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Making Mountaineers: U.S. Army Mountain Warfare School
US Army | Feb. 17, 2022
CAMP ETHAN ALLEN TRAINING SITE, Vt.: Each service member who enters the U.S. Army Mountain Warfare School passes under a placard with an ominous warning from Ethan Allen himself: “The Gods of the valleys are not the Gods of the hills.”
The students whose legs have jellied after trudging up Castle Trail, whose forearms have felt the fire of muscle fatigue while climbing the school’s ice wall, and whose hands have been marred by endless knot-tying have learned this is not just a hollow phrase, but a certainty in mountain warfare.
“Mountains, regardless of where they are, whether they’re in Africa or in the Antarctic, offer some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet and require a different skill set, more than what basic training and other aspects of military training really offer,” said Staff Sgt. John Hampson, an AMWS instructor. “The ability to dominate certain terrain features is really a big asset when it comes to maneuver warfare. This is base level for an individual to be able to start taking on some of the mastery of the skills that are necessary to dominate that kind of terrain.”
The AMWS is a U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command school operated by the Vermont Army National Guard at Camp Ethan Allen Training Site, Vermont. The school teaches basic, advanced and specialty mountain warfare courses to U.S. and foreign service members. Graduates of the school’s Basic Military Mountaineer Course earn the coveted Ram’s Head device and the military mountaineer additional skill identifier.
“There’s no higher level of mountaineering training that happens in our Army,” said Lt. Col. Steve Gagner, commander of the AMWS. “The United States Army Mountain Warfare School specializes in training Soldiers and units how to be more mobile, lethal and survivable in mountainous and restricted terrain.”
More than 500 military mountaineers graduate each year from the basic, two-week course, which is offered year-round.
The BMCC trains service members in mountain combat skills, including land navigation, high-angle marksmanship, first aid, casualty evacuation, and ascending and descending techniques. Students also delve into rappelling – rock climbing in the summer or ice climbing in the winter.
However, at the core of nearly all these skills is knot-tying. One of the more daunting parts of the course for many students is the knot test, where they must tie 27 different knots and explain their purpose.
“What’s really powerful about knowing all the knots that were taught here is that they’re applicable in so many different ways and adjustable at the same time. So, it really gives you a huge tool kit to tackle any problem that you face,” said Vermont Army National Guard Spc. Piotr Sowulewski, a student in the course.
However, the course isn’t just simple memorization. The students use the knots throughout the course to ascend and rappel, traverse mountains, and evacuate casualties from the mountains to safety.
“The other day, we were taught how, just using rope and different types of knots and hitches, we were able to ascend a 30-foot ice wall, and I never thought that that’d be possible before,” said Sowulewski.
During the course, students are not only taught new skills and expected to know how to use them, but they are also encouraged to ask, “Why?”
“We teach problem-solving,” said Gagner. “All of our students have to judge the situation that they’re in, apply the right skill or technique or system that we’ve taught them in order to successfully navigate the situation.”
That includes the basics, like cold weather clothing choices and regulating body temperature.
Students often operate in temperatures that can fall to -15 degrees in the winter. To deal with the extreme temperatures, they’re issued the military’s seven-layer cold weather clothing system, cold weather boots, crampons and ski poles, in addition to their climbing equipment. It’s up to the students to use those items based on the environment.
“This morning, it was 18 below,” said Sowulewski, who attended the course in January. “It definitely changes the way that you have to prepare. Knowing how to insulate and keep your layers working while also not overheating is really important. While we’re out in the field, we’re putting on our puffies [extreme cold weather parka] when we’re in a block of instruction to stay warm, and when we’re moving, we are taking layers off.”
With training days that began before sunrise and could keep them outside until after it had set, understanding the cold weather clothing system was vital.
That underscores the importance of asking “why,” said Gagner.
“I like to say that’s what makes the mountain school different from most Army schools, is that students are empowered to ask their instructors, why do we build a system in this way? Why would we use this or not this piece of equipment? It’s unique in that our Soldiers, our students, feel empowered to be curious learners,” he said.
Throughout the course, students carry 40-pound rucksacks as they move between training areas, whether it’s trudging through 2 feet of snow in January or walking nearly a mile uphill in July when temperatures can hit the 90s.
In addition to the weight they carry, students are often given casualty evacuation scenarios, where they have to transport another student using the systems they learn in the course.
“The casualty stuff we cover is very real-world, very applicable,” said Hampson, who teaches the medical portions of the course. Making the scenarios as realistic as possible, with live students acting as casualties in the litters they carry, gives the situation more gravity, he said. “Learning how to do things in a slightly technical environment is a really, really big skill set to have.”
Sgt. 1st Class Dustin Dearborn, an AWMS instructor for more than 20 years, emphasized the significance of casualty evacuation skills.
“Any time we are out in mountain terrain, one simple injury, a broken ankle or torn ACL or MCL [ligament], is incredibly time-intensive, and it puts a lot of other Soldiers on the team at risk, so they need to be able to have the skills to do that.”
At the end of the two weeks, students put all their skills together for their practical exercise at Easy Gully at Smuggler’s Notch, formidable terrain that looks like a nearly vertical wall of snow upon approach. This January, it was -29, with windchill.
“When Soldiers complete that task, they no longer look at mountainous terrain the same way,” said Gagner. “When you first look at this piece of terrain, you think there’s no way I can traverse it, and at the end of that culminating exercise, you’ve done something with these individual skills that we’ve taught that you didn’t think you could do, and you just did it. So, it gives you a different level of confidence and a morale boost to continue that education.”
Not only do the students know and have a respect for the unforgiving nature of mountainous warfare, but they also know how to surmount it and use it to their advantage, he said.
At the end of the grueling two weeks, the students embody the full Ethan Allen decree: “The Gods of the valleys are not the Gods of the hills, and you shall know it.”