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Taking Aim on the New Cold War

Army-issued nordic skis, bunny boots, and two cans of Spam. Our correspondent is embedded north of the Arctic Circle as the U.S. Army starts training for the New Cold War.

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Just north of Coldfoot, the trees disappear.

It’s too cold for them suddenly, and so as we keep driving north there are only stunted shrubs on the Alaskan tundra, and little whorls of snow dust that spin in the wind beneath the white-creased peaks of the Brooks Range. I focus on the dash, on the thermometer. When we roll down a long gentle slope and reach the dark shadows at its base, the temperature is minus 27 degrees Fahrenheit, and I fi ll with a cool animal dread, for we will be camping out on this trip, in tents, in the crisp Arctic air, on a mission that already has a disconcerting backdrop.

I’m traveling with the U.S. military, which has of late had reason to worry about the vast swathes of land and sea that sit north of the Arctic Circle, latitude 66°33’, occupying parts of eight different nations. A February 2017 Department of Defense report notes that, amid climate change, the Arctic is “warming more rapidly than the rest of the planet.” According to the DOD report, “Human safety” is now threatened, as is the “protection of a unique ecosystem that many indigenous communities rely on for subsistence.”

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U.S. Marine Lt. Mark Steinmetz takes a look at Marine Staff Sgt. Jonathon Campos’ ski. The clunky boots, which the crew fondly calls “bunny boots,” while not optimal for movement, were designed to protect against the blistering cold.Photo Credit: Heath Sandall

There are also strategic and economic dimensions to the Arctic’s warming. As the ice melts in the Arctic Sea, its bounteous oil reserves will become more accessible, its now-frozen sea routes more navigable.

Russian president Vladimir Putin regards the Arctic as “a promising region” where Russia needs to “have all the levers for the protection of its security and national interests.” In 2015, Putin submitted to the United Nations the long-shot claim that Russia should be granted dominion over an Alaska-sized chunk of Arctic sea ice off its shores—never mind that much of this frozen expanse now belongs to Denmark. He’s also spent what would be valued as billions of dollars to build up Russia’s Arctic presence, which features 16 new airfields and ports, 40 icebreaking ships, and four Arctic brigade combat teams, each thousands of warriors strong. U.S. officials are now gazing warily north.

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Using the tools he has at hand, U.S. Department of Army civilian trip leader Steven Decker reviews a map with Steinmetz.Photo Credit: Heath Sandall

The U.S. does not have a single military base in the Arctic, and one of its two ocean-going icebreakers is now broken. We are, however, making efforts to answer the Russian combat presence, and I’m here to behold an early step in that campaign.

I’m about to join 10 military men—six Army soldiers, three Marines, and a Navy officer—and our leader, a retired Army sergeant, for a three day, 30-mile nordic ski trip over wind-scoured Arctic terrain. We will drag 30-pound sleds through fresh, fluffy powder and test the timbre of clunky, metal-edged, camo-white “military skis” as we galumph forward wearing giant white plastic “bunny boots”—not made for skiing, but nonetheless excellent for staving off frostbite. We will boil snow to survive. My fellow travelers are all military ski instructors. They include, arguably, the nation’s most deeply trained battle skiers, but no one here, save for our civilian leader, has ever undertaken a journey so cold and so long.

As we drive nine hours north from Fairbanks to our start point, there is burbling speculation as to what, exactly, is needed to pull this one off. “I’ve got two cans of Spam with me,” says Marines Staff Sergeant Jonathon Campos, “and two packages of bacon. I’m gonna eat like an Eskimo.”

Campos teaches cold-weather tactics at the Marines’ Mountain Warfare Training Center, a base high in California’s Sierra Nevada that schools about 1,200 novice skiers each year. He is a heavyset individual, 33 years old and given to patting his belly as he extols what he calls “the insulation“ there. He just got deep into skiing last year, both alpine and nordic, and he likes bombing hills. Indeed, he’s always been a thrill-seeker. When he was 10, he tells me, he rode a mattress down a rain-swollen Los Angeles River with his three brothers. “That was awesome,” he says, “so much fun.”

Eventually we park near remote Galbraith Lake to make camp. When I step out of the vehicle, into the minus 31 degree Fahrenheit chill, the snot in my nose instantly turns into rock.

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The Aurora Borealis lights the sky over camp in Alaska’s Brooks Range, where 10 Marine, Army and Navy men are resting during their three-day, 30-mile trek to test ski equipment on the Arctic terrain.Photo Credit: Heath Sandall

We move over the snow in a sort of Conga line: 10 men in green-spotted camo and then me, in a bright purple shell.

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Marine Staff Sgt. Jonathon CamposPhoto Credit: Heath Sandall

The vibe of the whole expedition is highly militarized, so that we go “wheels down at oh-eight-thirty” and measure our progress in “klicks” as the cold air crackles with barbed remarks too f—ing colorful to be printed in a family magazine.

Our leader, Steven Decker, is a native Floridian who, decades ago, gave up his bad habits—alcoholism and bar fights—to find Nirvana telemark skiing before dawn each winter morning in the subzero chill of Alaska. Fifty years old, he runs the only other U.S. military ski facility—the Army’s Northern Warfare Training Center in Fairbanks—which teaches the diagonal stride and the herringbone climb to about 350 new skiers each year. He is a stoic. Alone in our group, he will forgo a tent. He will sleep outside, on the snow, in the frigid cold, to savor the gleaming nighttime spectacle of the Aurora Borealis.

On the first day, the going is easy. We’re just shuffling along—walking, basically—on gentle, rolling terrain. There’s one hour-long climb that requires skins. Decker calls it “Mount Kiss My Ass,” but it’s not horrendous, and for me, the real challenge is the air temp, which hovers just below zero most of our trip.

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Marine Staff Sgt. Ryan GrosePhoto Credit: Heath Sandall

It is so cold that if you accidentally spill water on your shirt, it could kill you—so cold that every time I take off my mittens I have about two minutes to tackle vital tasks demanding bare hands (changing my socks, say) before my fingertips start singing with pain.

Thickly bemittened for 23 hours and 50 minutes a day, I feel like my hands have shape-shifted into useless flippers. Worse, I feel stupid. There are many tasks I need to learn to survive this trip, like how to crush my voluminous seven-pound sleeping bag into its itsy-bitsy stuff sack, but out here the finer gears of my mind seem to have skipped town, abandoning my brain cavity to a small primal voice of survival shouting, “Stay warm! Stay warm!”

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Army Staff Sgt. Philip DubosePhoto Credit: Heath Sandall

Operating deftly in the cold is a learned skill, an art form, and critical to Arctic warfare. (Imagine trying to gun down a surging enemy when you can’t even get your mittens off….) The U.S. military spends millions of dollars honing this skill in its soldiers. At Campos’ post in the Sierras, instructors lead pretend ambushes in snowfields and send low-level grunts to a plein air “hypothermia lab,” where they tread water beneath the crust of an icy lake for 10 minutes, then scramble to warm up via a regimen of squats, push-ups, and piping hot drinks. I’d arrived in the Arctic with no such training, however, and so on our first night in the field, I’m the village idiot, traipsing around camp in untied boots, with driblets of Army-ration turkey tetrazzini frozen to my parka. At bedtime, when Decker mercifully gives me two sealed hot water bottles to clutch through the night, I tuck them inside my jacket, close to my heart. Then I crawl into my tent.

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Grose prepares an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) in his tent overlooking the Itkillik River Valley, skis parked in front for the next day.Photo Credit: Heath Sandall

My tent mate, it turns out, is a Finn here on a two-week exchange.

Otso Könönen, 25, is an Army ski instructor for a nation that puts roughly half of all its conscripts on cross-country skis. He brings a sliver of Euro refinement to our expedition. His camouflage coat is a slightly sharper shade of pea green, and he’s carrying with him an artisan Finnish knife that sports a curly birch handle. He tells me that  in Finland every schoolchild knows about military skis; the most consequential moment in the history of ski warfare is also the crown jewel of Finnish history. In the World War II Battle of Suomussalmi, in the winter of 1939-40, a scant contingent of 11,000 Finns, equipped with little more than skis, sleds, and rifles, staved off 50,000 heavily equipped Russians by pinioning the Russians’ tanks to a single mountain road. The Finns nimbly kicked and glided through the snow-laden pines, then encircled the hapless Russians, and either shot them or waited for their food and firewood to run out. In the end, over 13,000 Russians perished, as compared to only 1,000 or so Finns, and the Finns seized 43 tanks.

“The Russian soldiers were mostly from warm places, like Ukraine,” says Könönen, whose great-uncle fought in the battle. “They didn’t know winter, but we Finns, we know winter. And we start skiing almost at birth.” 

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Steinmetz takes a break above the Itkillik River Valley.Photo Credit: Heath Sandall

I’m stirred by Könönen’s pride, but still I wonder: Isn’t ski warfare a bit passé today, in our age of drones and super-precise sniper rifles that can hit a target at nearly half a mile? In time, I call Andrew Holland, a senior fellow and Arctic expert at the American Security Project, a Washington think tank—and I learn that in fact cross-country skis could prove quite helpful to a military that, like ours, seeks to contain an increasingly  expansionist Russia. “You have to think about Russia’s playbook,” Holland  says before musing on The Kremlin’s most recent push for new turf in Ukraine. “What they did there is probe the borders. They didn’t send in tanks. They sent in a few Russian soldiers with the Russian insignias taken off their weapons.” The soldiers then tried to foment unrest, Holland says, by “doing sabotage and inciting local Russians to rise up against the government. I can see it happening elsewhere. We’re talking about small groups of men, and to operate they’d want mobility in the mountains and forests. Skis could be just what they need.”

Holland says that an on-skis Russian infiltration of the Norwegian or Finnish Arctic is possible, but he feels that it’d be more likely just south of the Arctic Circle, in the snowy Baltic—in Lithuania, Latvia, or Estonia. “Those are former Soviet states,” Holland says. “Russia harbors a desire to get them back, and there are large populations of ethnic Russians there. Ski warfare? The question’s not as far out there as it would have been three years ago.”

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The descent to the Itkillik River Valley in the Brooks Range, which stretches about 700 miles wide.Photo Credit: Heath Sandall

On the morning of day 2, at around 11 a.m., we reach the shore of frozen Itkillik Lake and gaze left at an undulating, rocky prominence that rises 1,000 feet to a bald, windswept pass. 

This pass, we learn, has no name. It is nothing on the map of Alaska, but it is our grail, the most brutal test we’ll face, and for me it looms especially large. Embedded among cold-weather soldiers, I’m aware that my credentials as a red-blooded American male are dubious. I do not own a gun. I don’t know even know how to fi re a gun. But I am, at 52, still in pretty good shape. I cross-country ski every winter afternoon when I’m home in New Hampshire. So this whole trip, I’ve been eyeing my co-travelers, most of them career military men in their 20s and 30s, and wondering if, on a sustained ascent, I could beat them.

I start the climb at the back of the pack. But then on the first steep pitch, I close in on Campos. He was a bull a day earlier, busting trail for miles, but now he’s addled by a loose skin on one of his skis, and flagging. I slip by him, then move along a side slope, through crusty snow, and then turn into the fall line. Könönen, the Finn, is in front, high above me, toiling through powder so we can all glide in his wake. I’m in fifth now, fifth out of 11, but my elderly calves cannot endure the steep pitch, so I cut a long, laborious traverse—all alone into white space for a full 15 minutes.

When I zig back, into a now-disparate conga line, I’m in third place. But then Könönen steps trailside for a moment’s rest and it’s just me and Steven Decker, the leader, moving together toward the shimmering white mirage of the top. Decker cuts trail in spurts—30 or 40 strides, then a long pause as he doubles over his poles, gasping for air. Following in his tracks, I’m a leech, a parasite. I feel guilty. 

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The men dragged 30-pound sleds across the Arctic.Photo Credit: Heath Sandall

So eventually I surge. For a few heady seconds, there is nothing but blue sky before me. We’re now over 90 minutes into this climb. My calves are ruined, and I reach No Name Pass in second, behind Decker, but with enough spare time to polish off a languorous lunch (freeze-dried Beef Stroganoff ) before the last stragglers show.

Do I feel a little smug? Well, sure, but the patriot in me is concerned: How is it that a card-carrying member of the AARP reached the top before the Marines and the Army guys? 

Soon, Decker will provide the grim answer. “The U.S. military ski program,” he tells me, “is at the corner between function and dysfunction.” It’s strayed, certainly. At the very end of World War II, in 1945, the Army’s Tenth Mountain Division, an elite cadre of skiing soldiers, became Alpine legends when they forayed into Italy’s Apennine Mountains and waged a series of daring and bloody assaults to help extinguish the German resistance in Italy.

The Tenth Mountain Division still exists, but it is now focused on desert and tropical warfare, on fighting in places like Saudi Arabia, Haiti, and Somalia. The U.S. military does not have a single battalion that specializes in ski warfare. There is no Seal-type force ready and waiting to ship off to the mountains of North Korea or the snowy Golan Heights, in Israel.

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Prepping skis in the Arctic.Photo Credit: Heath Sandall

For today’s soldiers, No Name Pass is a killer. We descend wearily, and at about 6:30 p.m. I finish a meager supper of chicken and rice and prepare to go to bed hungry, only to detect a salty scent on the breeze. At first it is faint, but soon it amounts to a tantalizing olfactory music, a keening siren song. Staff Sergeant Campos is, I learn, cooking his Spam. He is sautéeing it inside his tent.

I move toward the smell, and Campos invites me inside, and it is warm in there. It is so warm and so comfortable, so civilized, that Campos, his tent mate, and I can loll on the sleeping bags and engage in casual banter. No more of the clipped, tense dialogue that has prevailed throughout this whole frozen trip: We chat about Campos’ culinary ambitions—about his scheme to cook Mexican tortillas on his next Arctic outing. He comes up with a title for a prospective cookbook, Freeze Your Weenie Off and Eat Like a Champ. We devour every last morsel of Spam in the frying pan and then lick our fingers. Then I slope off to my tent, sated, and sleep like a baby.

The next afternoon, after an easy final leg of our trip, Campos and I talk more about what he’ll put on his next Arctic packing list. “A chocolate bar for every day,” he says, “some ready-cooked bacon, some ham. More pairs of contact gloves, so I can maneuver my hands, and also lots of Spam. I’m definitely bringing Spam next time.”

Vladimir Putin, say your prayers.