Band of brothers
A brotherhood that was all I could think about as I looked around at the chiseled faces of the men crouched on the runway. Clones of one another in dress yet different in the slightest of mannerisms. Their various differences as apparent as the mountains that stood against the blue skies surrounding us.I immediately noticed the one lone soldier, his posture more confident than the rest, whittling away at his nails with a six-inch knife. Next to him was the sly problem-solver, looking over a plastic-covered map, his back to the rest of the men as they mingled and discussed the previous day’s activities.The men huddled, as Marines do, waiting for commands from the drill sergeant. They were alert, yet subdued, considering the circumstances. For the next few weeks, this group of elite Marines would be training in a mountainous environment very similar to Afghanistan. They would experience altitude, cold and exhaustion while learning the meaning of being a team and, more importantly, a Marine in a winter combat environment.The men, though new to one another, appeared as connected as a school of sharks. Just the sight of their athletic figures, dressed in camouflage and shouldering an M-16 riffles, was awe-inspiring to those of us looking on. They appeared to be everything history books and movies have portrayed them to be: Intimidating.”You don’t want these guys landing on your doorstep,” former Marine Frank Bredimus once told me on a chairlift ride. “They are tough, well-trained, loyal and will resolve despite hurdles.” Bredimus is now a lawyer in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Washington, DC. He credits a great deal of his work ethic to what he learned in the Marines. I met him when he decided to participate in one of my expert backcountry skiing camps in Colorado after only one season of being on skis.Floating amongst the men, as they were crouched around their gear, a captain started to fire off information with the precision of a sniper, listing details that could save a life or change the course of a battle at a later date. The fact that things were heating up in the Middle East made this seem more relevant to me than ever before.Kneeling a few yards away, our team of eight, equipped with cameras and ski equipment, prepared for a mission of a different nature. Like the Marines, we had on our government-issued camouflage gear of Gore-Tex pants, coats and packs. We lacked the M-16 rifles harnessed over our shoulders, but instead carried a pair of Salomon AK Rockets. We were a team of filmmakers and skiers from Boulder, Colo.Our assignment was to be inserted alongside the troops at the U.S. Marine Winter Warfare Training Center in the rugged Sierra Mountains of California and document their journey for Warren Miller’s film, Storm. Over the next week, we would be doing what we knew best reading the mountains and skiing steep lines while living and training amongst the Marines.I was accompanied by three other skiers all representing different demographics and looks. Jeff McKitterick was a long-hair mountain man with a rail thin torso composed of pure muscle; Kina Pickett was the young Lenny Kravitz look-alike, dreads and all; Chris Paulding represented the all-American, a good-looking kid who finished at the top of his class in academics and athletics. I rounded out the team as the veteran of the film crew’s talent.The segment we were working on would be shot by director/cameraman Chris Patterson and assisted by Kent Harvey and John Teaford. Patterson, a young man who has more experience behind the lens than people three times his age, was our commander and chief. Teaford, who has directed segments all over the world in the worst of conditions, sat back as an advisor, and Harvey, with National Geographic credentials, provided experience in ways we would never have anticipated.$25 million heli-skiing”Inbound! Pick-up in less then two minutes,” yelled our team leader, First Lt. Geiger, his strong hands holding the massive green radio used to communicate with inbound airlift.In his 20s, Geiger was already up for promotion to captain, married with a child on the way. It was his vision to bring the Warren Miller crew into the Winter Warfare Training Camp and share the story of the Marines from this unique angle.As Geiger predicted, two CH-53 Marine helicopters appeared over a range of snow-covered peaks to the south. The sheer size of the machines was phenomenal. They consisted of a four-person crew, could hold another 30 individuals and are capable of doing loops at sea level. In a few minutes I would be $25 million helicopter skiing.The massive CH-53 set down a few yards away. The power of the craft’s rotors was like being hit with a 100 mph wave of wind. Anything that weighed less than 20 pounds was lifted off the ground and thrown a few yards away.Loading the massive machine was a little different than getting into the small A-Star I was used to while heli-guiding in Alaska. The CH-53 was like walking into the back of a semi tractor trailer with a drop-down back end. The interior was spacious, with minimal cosmetics and plenty of exposed metal and cables hanging everywhere.Near the front stood two Marines on both sides of the helicopter. They were dressed in fatigues with white helmets. Their eyes covered with dark lenses that made them look like flies. They reminded me of the storm troopers from Star Wars. They didn’t show a bit of emotion or surprise that a bunch of civilians with skis just loaded their ship.The pilots were located up a ladder in the cockpit behind the two storm troopers. It was loud inside, too loud to talk or yell. The crew communicated through radios in their helmets while we buckled into the metal benches, isolated from the commands being sent back and forth electronically.A game of cat and mouse ensued the moment the two large helicopters lifted off the ground. I guess the pilots were making the most of the flight hours while using the Sierra mountains and the valleys as a training ground. Director Patterson, strapped in with a safety harness, leaned out the side door where a gunner would usually sit. And with his 16mm camera, he filmed air to air shots of the CH-53 in flight during the high-speed chase. “It was a rush; I felt like we were heading into battle behind enemy lines,” Patterson said. The only concept I had of what was going on outside of the helicopter came from my limited sight through a gap between the helicopter frame and the tail ramp. Once in a while, through this 10-foot-4 opening, I could see the second helicopter drop in behind us and then dive away. Or were we diving away? It was hard to tell. All I knew was the G-force was impressive.We were covering a tremendous amount of area in short period of time. My view of the outside changed from desert to snow back to desert and then high alpine tundra.Eventually, the helicopter dipped hard to the left and quickly lost altitude. I held onto the metal bench while the two Marines at the front stepped into action. First checking their harnesses then sliding open the side doors, they leaned out the off-axis helicopter into the cold air rushing by at 100 mph. I could tell they were communicating with one another by the movement of their lips. They were acting as the rear eyes for the pilots as we dropped hard into a valley then caught an up-slope wind and dove toward an opening in the trees.The tail ramp dropped into three feet of fresh powder; verbal communication was impossible over the noise, and a hand signal told us to exit out the back. Swirling snow greeted us immediately from the rotor-wash. It was difficult to see or breathe. I struggled to keep my skis from flying out of my hands as I scrambled to join the group huddled 50 yards away.Trying to catch my breath while protecting myself from the snow being thrown around, I kept an eye on the helicopters as they took off and disappeared down valley. Everything went silent, except for my heart pounding through my chest.Cave dwellersWe were on a high basin where a platoon of Marines had already established a base camp made up of snow caves and a few tents. This would be our home for the next few days while we skied and filmed along side the Marines.Night came fast and morning arrived quickly. I didn’t want to leave the warmth of my sleeping bag or walk into the woods and relieve myself of the previous night’s indulgence of government-issued MRE (Meals Ready to Eat).McKitterick was sitting outside his snow cave in his underwear, barefoot and looking right at home. His decision to sleep in a snowcave and not in a tent dumbfounded me but impressed the Marines.As good fortune would have it, the sun was out and the skies were blue a blessing considering we needed to thaw out our plastic ski boots in the sun before attempting to slide them on for the day.”The birds have left the base; they will be here in 45,” Lt. Geiger announced. He scrambled through camp like he had been up for hours.The game plan was to fly to a ridgeline riddled with couloirs we observed the evening before on a recon mission that took us a couple hours. We figured that with the helicopters it was an easy 5-minute flight from camp to the mountains with the steepest descents. We would take this on the same way the Marines would take on their drill for the day. Survey the environment, plan out the approach, strategize and then execute the attack.We organized our gear, well behind the schedule of the Marines who had earlier stepped out of camp and prepared for a mountain assault. They carried with them everything needed to survive for days in the backcountry. As one Sgt. Cole put it, “Skiing isn’t a sport here. It’s just another way to get to the fight.”Cinematographers Patterson and Harvey wanted to set up like snipers aimed at the ridge from a distant hill. They liked the way the light fell onto the couloirs divided by the jagged granite and steep cliffs.Over radios they would discuss the lines of descent with us from a mile away. From our angle, once on top, the pitch would be too steep to see anything. Leaving us blind and dependent on what we were able to memorize on the approach or left go off of what the cameramen would tell us over the radios.Timing and communication are crucial on a long shot like this. If anything should go wrong, or a skier is misguided on this type of exposed terrain, bad things can happen very quickly. A skier can find himself cliffed out or worse, cartwheeling thousand of feet into a valley.The wind started to kick a little when the Marines left camp earlier in the morning. By the time we were on the move the wind had stepped up the volume 10-fold.I thought about the Marines on their antiquated gear from the Korean War. The wind would only add to the misery of being on the out-dated gear. The skis they referred to as the “White Rockets” are straight, white and came with cable bindings to hold the leather boot to the wooden surface. Most of the guys were from the South and had never been on skis before or even seen snow. But here they were carrying everything they needed to survive for weeks walking out into the gradually deteriorating winter conditions.Though no one Marine wanted to weaken a group, “Leave no man behind” was something they lived by. As proven the night before when they simulated carrying one man with a broken leg for several miles uphill, on snow, while staying hidden from the enemy in the dark and cold.’Sign of weakness’Our team lifted off an hour after the Marines left camp. I could see them moving through the trees below as we flew overhead in the direction of several ridges being pounded by high winds. Normally, in the helicopters I’m used to, we wouldn’t attempt to fly in these conditions. But we were in a monster of a machine, and the CH-53 cut through the winds like a knife.The pilots crushed the variable conditions and set us down on a ridge in 50 mph winds like it was nothing. The tail ramp dropped down and four of us exited ready for action. When the heli lifted off and the rotor-wash wasn’t an issue anymore, the wind coming up from the valley was just as brutal. Like a sandblaster it picked up the granular snow and cut into our exposed skin like small knives.The wind continued to cause problems, cutting out radio communication with the cameramen set up across the valley while wreaking havoc on our vision. From our perspective, what we wanted to ski was impossible to see. The extreme angle of the pitch combined with the wind blowing snow off the ground was leaving us blind. Trying to line up ski descents with the director, who was a mile away, was almost impossible. We gathered what information we could, plotted a course and skied 40-degree hardpacked terrain with the best guess of guidance we could muster. On the surrounding mountains, the Marines were dealing with the same type of scenario. They were given an assignment and needed to accomplish it despite present difficulties. Loaded down with heavy gear and weapons, the they were being drilled on how they would perform on the battlefield. Mistakes were being noted and would be held against the unit and the mission. They understood this and treated the situation as real-time combat movement.I picked up a broken signal over one of the radios that one of the Marines was having problems. The whole unit has come to a standstill on one of the peaks nearby. Unable to move, the Marine was suffering from what sounded like a combination of altitude sickness and dehydration.I took note of the undertones of the two sergeants assigned to our unit about how this was a sign of weakness. They mention he better have a good explanation at the end of the day or be prepared for the wrath of his peers for subjecting the mission to failure.While the Marines dealt with their issues, we continued to deal with ours. For the next few hours, while the CH-53 buzzed overhead, we dropped from as many peaks as we could reach or climb from a landing zone. The cold and the wind gave way to adrenaline and sweat as the day wore on and we worked to leave signatures on the virgin snow of the surrounding mountains. We flew, hiked and skied until dusk, burning as much film and energy as we could.The Marines had to evacuate the fallen soldier from the mission and then continue on, placing them back at camp later than expected, more drained and behind schedule than planned. The day did not go well, but they did not fail either.Band of brothersIn the following days a mutual respect had grown between the Marines and the Warren Miller team. We had witnessed their hardships and triumphs and couldn’t help but feel more connected. That respect would intensify when we would come together more often to trek up mountains and eventually compete against one another in a 10-kilometer biathlon. It would be here that our team would retire our modern-day ski equipment and replace it with the leather boots, cable bindings and the White Rockets issued to us.We would shoulder an M-16 assault rifle and fire at targets placed at two different distances from three different firing positions. It would be my first time firing any weapon other than cap guns when I was a kid. My results showed the lack of experience. I failed to hit a single target. I guess you could say I put out the cover fire while the men moved into position for the kill.While I missed every one of my shots, Jeff McKitterick hit a perfect score. Apparently he had been practicing shooting rabbits for dinner while living in a snow cave in Alaska.As we neared the completion of our mission as skiers, telling a story of the Marines in the mountains, it was clear that the brotherhood had taken us in despite the fact we were civilians. But to be truly bonded we would have to undergo one more step to be considered close to an equal.The setting: a frozen lake at the base of the Sierra Range with a hole the size of Volkswagen cut in the ice. One by one we placed the White Rockets on our feet, harnessed a heavy pack and took hold of a pair of ski poles. Then on command we slid forward and dropped through the ice into the frozen water, sinking until the water was above our heads.Then, with an attempt to maintain composure, we had to swim to the surface and state our name before throwing the pack out of one side of the ice hole and swimming to the opposite side. Then, using our ski poles on top of the six-inch ice shelf surrounding what could become our tomb, we had to pull ourselves out of the water onto the snow.With our final mission completed, the Warren Miller team stepped away from the frozen lake to dry off. We had a new respect for these men who are out here every day training for the unknown. I watched them march back into the mountains while we climbed into a sport utility vehicle, feeling safe and secure that America is stronger than ever.