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Navy Lt. Bill Vaughan, a mountain medicine medical officer at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center Bridgeport, Calif., leads his team, team one, through the Mountain Leaders Course snow shoe familiarization exercise at the Grouse Meadows training area Jan. 15.

Photo by Cpl. Nicole A LaVine

Marines learn mountain survival, mobility in annual training

23 Jan 2009 | Cpl. Nicole A. LaVine

At a first glance, one may get the impression that a group of Marines skiing through the mountain countryside are simply enjoying a blissful day of carefree recreation on a warm afternoon. Don’t let the ski poles fool you. 

These students are participating in the winter version of a 34 day-long survival and mobility course called Mountain Leaders Course at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center Bridgeport, Calif. A summer package of this training is also given to students annually.

Students in the course must hold an infantry-based military occupational specialty to qualify for the course, said Gunnery Sgt. Peter E. Harvey, the staff noncommissioned officer-in-charge of formal schools at MWTC.

Other students in the course are formal school instructors at MWTC and are required to progress through each of these training evolutions each year to keep them sharp and capable of training their students, added Harvey.

This type of training has received more emphasis in lieu of the War on the Radical Islamic Movement transition to Afghanistan, a country known for its severe elevation variation due to the Hindu Kush mountain range which runs through the boarders of the country, according to the Web site,

Sgt. Mark Albert, a Mountain Leaders Course instructor, explained the driving purpose behind the semi-annual courses.

“This course teaches Marines how to survive, operate and fight in complex and compartmentalized terrain,” said Albert, a Battle Creek, Mich., native. “It shows you how to live and adapt to the challenges the mountain environment poses to you.”

Students in the course must also learn mobility techniques on snow shoes and skis, said Sgt. Garrett Scharffer, an MLC instructor.

“The reason we teach the students how to ski is because, when trained properly, it’s the most efficient way to move through winter mountainous environments,” said Scharffer, a St. John, Wash., native.

Students in the course, who range from the ranks of sergeant through captain, also learn skills such as building safe shelters in the snow, gathering and finding food, purifying water and battling cold weather and high altitude sicknesses, said Albert.

“By learning how to operate in the environment provided by MWTC, Marines will be more prepared for combat in high altitude and mountainous, cold weather environments like those found in Afghanistan and other threat nations throughout the world,” said Albert.

2nd Lt. Jonathan M. Pickup, the assistance intelligence officer of Headquarters and Service Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, based out of Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., said this was the first time he had taken part in training of this sort.

Pickup said of all the variables associated with the course, he believes the movements were most physically demanding and, in the end, rewarding.

“It’s very different doing movements in mountainous areas,” said Pickup, a native of London. “It takes much longer and requires more energy and planning. It’s all about working smarter and not harder up here.”

Harvey, also a student in the course, said he felt similarly about mobility in winter mountainous terrain.
Although he took the summer MLC in 2008, this was his first winter MLC course.

“Mobility is the biggest difference in what they teach,” said Harvey, a Roebling, N.J., native, about winter MLC. “Aside from PET [pre-environmental training], mobility in the snow is the most important thing we learn.”

Harvey explained that PET is a class given to MLC students that outlines basic mountain safety and health procedures prior to engaging in actual training, said Harvey.

“We learn about the basics like high altitude sicknesses and cold weather injuries. These are important skills for infantry Marines to have when it comes to operating in the snow and mountains in Afghanistan.”

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Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms