High-altitude training and a Basalt military connection

Local public relations firm owner Sheryl Barto and retired Lt. Col. Dick Merritt have enjoyed a relationship that has included the two working together at a horse-therapy program for people with autism and veterans with PTSD since 2016.

The Roaring Fork Valley can do that — bring people from different backgrounds to unite for a good cause. Now the two are now marveling at how her son Mark Barto, a 2014 graduate of Basalt High School, is attending the very training center in California where Merritt was a student in 1959 and an instructor in 1964.

The facility, the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center in the Sierra Nevada mountains, was built in 1951 to give soldiers a high-altitude, cold-weather setting to prepare for similar, harsh conditions in Korea.

Merritt recalled his time there as a student for three weeks, “and it was very, very cold, and we had Korean veterans with us and we were out in the elements, doing cross-country work and patrol work.”

Five years later, Merritt was back at the training center, this time as an instructor and also to work on his master’s thesis — “Land Use Allocation for Military Purposes.” Merritt, as a member of the Marine Corps, would go on to begin service in Vietnam in 1966 before moving to the Roaring Fork Valley in 1979, where he has been an instrumental figure in outreach efforts to veterans and raising public awareness of veterans’ issues.

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Don Stuber, left, looks on as with Lt. Col. Dick Merritt shakes hands with Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo at the Veterans Memorial Park in Aspen on Monday, November 11, 2019.

“I actually consider him a bit of a mentor,” Mark Barto, 25, said last week from New York where he is stationed. “I’ve looked up to him with his experiences in the Marine Corps as well as Bud Hickman (his youth baseball coach and also a military veteran). I’ve always had a tremendous respect for the Marine Corps.”

Barto’s travels have been limited because of the pandemic and he hasn’t been to Colorado in some time, he said. He still was able to spend six weeks over the course of February, March and April in training at the Sierra Nevada facility.

There, Barto and others worked on high-alpine military tactics, procedures, avalanche training, survival techniques and “basically a lot of emphasis on maneuvers,” he said.

One aspect of the training includes soldiers being thrown in a cold lake where they experience hypothermia and their bodies shut down.

“If I were on active duty there today, I would be one of the instructors throwing Mark into the frigid lake to experience hypothermia,” Merritt told Sheryl Barto, who founded the Smiling Goat Ranch with her husband, Karl Hanlon, in Carbondale in 2016.

Participants in the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center in the Sierra Nevada test their bodies in a lake's cold waters where they subject themselves to hypothermia. (courtesy photo)

The ranch offers equine therapy “to anyone with neuropsychiatric conditions including trauma, depression, anxiety, and grief, as well as autism, women in recovery and veterans with PTSD and related conditions free of charge,” according to its website.

Merritt has volunteered often at the ranch and helped with veterans. Through Sheryl Barto, he has been able to communicate with Mark about his time training in California. Military equipment and technology no doubt have advanced since when Merritt was there and Barto attended. Merritt recalled using skis soldiers used in World War II and the “old metal backpacks.”

“The equipment is so much better now,” he said.

Mark Barto, who was a prep athlete, said growing up in the mountains “definitely helped and I think it’s translated … it’s a little different in the military aspects, where you have more of a tactical mindset.”

He called his time training in California “definitely a humbling experience.”

“I really enjoyed working with all of the Marines,” he said. “They were all extremely professional as well as competent in their work, and they also worked very passionately.”

Barto said he hasn’t decided where to take his career at this point. For now, it’s learning and training.

“I’m just trying to get as many schools under my belt as possible,” he said. “And I’m trying to make myself as well trained as I can so i can bring the skills back to my unit.”

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