DIJIBOUTI, Africa -- At the top of the world, cloaked in ice and blinding snow, rest more than 100 permanent residents of Mt. Everest’s “Dead Zone.” They wait there at 26,000 feet like castle guard, their stunned silence an unspoken warning to passing travelers concerning the thin air that lays claim to new residents each climbing season -- including 11 souls this year. Those lucky enough to pass through their frozen neighborhood, unscathed en route to the summit, generally have three common characteristics: safety, stamina and Sherpas, or guides.
For Marines waging war on the front lines of the Global War on Terrorism – and in the mountain ranges where madmen hide – safety, stamina and “sherpas” are also key ingredients to their mission’s success. Recently, in Dijibouti, Africa, Marines with Alpha, Charlie and Weapons companies, Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), participated in a mountain assault course taught by the MEU’s assault climbers, a group of Marines trained to scale challenging terrain and “guide” a follow-on force to the fight.
Lance Cpl. Patrick Kanaley, a squad automatic weapon gunner and assault climber instructor with 2nd Platoon, Charlie Co., said that the purpose of the course is to teach infantry Marines sporting a “full combat load” the basic skills needed to move through a pre-established course and reach the top of the mountain ready to engage the enemy. Kanaley, a native of Buffalo, N.Y., explained that in addition to the information taught in the course, safety is paramount, because “people’s lives are hanging on ropes.”
“The idea is to move quickly, but to move up and down safely,” added Kanaley, whose job as a MEU “sherpa” could ask him to negotiate any difficult terrain in support of a raid force ranging from platoon-sized to battalion-level invasions. “This is a good course and gives the guys a general idea on how to use these installations.”
Course instructors set up three rope-climbing stations on a rocky slope – simple, fixed and semi-fixed – to give the Marines a hands-on class illustrating the techniques they’ll need to know for mountain combat. Cpl. Victor Rodriguez, a team leader and course instructor with Charlie Co., and a native of Brownsville, Texas, said the idea was to have them “go through the systems” that were set up for them in order to “become familiar and gain experience.”
“Our job, as assault climbers, is to make their job easier in getting up the mountain and getting to the fight,” said Rodriguez. “We show them how to get through.”
Ascending a mountain in full combat gear is a task that demands a great deal of stamina, a feat that Lance Cpl. Richard Gosch, a machine-gunner with Charlie Co. and a class participant, said was the toughest part of the course. Gosch said that climbing the unstable incline in Dijibouti’s searing heat gave each of the Marines an appreciation for the endurance needed for sustained operations in mountain warfare.
“This is the first time we’ve been able to do this in a mountain environment,” said Gosch. “I didn’t realize how tough climbing the actual mountain is on your body. After this we’ll be better prepared.”
For now, Marines are probably safe in the knowledge that they’ll most likely never scale Mt. Everest in pursuit of a fight. However, as madmen and jihadists continue to run out of places to hide, the day may come where – armed with safety, stamina and their “sherpas” – Marines will turn a battlefield “Dead Zone” into a high-altitude graveyard, complete with the stunned silence of terrorists who thought they were safe.