JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK, JOSHUA TREE, Calif. --
Marines can fight in every clime and place, but sometimes they have to climb to get there.
Fortunately for Combat Center Marines, they have a world-renowned rock climbing locale just a rock’s throw from the main gate in Joshua Tree National Park, in Joshua Tree, Calif.
Forty warriors of 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, took advantage of this proximity and near-perfect weather to strengthen their vertical climbing skills during a month-long Assault Climbers Course at the national park Tuesday.
The three-stage course began Jan. 11 at 25 Area, Camp Vado del Rio within Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton and is currently in its second stage in Joshua Tree. Those who survive Joshua Tree will return to Camp Pendleton’s Range 133 to take on steep earth, cliff assaults, and urban climbing techniques. Those who make it to the crest will graduate with either a Tactical Rope Suspension Team or Lead Climber certification during a ceremony Feb. 11 at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif.
Marines began the first stage Jan. 11 at Camp Pendleton, after highly experienced instructors with the Special Operations Training Group, placed the students in teams, or TRSTs. In their teams, Marines were taught all aspects of assault climbing in extreme terrain, from tying knots to scaling cliff faces as a lead climber. They also learned to rappel, use climbing anchors and apply belays correctly, said Gunnery Sgt. Eric N. Johnson, the staff noncommissioned officer in charge of the assault climbers section, with SOTG.
“We began teaching them every knot to tie, and for the first two weeks it was just them tying the 14 knots and learning the 11 rope systems.”
Johnson said the first two weeks are a mental challenge.
“Right now we’re in our fourth week of training.” Unfortunately, half of the original 40 students dropped out, figuratively, that is. That is consistent with average attrition rates, he said.
Although Marines may be able to master the rope and climbing techniques at ground level, doing so atop the steep slopes of a giant, slippery rock at Joshua Tree can be too daunting a task.
“The first two weeks is especially a mental challenge,” said Johnson. “It gets hard physically, but still that’s all mental. It can be easy for [the students] to lose their nerve and not think they can make a climb.”
Those Marines who make it past the second week typically get over any fear of heights quickly, said Johnson. This will pay off during the unit’s next deployment this summer when they become Battalion Landing Team 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, the ground combat element for the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, based out of Marine Corps Base, Okinawa, Japan.
Second Lt. Keefe Murtaugh, the 1st platoon commander of Company F, and a Chicago native, said the course is a tough test, but will pay off greatly when they execute their mission as BLT 2/7.
“A lot of the Marines sent here will be on the boat company,” said Murtaugh. “That mission, which will include raids, will require Marines to lead the way when tasked with cliff assaults.
“Sometimes when assaulting a beach, there will be cliffs we’ll have to scale,” said Murtaugh. Having a handful of Marines with climbing skills who can provide security at the top for the rest, will greatly increase the odds of the mission’s success, he said. Twenty-three days into the course, Murtaugh said, the mental and physical strain on the students is obvious.
“Most of us have little or no experience when it comes to climbing. A lot of the Marines are fairly fresh from [the School of Infantry] and this doesn’t apply to anything they’ve experienced in the Marine Corps,” said Murtaugh.
“All our hands are getting torn up,” he said. “One thing we’ve been taught is the fist-jam – to make a fist inside the rock. Murtaugh said it works, but it is hard. “Yeah it hurts, but the alternative of falling is much worse.”
Lance Cpl. Corey Murphy, a rifleman with Company F, from Tucson, Ariz., said he expects to make it to the next stage and eventually graduate, but said he quickly discovered scaling the face of a cliff was going to be harder than he thought.
“Just looking up at the side of the rocks, you’d think there’d be all kinds of places to plant your feet or grab with your hands. But when you’re up there in a tight spot, you just want to second guess everything,” said Murphy. “Of course the instructors taught us how to climb in combat boots and how to place protection to stop you from hitting the ground,” he said. “But when you’re up there, it’s a whole different story.”