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Since 1951, the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center has trained Marine, joint and coalition forces how to more effectively operate in complex and compartmentalized terrain at medium-to-high altitudes in a multitude of weather conditions.

Photo by Gunnery Sgt. Sergio Jimenez

The Making of a Mountain Warfare Instructor

26 Feb 2010 | Capt. Patrick Kinser, OIC, Formal Schools

“Think you can hang sir?,” Staff Sgt. Rob Turek asked 1st Lt. Adam Felde.  “Absolutely. It’s just going to be really painful,” the lieutenant replied.  Sgt. Rick Meyers quickly chimed in. “Even if you’re a 300 PFTer sir, these mountains are going to wear [you] out,” he said.

At 6,764 feet above sea level, the beginning of the Leavitt Training Area trail looks like an adventuresome run to the majority of Marines and sailors.  However, most quickly find out even something as mundane as running becomes significantly more challenging at medium to high altitudes.

Since 1951, the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center has trained Marine, joint and coalition forces how to more effectively operate in complex and compartmentalized terrain at medium-to-high altitudes in a multitude of weather conditions.  None of the training that has occurred aboard the MCMWTC would have been possible without the Mountain Warfare Instructors (MWIs) who navigate its more than 52,000 National Forest Service co-owned acres on a daily basis. 

Without a doubt, these environmentally-hardened men have the longest training pipeline, in some of the most arduous, dangerous and geographically isolated terrain of any formal school or unit training program. As this article is being written, six formal schools, totaling 215 students, and an infantry battalion, with regimental headquarters, logistical support unit, aviation assault support detachment and Naval Special Operations Forces detachment, are being led through the co-occupied national forest by a small, highly-trained cadre of MWIs.

Step one in becoming an MWI requires a prospective candidate to solicit orders to the MCMWTC.  This, of course, is no small feat as the MCMWTC has a limited number of instructor billets available – just 92 to be exact.  Upon arriving at Pickel Meadow, a prospective instructor must first prove his mettle in one of two high-risk certified formal courses: the Summer Mountain Leader Course or the Winter Mountain Leader Course.

In certain aspects, these two courses share similarities. They are extremely physically demanding, 42 training days in length, two of only a handful of high-risk certified programs of instruction (POI) in the entire Marine Corps, and they are only offered to Marines holding positions of leadership.

However, the conditions during each course lie on opposite ends of the environmental spectrum.  The three summer courses run between early April to late September, where average daily temperatures often resemble those at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., while the two winter courses proceed between January through early April when temperatures routinely plunge below zero degrees Fahrenheit and storms that can pack some of the most brutal conditions to be found anywhere on the planet assail the training grounds. 

During the Summer Mountain Leader Course, MCMWTC instructors teach technical core-plus skills derived from the Mountain and Cold Weather Operations (MCWO) Training and Readiness (T&R) manual to the students with an emphasis on enhancing unit mobility.  The Winter Mountain Leader Course also emphasizes mobility, but in 15 to 20 feet of snow.  Each course imbues the ability to gain tactical advantage over the enemy across all six warfighting functions, but in a mountainous environment. 

Between the two seasonal mountain leader courses, our prospective MWIs must obtain certification in Operational Risk Management, Systems Approach to Training and Education, Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation and Range Safety.  A high-risk training screening and attendance of the Formal School Instructors Course must also be completed before the Marine or sailor can earn the designation MWI.

On average, this takes eight to ten months and results in certification as a level-one MWI – the first of three levels.  This Marine or sailor is now capable of conducting basic mountain movement techniques and procedures, and can act as a guide for non-high risk training.

Level-one MWIs comprise the majority of the instructor billets at the MCMWTC.  However, due to the high-risk nature of training at the installation, approximately 20 percent of MWIs must complete additional specialized training. 

MWI level-two instructors must first undergo 20 hours of platform instruction, platform instruction evaluated by fellow instructors and Combat Life-Saver certification before progressing.

Then, students must complete week-long progression training and master instruction in each of the three disciplines – rock climbing, over-the-snow mobility and alpine movement.  Students undertake training on multi-pitch vertical rock faces, high-tensioned rope systems and specialized rescue techniques from hundreds of feet aloft during the rock climbing phase of their training. 

Snow training requires students to travel up to 50 kilometers through the snow, exist fully encapsulated without any support whatsoever in subarctic to arctic conditions and prove they can expertly assess avalanche hazards. 

The alpine discipline, a combination of rock and snow skills, will take the MWI to elevations in excess of 14,000 feet across glaciated terrain, and into isolated and extremely dangerous topography. 

A level-two instructor can conduct high-risk training evolutions with units and students attending any one of the nine Training and Education Command-funded POIs.  An MWI level-two instructor also supervises level-one MWIs in the execution of all student training events.  Typically, this qualification process takes nearly two years, even for the most capable Marine or sailor. 

The penultimate level of instructor certification is MWI level-three.  In order for a student to achieve MWI level-three, he must lead an expedition, become qualified as an avalanche and military ski instructor and maintain proficiency in platform instruction. 

To attain any one of these milestones, an MWI must plan, organize and lead a group of mountaineers on an expedition through remote, dangerous and isolated terrain off-site from the MCMWTC. 

These training evolutions can last from one week to more than a month and often require coordination with a variety of governmental agencies or international partners.  The majority of an MWI level-three’s responsibilities lies in managing and implementing course design and structure, as well as the management of instructor training progression.  With the attendance of the Curriculum Developers Course (CDC), an MWI level-three can navigate the Systems Approach to Training and Education process, create and enhance training programs and maintain the academic requirements of a formal schoolhouse. 

Within the last five years, less than five Marines have attained the MWI level-three status, a rarified echelon requiring not just unorthodox fortitude, crushing time commitment or uncanny mountain prowess, but a synergistic medley of all these.

It is important to note that while navigating this arduous training regime, an instructor is fully employed with his daily responsibilities.  MWIs, whether they be a level one, requiring an eight-to-10-month commitment, a level-two (typically, a two year commitment) or a three (usually requiring three full years) must also, while in training, undertake his daily responsibilities as outlined in his billet description. 

Whether assigned to the Mountain Warfare Unit Training Group (MWUTG), instructing 10 reinforced infantry battalions per year, or as an instructor in one of the nine Mountain Warfare Formal Schools (MWFS) courses, an MWI is always engaged in training and instruction. 

A fully integrated, broad spectrum unit training program, Exercise Mountain Warrior is tailored to enhance a Marine Air Ground Task Force’s ability to operate in complex and compartmentalized environments.  Developed by the MCMWTC instructor cadre and based upon the requirements of current combatant commanders, Mountain Warrior pits a unit against the challenges associated with the broad range of T&R manual tasks.  During phase one of Mountain Warrior, the MWIs of the MWFS train individuals in nine separate formal courses – Mountain Scout-Sniper; Mountain Survival; Animal Packing; Mountain Staff Operations Planning; Mountain Command, Control and Communications; Mountain and Cold Weather Medicine and the seasonal Mountain Leaders Courses.  Each creates enablers for the incoming unit attending the Mountain Warrior exercise.

MWUTG instructors are responsible for the execution of 21-day and 23-day winter evolutions that train MAGTF units across all six warfighting functions.  Cordon and search, key leader engagement, convoy operations and live-fire and maneuver on both the platoon and company level are just a few of the 2,000 to 8,000 level tasks each instructor must be competent to instruct. 

Progressing through winter and summer across a more than 60-mile-long convoy course and in the high desert straddling the Nevada-California border, an MWIs’ instruction during Mountain Warrior requires them to be proficient in basic infantry tactics, techniques and procedures while maintaining a safe training environment for more than 1,000 Marines, soldiers, sailors, airmen and joint and coalition forces operating together during a single exercise.

Without a doubt, becoming an MWI takes a special kind of Marine or sailor.  Extremes in temperature, elevations in excess of 14,000 feet and 400-feet-high rock faces comprise an MWI’s “office.”  The training and skills obtained while being stationed aboard the MCMWTC translate to a lifetime of increased capabilities. You will be guaranteed to leave a tour aboard Pickel Meadow stronger, faster, harder and more capable than any other instructor in the Marine Corps.

It’s only 4.1 miles, but 45 minutes later, Felde comments to Turek, “Damn, staff sergeant, I don’t know how you do this all year.” 

“No worries sir,” the sharp-witted and mountain-fit staff sergeant replied, “Another year and a half, and you’ll be able to do the same.”


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