By Marine Corporal Ali Azimi
I’m not an infantryman. I’ve never been a grunt. But I spent a month with the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment in the Sierra Nevada Mountains as they completed their cold-weather training evolution.
I had never been to Bridgeport, California, either, but as I understood, it is the only place in the United States that offers a high altitude, cold-weather training environment for Marines. I imagined Mount Everest with a barracks building halfway up where we would acclimate to the high elevation the first week.
Before this adventure, my entire Marine Corps career had revolved around the desert. I thought I’d only need to be prepared for hot weather and sand. As a native of Los Angeles, snow was completely foreign to me.
In preparation for my cold-weather assignment, the battalion outfitted me for snowy mountains. Some of the gear looked almost extraterrestrial. Nevertheless, I signed for it all, assuming I’d need it at some point. I didn’t want to be left freezing in the snow.
After arriving in my barracks room, I examined the gear more closely. The “Mickey Mouse” boots caught my attention first. The white boots were larger than my head and looked big enough to fit my combat boots inside. Although seemingly practical in a snowy environment, they looked ridiculous.
Next to it lay the “Happy Suit,” a fluffy, tan-colored top and bottom that I was sure would keep me warm, even in the mountains. I’m pretty sure I looked like a toasted Pillsbury doughboy. All the gear seemed to be created with more thought toward warmth rather than ease of movement. Then again, if all my limbs were frozen, I wouldn’t be able to move at all.
Along with the cold-weather gear, I packed my personal gear. I hadn’t hiked with a pack since Marine Combat Training, but now had to hike at more than 6,000 feet above sea level—in the snow.
At dawn on the day of the trip, all of 2/7 was loaded onto the buses, ready to go. The Marines made small talk we headed out, but five minutes into the trip, the bus fell silent. The Marines entered into a state of hibernation. Within 10 minutes I, too, was in a deep slumber.
Nine hours and a couple of stops later, we stepped off the bus into a brisk day. The sky was white, as if the snow had ascended into the air—a possible omen of our next three weeks.
We spent our first days acclimating to the elevation, which—I learned from a hospital corpsman—can cause the brain to expand because of the lower air pressure. This explained my headache that lasted the entire first day.
On the third day, it snowed, leaving everything covered in a thick, white blanket.
The snow melted by the following day and the mountain showed us how quickly the weather can change. I thought I would be hearing Marines complaining left and right. Instead, most were laughing about it.
We spent our acclimation period hiking and taking environmental training classes in the mountains—all of it leading to our first day in the field.
Carrying a full combat load, plus snow gear and equipment, we hiked up to Summit Meadows with Golf Company. It was the hardest hike I had ever been on.
At first, everyone was excited to get to the summit 9,300 feet above sea level. The beginning of the hike was on a dirt trail and was actually hot. We didn’t hit snow until 8,000 feet.
At that point, all that was going through my head was “right foot, left foot, right foot.” This was worse than hiking the 700-foot-tall Reaper at recruit training. West Coast Marines always brag about the Reaper. Now I, along with the 2/7 Marines, can brag about Bridgeport.
After the 8,000-foot mark, the trail, a combination of mud and ice, held the potential for a fall with each step.
Thankfully, we switched to snow shoes. The shoes’ rugged teeth gripped the slick surface beneath us. All we had to worry about was making it to the top of Summit Meadows.
Once there, I spent the night with Golf Company before transferring to Fox Company at Grouse Meadows.
Company F had developed an intricate system of trenches between their tent areas and was able to move faster through the deep snow. Their defensive positions were set behind a tree line. When I first arrived, it took me a minute before I spotted a tent hiding behind the towering trees.
On my first day with Company F, I went out to see a medical evacuation. In the middle of the untouched snow stood a helicopter with “Army” emblazoned on its side. A crowd of Marines surrounded it.
The soldiers gave a quick rundown of the procedures before letting the Marines do it themselves.
The helo blasted particles of ice from the ground into my face, making it hard to continue watching as the aircraft lifted off, creating a hurricane of snow beneath it.
Most days were spent skiing and melting snow for water, along with classes on anchoring or avalanche training. Every class was taught in the snow.
Melting snow made us appreciate the abundant supply of water back at Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base. It took a long time to melt a small amount, and when you did, there were small particles that gave the water a pine flavor.
I tried to get used to the taste, but couldn’t. Looking around, I saw Marines using T-shirts to filter the particles as they poured the boiled water into bottles. The particles were gone, but the taste was still present.
Skiing sounded like fun and I went out thinking it would be easy. I ate snow on a daily basis. I guess it’s faster than trying to melt it.
Always cold, the weather made me hesitant to leave my tent in the mornings. By nightfall, I couldn’t wait to get in my happy suit. There were a couple of hours of warmth in the afternoon, but as it passed, the chill set in.
Four days after arriving at Grouse Meadows, we packed up and headed back to Summit Meadows.
Word from the “lance corporal underground” suggested we would have our tents taken away and would have to make ice shelters. I was convinced I would freeze to death.
Sleeping in the Snow
Before heading for higher ground, we filled in the trenches and holes where our tents sat and packed up our gear.
The hike to Summit was nothing like the trek at the beginning. The entire movement was in the snow and the higher we went, the deeper the snow was. While scaling some of the steeper mountains, I nearly fell down the slope.
After a long slog, we finally reached our destination.
I wasn’t with Fox Company the last time they dug in, so I was curious to see how they built such well-structured trenches and living areas. I soon learned their secret: hard work.
Digging in was much harder than filling in the trenches with already broken slabs of ice and snow. By the end of the day, my back hurt and I couldn’t wait to lie down. But I couldn’t. I had to make enough “snow soup” to quench my immediate thirst and get me through the next day.
Our tents were taken away and we were left with just our tent flies—white covers that go over the main body of the tents. There was no lining between my body and the ground, and while I expected to freeze, it was one of the warmest nights I experienced.
The days were much the same—melting snow for water in the evenings and training during the day. After two nights, we filled in our trenches before another move, which was only a few clicks across another open field. After staging our gear near the future encampment, we went cross-country skiing. What awaited us at the end of the trip was something much more interesting than slushing across the ice.
The instructors taught us how to transport Marines using a long piece of rope and a tracked, all-terrain vehicle called a Bandvagn 206—BV for short. Marines on skis tied their ski poles to the rope hanging behind the two-compartment craft so the BV could pull them. Only a few Marines were able to try it. The rest watched, waiting for someone to face-plant in the snow. Our merriment was short-lived, and we spent the rest of our evening constructing “snow coffins,” or body-length holes in the snow.
I was paired up with an infantryman who was shorter than me, so we built our hole to my height, keeping it as shallow as possible. “The smaller the hole, the warmer you are,” I remembered one of the instructors saying.
We placed a water-resistant poncho on the top and bottom of the hole. We were told our imaginations were our only limitations. In that case, we should have sneaked inside the BV and saved our time for melting snow into water.
In the end, I was proud of our snow coffin. I worked hard on it, thinking it might actually be my final resting place. It seemed nearly impossible to sleep in snow overnight and not be a popsicle in the morning.
Once again, I was wrong. I thought the tent-fly contraption was warm, but the coffin was the warmest I’d been since this adventure began. Even though it was explained, I don’t understand the science behind it. All I know is that it works.
On our final night out, Fox Company built a bonfire. Not for fun, but mostly to dry us off after digging our sleeping quarters. Marines gathered around the flames like flies to an electric bug zapper. Someone sang The Circle of Life from The Lion King and others told hilarious stories. Before heading to bed, an officer began reciting passages from the book, The Last Stand of Fox Company.
Tucked in here, high in the mountains, hidden by snow and lines of tall, darkened evergreen pines, was something special. Here was brotherhood and here was family. Even for a POG (person other than grunt) like me, amongst the grunts.
–Marine Corporal Ali Azimi is a Combat Correspondent stationed at Twentynine Palms, California.