practice on their own time.  

Several men carry a litter filled with backpacks up a steep hill.
Litter Carry
Students at the Army Mountain Warfare School’s basic military mountaineering course work together to secure and carry a litter through a deep gully at the school’s training site in Jericho, Vt., March 9, 2024.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. Eugene Oliver, DOD
VIRIN: 240309-D-VS137-1475

Most of the training takes place outside, but in the rare times that's not possible – if, say, there's not enough ice on the manmade ice cliff, or the weather is too precarious — basic and advanced students can practice their climbing and evacuation skills on a massive, three-story indoor rock wall. Instructors said that if the students can master that wall, they're ready for real terrain. 

"Nothing substitutes being outdoors, but if the training schedule says we're going to do two rope lowers outside and it's thunder and lightning at the cliff, we have this to fall back on," said AMWS 1st Sgt. Max Rooney.  

During classroom instruction, basic course students learn how to maintain their nutrition in a mountainous environment, including how to decide the extra number of calories they may need and whether they should come from fats or carbohydrates. They also get to try out cold-weather meals ready to eat — MREs — that are dehydrated and won't freeze. 

"Water procurement is also a huge deal, and it's also a huge topic for Arctic warfare as well, which is the new hot topic. Water procurement is basically snow that you melt using a fuel source of some kind," said Master Sgt. Bert Severin, the school's training division noncommissioned officer in charge. "Logistically, it's difficult to support even a small unit out in this weather." 

Three men walk along snow with ski poles. Two pull sleds behind them.
Cold Mountain
Students at the Army Mountain Warfare School’s advanced military mountaineer course drag mountaineering equipment on sleds as they leave the site where they camped in temperatures that reached -29 degrees with windchill, Jan. 27, 2022.
Photo By: Army Sgt. 1st Class Whitney Hughes, National Guard Bureau
VIRIN: 220127-Z-TA175-0001C
A man works a clasp to put on snowshoes in the snow.
Snow Shoe
Army Staff Sgt. Adam Maynard puts on snowshoes to walk on top of the snow during the land navigation portion of the Vermont Best Warrior Competition at Camp Ethan Allen Training Site, Jericho, Vt., March 21, 2015.
Photo By: Army Staff Sgt. Nathan Rivard, North Dakota National Guard
VIRIN: 150321-A-NB545-289

Basic students are taught about how the environment affects weapons. They also learn to snowshoe during winter-weather courses. For advanced course participants, skiing is involved, mostly to teach how to maneuver uphill on lower-angle terrain. 

Basic school students are housed at the school and aren't allowed to leave the premises throughout their training. The new state-of-the-art schoolhouse, which opened in January 2023, has 140 beds interspersed throughout seven 20-person "bays," which are like dorms. Living in such close quarters promotes a desire by students to practice their skills, even during their time off, instructors said, which helps to keep students from dropping out.  

The Students 

The school's attrition rate is about 10-20%, instructors said. Usually, those who don't make it tend to wash out in the first day or two, mostly because they don't have the physicality for it. After that, it's the mental part that gets hard.  

"We're putting them in situations in which they've never been," said Staff Sgt. Andrea Okrasinski, an instructor. "What we're doing is asking them to not just be academically proficient but also technically and tactically proficient. So, putting both of those things together … is pretty difficult." 

A man ties a knot in a rope around a tree.
Knot Tying
A student at the Army Mountain Warfare School’s basic military mountaineering course practices his knot-tying skills during a drill at the school’s training site in Jericho, Vt., March 8, 2024.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. Eugene Oliver, DOD
VIRIN: 240308-D-VS137-1018
A woman points at a knot in a rope tied to a tree. Two other women look at it.
Work Evaluation
Army Staff Sgt. Andrea Okrasinski, an Army Mountain Warfare School instructor with the Vermont National Guard, evaluates the work of basic military mountaineering course students, near Jericho, Vt., March 8, 2024.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. Eugene Oliver, DOD
VIRIN: 240308-D-VS137-1009

"Learning all the knot systems over roughly a five-day period [was] extremely difficult," said student Staff Sgt. Stephen Vigo, a recruiter with the Connecticut National Guard. His advice for future students? "Study all the knots prior to [your arrival] so then, when you come to the schoolhouse … you know the basics." 

The days are busy, and students are usually strategically spread out across the training site to make sure there's no lull in learning. On an unusually warm day in March, this reporter visited the vertical ice wall (which, coincidentally, had little ice) as a team of advanced course students practiced carrying casualty litters up and down using intricate pulley systems.  

Further into the woods, teams of basic course students performed casualty evacuation drills that required raising and lowering litters up and down a deep gully. They also practiced aerial high-line drills in which a rope system is set up to go straight across the gully – a system used for moving casualties or equipment when traversing up and down the terrain isn't an option.  

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Students come to the school for a variety of reasons, whether it's to bring new skills back to their units or to prepare for an upcoming mission.  

Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Seth Brown, with the Maryland Army National Guard's Expeditionary Combat Aviation Brigade, came to the course to challenge himself and prove to his Guard comrades that they can do more than just show up for drill weekends and annual training. While he'd never done mountaineering before, he said it's a great skill that more service members could stand to learn. 

"Everything we learn here doesn't involve technology, and if things escalate and we lose the ability to have electronics or technology in some way, you learn a lot of basic skills without using any of that, and that's crucial," Brown said. 

Another recent student, Air Force Capt. Kinsea Ragland, is preparing to take part in an ongoing aircraft recovery mission to Alaska's Colony Glacier in June, which required specialty training. 

"I have not done anything like this before. It's definitely been a challenge, but a challenge in one of the best ways," Ragland said during a break from training at the school's indoor rock wall. "My biggest takeaway is you have to know what you're doing in a mountainous terrain, and you have to be safe." 

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Air Force Capt. Lyndi Minott, who's gone on several iterations of the Colony Glacier Mission, recalled last year how her AMWS training was incredibly helpful. 

"In 2023, the debris field was broken up with a lot of crevasses, which required our team to actually climb down into the crevasses and find the ice shelves that held the human remains and debris," Minott said. "And those rope systems are something we learned at the Army course." 

Mastering Cold-Weather Equipment 

When it comes to gear, the school has a large supply room filled with everything the students might need, from clothing to snowshoes and ski poles. For winter courses, students are issued the Extended Cold Weather Clothing System, which offers several layers of baseline protection. They also can use what's known as a double boot, which is a lace-up, ski-like boot. It consists of a plastic shell and an insulated liner that can be removed and put in a sleeping bag or somewhere warm to stay dry or to keep from freezing.  

"They don't bend like a normal boot, but it's the warmest thing out there. … When it's 20 below in Smugglers' Notch, [students] really appreciate that boot," Severin said, referring to a narrow pass through the Green Mountains near the training site. 

Several insulated boots sit on a shelf.
Mountain Boots
Students at the Army Mountain Warfare School’s winter basic military mountaineering course have the option to wear a lace-up, ski-like boot. The double boot, as it’s called, consists of a plastic shell and an insulated liner that can be removed and put in a sleeping bag or somewhere warm to stay dry or to keep from freezing.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. Eugene Oliver, DOD
VIRIN: 240309-D-VS137-1232
Seven pieces of long-sleeve clothing hang on a wall.
Mountain Clothing
Students at the Army Mountain Warfare School’s winter basic military mountaineering course are issued the Extended Cold Weather Clothing System, which offers several layers of baseline protection.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. Eugene Oliver, DOD
VIRIN: 240309-D-VS137-1217C

Students also learn how to use crampons, which are spikes that latch onto boots to help traverse ice, as well as ice axes and other tools for steep to vertical terrain.  However, most of the basic course focuses on mid-level terrain. 

"So, kind of higher angle but not completely vertical [terrain], which is where most operations might take place," Severin said. 

When students are outside practicing land navigation skills, they're tracked by GPS systems so, if they happen to get lost, instructors can find them. 

Adjusting Amid Shifts 

As the Arctic becomes a theater of great power competition, renewed focus has been put on Arctic strategies — a topic that's been a relatively new development for the Army Mountain Warfare School. Army Maj. Brad Patnaude, the school's operations officer-in-charge, said they're sending subject matter experts to help with cold-weather testing on new Army products, as well as attending more conferences on the subject.  

Three men climb a wall of ice using crampons and ice axes.
Ice Climbers
Vermont Army National Guard soldiers ice climb during sustainment training at the Ethan Allen Firing Range, Jericho, Vt., March 5, 2023. Special equipment, such as climbing axes, sit harness, carabiners and crampons allow soldiers to negotiate steep terrain and vertical obstacles that are otherwise impassable.
Photo By: Army Staff Sgt. Barbara Pendl, Vermont National Guard
VIRIN: 230304-A-BA489-110

As for their current courses, Patnaude said instructors can pretty easily make adjustments for equipment, regulations and new priorities.  

"We have a certain level of mastery that we can adjust almost on the fly," he said.   

Those who pass the basic course earn the coveted Ram's Head Device and the military mountaineer additional skill identifier, known as the echo identifier. Many of the instructors said they still hear from past students, to show off a new knot they've learned or just simply say thank you for teaching them skills that they've found to come in handy.  

"I do hear from students, and it's really cool," Okrasinksi said. "It just means that I've made some sort of an impact, and that's my goal here." 

As for the school's instructors, the students are getting some of the best in the business. You can learn more about that side of the story here

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