Drop and Give Me Heli

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Drop and Give Me Heli

There's nothing on earth that sailor Jarrod Dienes wants to do less than get out of his sleeping bag. But it's 4 a.m. and it's his turn for guard duty so, like any good military man, he doesn't question, or contemplate, or ponder, he simply pulls on frozen fatigues and crawls from his snow cave into the middle of a March night as cold and raw as the surrounding Sierra.

"It's the worst part of the course," Dienes says. "Everything else I can handle-crappy food, long night marches, skiing with an 80-pound pack, whatever. But getting out of that bag knowing I'll just be standing around freezing my ass off...it's hard man, it's really f---ing hard."

As Dienes takes his post, professional freeskier Chris Anthony sleeps comfortably in a nearby tent, snoring into the night. He plans to enjoy at least five more hours of shut-eye. Anthony and three other Warren Miller athletes-Chris Paulding, Kina Pickett, and Jeff McKittrick-have come to California to join the Marines at their Mountain Leaders Course, a six-week stamina-thon at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center (MWTC) in Bridgeport, California. The plan calls for the Warren Miller crew and a few lucky Marines to sample three days of heli-skiing on the plentiful chutes and bowls of the surrounding 46,000-acre Toiyabe National Forest. Then the pro skiers will join the Marines for three days of their training, including competing in a 10K biathlon on Marine-issue gear-M-16 included-and a not-so-quick plunge into a frozen lake, entering fully clothed through a hole in the ice.

The differences between the two career choices are immediately apparent. On the one hand is a guy like McKittrick-scruffy, long-haired, perennially bed-headed veteran of the free-skiing universe, whose entire knowledge of military matters comes from repeated viewings of Stripes and who couldn't look less Marine-like if he weighed 400 pounds and had dreadlocks to his ankles. Standing nearby is Pickett, who does have dreadlocks and is wearing a sky-blue Salomon ski suit, looking more like Tinky Winky from Teletubbyland than a U.S. Marine.

And you know what the Marines are like-all bad-ass attitude and crewcuts, as familiar with the free-spirited existence of ski bum living as Pickett or McKittrick are with martial protocol. We are introduced to the support personnel assigned to accompany us throughout the week, including Lt. Robert Gieger, a graduate of the Mountain Leaders Course, and Sergeants Cole Nowicki and Tim "Mack" McWharter, two of the 64 square-jawed, steely-eyed instructors stationed here.

THE MWTC WAS ESTABLISHED IN 1951 to provide cold-weather training to soldiers and Marines bound for Korea. It was largely a response to a disastrous battle that took place near the Chosin Reservoir the year before, in which Allied forces were overwhelmed by temperatures hovering near 30 below. Nearly all the 18,000 Allied troops who fought there suffered frostbite or some other form of cold injury, earning the battle the "Frozen Chosin" moniker. Founded at Big Bear, California, the school was soon moved because, as Lt. Gieger put it, "the men ended up running around with the girls who were up there skiing." Because the Army's famed Tenth Mountain Division, which immortalized mountain fighting in Italy's Dolomites during World War II, no longer provides this sort of instruction, the MWTC is now the only large-scale mountain warfare training base in the Department of Defense. Approximately 10,000 students-Marines and a few Navy sailors-train at the center each year, preparing themselves for mountainous battlefields worldwide-including Afghanistan, where several graduates have seen action in recent months.

As military bases go, the MWTC looks more like an isolated prison than a school for elite troops. A dozen or so one-story buildings sit scattered next to the motor pool, with a mess hall, bar, and small store located just a short mar up the hill. But what it lacks in amenities, it makes up for in location: Just an hour north of Yosemite, the place is surrounded with world-class rock-climbing routes, runnable rivers, and skiable 10,000- to 12,000-foot peaks. With its rough-hewn, thousand-foot granite faces and rugged pine knolls, it looks like a western resort, only without the town and even less women. The remote post also helps young Marines avoid extracurricular distractions. As one sergeant put it, "How's a Marine gonna get in trouble here-steal a cow?"

After a couple days of orientation, including gear issue and an introduction to the culinary delights of military cuisine, we are ready for our first flight. Trying to blend in, Chris Anthony sits reading the latest Soldier of Fortune as the gathering of longhairs and leathernecks waits for our chopper. When the two CH 53 Super Stallion assault support helicopters come flying in low and loud, it's obvious from the expressions around me that even the seasoned ski veterans are impressed with our ride-a military monster that dwarfs the A-Star experience of the Alaska heli scene. The 100-foot-wide body of a CH 53 holds two Humvees with room to spare, and if a pilot were to plop it down in the middle of a football field, the 180-foot main rotor would reach over each sideline. "Man, no wonder nobody messes with us," Pickett says, gazing wide-eyed at the incoming copters. "If I was the enemy and saw 20 of those things flying toward me, I'd be like, 'I give up. You win.'"

The walk out to the heli is no easy task, with 100 miles-per-hour rotor gusts trying to push us to the ground. But soon we're loaded and airborne, with pilots Doug Burpee and Jeff Freeman spinning the 20-ton craft through the canyons of the Sierra like they were the jungles of Vietnam. Chris Patterson and Kent Harvey-lead shooters, so to speak, for the Warren Miller film crew-lean out the open front doors where 50-caliber gunners usually sit. The pilots, like the athletes, lay it on thick when the cameras are rolling, buzzing the tops of trees and cranking turns so tight and fast that the G-forces pin one side of the crew to the wall and pull the other side out snug against their safety belts.

After flirting nicely with the 10,000-foot ceiling under which the pilots are required to fly, the warship drops us down in our own little mountain play zone, three or four miles above the base, under clear blue California skies. Following a quick briefing by director John Teaford, the athletes are off-four skiers in three different directions, all of them hiking steep, snow-covered ridges and covering ground quickly. The Marines in the group take notice, in typical Marine fashion.

"They don't hesitate, do they?" McWharter says. "As soon as the director says, 'I want you up on that ridge,' they definitely commence hiking."

Pickett takes the first run, making four turns down 1,500 feet of blower north-facing pow before launching 70 feet into the shadows of a granite pillar. McKittrick, Anthony, and Paulding follow suit down their respective lines as McWharter and Nowicki hike for a run of their own, making solid tele turns on breakable crust wearing marginal, Marine-issue gear. And "marginal" is probably a generous description.

Several curious Marines at the base had taken a long gaze at the pros' skis as they were lined up against a barracks wall, seemingly perplexed by boards that looked three times as wide as their own. The Marines' ski gear, which includes ancient skinny skis with bear-trap bindings and either leather boots or the even softer Sorel-type VP (vapor barrier) boots, becomes a subject of considerable discussion. Comments from the skiers go something like this: "The military has got to have so much money, can't they get you guys better gear? It would be so much easier."

But no training course in the military, especially one run by Marines, is meant to be easy. Being difficult is precisely the point, so being difficult on crappy gear is even better. Yet there are some practical reasons at work. Nowicki explains: "We need one boot that does it all and the VP boot is it. Believe me, we've tried everything out there, but we can't carry two, and plastic tele boots are too heavy. Besides, some Marine standing around on guard duty when it's 20 below doesn't give two shits about how cool he looks while he's skiing. He just wants to keep his feet warm."

And that cuts to one of the core differences between these two groups. While image remains key, athletes who star in ski movies use the best new gear available because they have to-they need it to perform on the type of ridiculous terrain they find themselves in. Marines do not. "We battle the idea up here all the time that this is some sort of skiing and climbing club," says Nowicki. "But skiing here isn't a sport. It's just another way to get to the fight."

AT THE END OF THE DAY, we all ski down to meet the BVs (think snowcat, only with camouflage and much better armor), which carry us over the snow and up to camp-a large clearing in the trees where the trainees have built their snow caves. Later that night, as the crew from Warren Miller sits trying to master the packaged meals they'd been given, the trainees head out for a three-hour night march on skis. Silently weaving single file through the woods, imagining they're hiding from the enemy, adds an element of reality to the exercise. Two miles from camp, Captain Culp-the officer in charge of the course-announces that they have a "casualty evac." Suddenly, all 16 Marines must work together to remove a 160-pound comrade. He has a "broken leg," so his gear is dispersed among the men and a rotating trio spends the next two hours skiing the casualty back to camp. They pull him through heavy, crusted snow with a makeshift sled that tips precariously every few minutes, threatening to dump their injured load into a snowbank-all while hiding from the enemy under a full moon. The sound of heavy breathing wakes some of the Warren Miller crew as the Marines eventually struggle past their tent.

It's one of many demanding exercises meant to push Marines to the breaking point. "What you really find out here is who can lead and who can't," says Nowicki. "There's been some great leaders come out of here, and there's been some who couldn't lead a dying horse to water. I've seen complete breakdowns-couldn't even get out of the tent, some of 'em."

Sergeant Tom Eardley, another MWTC instructor working the week we're there, relates a story about when he was in leadership training. "We were at about 9,500 feet in a blizzard, and I couldn't see 50 feet in front of me so getting the first head count was a mother. We were out there for three days and the snow never stopped. The overwhites that we wear are made of cotton, and you know how wet the Sierra cement is. Walking popcicles is what we were. But the ice almost helped, in a way-it acted as a field-expedient windstopper.

The cold temperatures, high altitude, wicked weather, and rugged terrain combine to make the Mountain Leaders Course both realistic and brutally hard. It's not as if all the Marines at the MWTC come from Utah or Colorado, either. A kid from Salt Lake gets in the course just like a guy from Pigsknuckle, Arkansas. And they all must be trained to survive. "Plus we have the extra issue of having to make it tactical," McWharter says. "They don't just need to reach their objective on skis, they need to do it without being seen and they need to be able to fight when they get there. They can't get cold because when they're cold then that's what they think about. And anything that takes your mind off the mission is bad."

Skiing down from camp on our last day in the field, Pickett, Paulding, and McKittrick blast past Marines who are survival-snow-plowing down the middle of the road. At the bottom of the hill, we collect and prepare to e point, so being difficult on crappy gear is even better. Yet there are some practical reasons at work. Nowicki explains: "We need one boot that does it all and the VP boot is it. Believe me, we've tried everything out there, but we can't carry two, and plastic tele boots are too heavy. Besides, some Marine standing around on guard duty when it's 20 below doesn't give two shits about how cool he looks while he's skiing. He just wants to keep his feet warm."

And that cuts to one of the core differences between these two groups. While image remains key, athletes who star in ski movies use the best new gear available because they have to-they need it to perform on the type of ridiculous terrain they find themselves in. Marines do not. "We battle the idea up here all the time that this is some sort of skiing and climbing club," says Nowicki. "But skiing here isn't a sport. It's just another way to get to the fight."

AT THE END OF THE DAY, we all ski down to meet the BVs (think snowcat, only with camouflage and much better armor), which carry us over the snow and up to camp-a large clearing in the trees where the trainees have built their snow caves. Later that night, as the crew from Warren Miller sits trying to master the packaged meals they'd been given, the trainees head out for a three-hour night march on skis. Silently weaving single file through the woods, imagining they're hiding from the enemy, adds an element of reality to the exercise. Two miles from camp, Captain Culp-the officer in charge of the course-announces that they have a "casualty evac." Suddenly, all 16 Marines must work together to remove a 160-pound comrade. He has a "broken leg," so his gear is dispersed among the men and a rotating trio spends the next two hours skiing the casualty back to camp. They pull him through heavy, crusted snow with a makeshift sled that tips precariously every few minutes, threatening to dump their injured load into a snowbank-all while hiding from the enemy under a full moon. The sound of heavy breathing wakes some of the Warren Miller crew as the Marines eventually struggle past their tent.

It's one of many demanding exercises meant to push Marines to the breaking point. "What you really find out here is who can lead and who can't," says Nowicki. "There's been some great leaders come out of here, and there's been some who couldn't lead a dying horse to water. I've seen complete breakdowns-couldn't even get out of the tent, some of 'em."

Sergeant Tom Eardley, another MWTC instructor working the week we're there, relates a story about when he was in leadership training. "We were at about 9,500 feet in a blizzard, and I couldn't see 50 feet in front of me so getting the first head count was a mother. We were out there for three days and the snow never stopped. The overwhites that we wear are made of cotton, and you know how wet the Sierra cement is. Walking popcicles is what we were. But the ice almost helped, in a way-it acted as a field-expedient windstopper.

The cold temperatures, high altitude, wicked weather, and rugged terrain combine to make the Mountain Leaders Course both realistic and brutally hard. It's not as if all the Marines at the MWTC come from Utah or Colorado, either. A kid from Salt Lake gets in the course just like a guy from Pigsknuckle, Arkansas. And they all must be trained to survive. "Plus we have the extra issue of having to make it tactical," McWharter says. "They don't just need to reach their objective on skis, they need to do it without being seen and they need to be able to fight when they get there. They can't get cold because when they're cold then that's what they think about. And anything that takes your mind off the mission is bad."

Skiing down from camp on our last day in the field, Pickett, Paulding, and McKittrick blast past Marines who are survival-snow-plowing down the middle of the road. At the bottom of the hill, we collect and prepare to compete in the 10K biathlon. Everyone is a bit nervous about Anthony, who has never shot a gun before in his life and is being handed an M16 assault rifle. While the Marines fire 10 rounds into a target 50 yards away, finishing with a shot pattern no bigger than a quarter, Anthony hits three different targets in five shots, none of them the one he was aiming at. (Note to enemy: Being Anthony's target may be the safest thing to be when he's shooting.) Miraculously, we finish the exercise without casualties and prepare to start the race.

Lining up in pairs, McKittrick and Anthony burst from the starting line, sprinting away strong. But it isn't long before they discover something else they need, other than good lungs, to compete with Marines: navigational skills. The twosome, though following Marines, take a wrong turn at the base of a crucial junction, leaving those who take the correct hill to snicker up the entire way. Being the cardiovascular mutants they are, the athletes regain much of their lead, often making up for lost time on the downhills, where heavy packs send many a Marine tumbling. The biathlon essentially ends in a draw, with skiers and Marines jokingly pointing out each others' strong points and deficiencies.

It was typical of the way the skiers were treated all week-a mixture of good-natured razzing and mutual respect. Worn out from the race, we come down out of the field that night and do our best to deplete the on-base bar, The Pickle, of its remaining alcohol reserves. The place is a classic military joint where you can picture brawls breaking out or soldiers passed out in a corner chair, slumped chin-to-chest till dawn. But nobody there is passed out, or thinking about taking a swing at a freeskier, or even drunk for that matter. Nowicki is busy making summer climbing plans with McKittrick, who lives in nearby Tahoe; Pickett holds court on the finer points of the rock-star lifestyle-women and mountains conquered, that sort of thing.

"These guys definitely surprised me-the type of people they are," says Anthony, surveying the room of troops. "The image of the Marines is that they flunked out of society or whatever, but you get here and realize that they could do whatever they want: They just chose this." A few minutes later, a colonel enters the bar with his wife, kids, and golden retriever. Sergeant Nowicki tells him that McKittrick earned a perfect score with his M16 in the biathlon competition. The colonel takes one hard look at McKittrick and says, "That's fantastic-let's go find a barber."

The following morning we pile once more into the BVs and bump and bang our way out to a frozen lake just south of the base area. Once there, we stand around a mattress-sized hole in the ice watching one Marine after another shuffle into the water wearing skis and a 70-pound pack. A doctor is on hand with a defibrillator, and McKittrick asks if he can get "hooked up to it just for fun." A couple Marines walk away shaking their heads.

Sitting there by the slush hole, I'm struck by just how cool all the Marines have been. Not that we expected a bunch of morons, but, being an army veteran myself, I knew a thing or two about what kind of guys go to basic training instead of college. And you're generally not begging them to ask out your sister or take your SATs for you. Yet these guys are funny and smart, laid-back but not lazy, proud but not arrogant.

The athletes take their turn getting dunked into the 35-degree water, performing admirably amid the Marines as they're told to first dunk their head completely under-water before they come up, announce name and rank, and pull themselves out using only their ski poles.

"K-Kina...P-Pickett...S-S-S-Skier," Pickett shivers as he resurfaces after the shrinkage-inducing drill.

"Wait! Wait!" shouts the sergeant in charge. "I think there's one dreadlock that didn't get wet!"

CHECK OUT WARREN MILLER'S STORM, PREMIERING IN MAJOR CITIEES IN OCTOBER. FOR MORE INFO, LOG ON TO WARRENMILLER.COM

pete in the 10K biathlon. Everyone is a bit nervous about Anthony, who has never shot a gun before in his life and is being handed an M16 assault rifle. While the Marines fire 10 rounds into a target 50 yards away, finishing with a shot pattern no bigger than a quarter, Anthony hits three different targets in five shots, none of them the one he was aiming at. (Note to enemy: Being Anthony's target may be the safest thing to be when he's shooting.) Miraculously, we finish the exercise without casualties and prepare to start the race.

Lining up in pairs, McKittrick and Anthony burst from the starting line, sprinting away strong. But it isn't long before they discover something else they need, other than good lungs, to compete with Marines: navigational skills. The twosome, though following Marines, take a wrong turn at the base of a crucial junction, leaving those who take the correct hill to snicker up the entire way. Being the cardiovascular mutants they are, the athletes regain much of their lead, often making up for lost time on the downhills, where heavy packs send many a Marine tumbling. The biathlon essentially ends in a draw, with skiers and Marines jokingly pointing out each others' strong points and deficiencies.

It was typical of the way the skiers were treated all week-a mixture of good-natured razzing and mutual respect. Worn out from the race, we come down out of the field that night and do our best to deplete the on-base bar, The Pickle, of its remaining alcohol reserves. The place is a classic military joint where you can picture brawls breaking out or soldiers passed out in a corner chair, slumped chin-to-chest till dawn. But nobody there is passed out, or thinking about taking a swing at a freeskier, or even drunk for that matter. Nowicki is busy making summer climbing plans with McKittrick, who lives in nearby Tahoe; Pickett holds court on the finer points of the rock-star lifestyle-women and mountains conquered, that sort of thing.

"These guys definitely surprised me-the type of people they are," says Anthony, surveying the room of troops. "The image of the Marines is that they flunked out of society or whatever, but you get here and realize that they could do whatever they want: They just chose this." A few minutes later, a colonel enters the bar with his wife, kids, and golden retriever. Sergeant Nowicki tells him that McKittrick earned a perfect score with his M16 in the biathlon competition. The colonel takes one hard look at McKittrick and says, "That's fantastic-let's go find a barber."

The following morning we pile once more into the BVs and bump and bang our way out to a frozen lake just south of the base area. Once there, we stand around a mattress-sized hole in the ice watching one Marine after another shuffle into the water wearing skis and a 70-pound pack. A doctor is on hand with a defibrillator, and McKittrick asks if he can get "hooked up to it just for fun." A couple Marines walk away shaking their heads.

Sitting there by the slush hole, I'm struck by just how cool all the Marines have been. Not that we expected a bunch of morons, but, being an army veteran myself, I knew a thing or two about what kind of guys go to basic training instead of college. And you're generally not begging them to ask out your sister or take your SATs for you. Yet these guys are funny and smart, laid-back but not lazy, proud but not arrogant.

The athletes take their turn getting dunked into the 35-degree water, performing admirably amid the Marines as they're told to first dunk their head completely under-water before they come up, announce name and rank, and pull themselves out using only their ski poles.

"K-Kina...P-Pickett...S-S-S-Skier," Pickett shivers as he resurfaces after the shrinkage-inducing drill.

"Wait! Wait!" shouts the sergeant in charge. "I think there's one dreadlock that didn't get wet!"

CHECK OUT WARREN MILLER'S STORM, PREMIERING IN MAJOR CITIES IN OCTOBER. FOR MORE INFO, LOG ON TO WARRENMILLER.COM

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