Wednesday, April 22, 2015

No Two Things More Similar

22 April 2015
Medicine Park, Oklahoma
1,001 Feet Elevation

Below is an edited excerpt of a piece I wrote addressing the similarities between the military and mountaineering.  The commonalities of the two may surprise you. 

"No Two Things More Similar: The Military and Mountaineering."

I’m leading a team of eight Soldiers on an expedition to Mount McKinley.  We’re at 17,200 feet.  High Camp.  For the last eight hours we have labored our way up the mountain battling steep, icy slopes, exposed, narrow ridge lines, voracious winds and thin air.  Hazards are everywhere.  Most of us are exhausted.  Some of us have splitting headaches.  All of us want to rest, but we can’t.  Our work is not done for the day.  We’re just getting started…  

I’m leading a platoon of Soldiers in Afghanistan.  We’re on a dismounted patrol near the Pakistan border.  Hostile territory.  For the last twelve hours we have marched our way through mountains battling rocky slopes, relentless heat, and heavy gear.  Hazards are everywhere.  Most of us are exhausted.  Some of us are dehydrated.  All of us want to rest, but we can’t.  Our work is not done for the day.  We’re just getting started…  

We move into priorities of work.  We need to secure our campsite, our patrol base.  We start fortifying our position by building barriers to keep unwelcome things out.  Some of us take out shovels and start digging, others begin removing important items from their packs.   Leaders meet in the middle somewhere.  They discuss the operation.  We’re dehydrated.  We need water.  We start up a stove.  We need to eat.  The wind picks up.  We’re cold.  We put on more clothes to stay warm, but struggle to layer properly.  Our gear gets in the way.  The water comes to a boil.  We purify it.  We see movement in the distance.  What was that?  It starts snowing.  Its getting dark.  Where’s my headlamp?  Our feet are wet.  We need to change socks.  Some of us start dozing off to sleep.  We’re tired.  We need rest.  Our feet are wet.  Boots come off.  Where are my dry socks?  Where are my damn socks?  “Here, drink some of this.”  Warm water, no, Gatorade!  “Hey, where are we?”  We’re very tired.  Who’s making dinner?  Some of us fall asleep.  “Wake up!”  Don’t you know we’re exhausted?  Too tired to eat.  Some of us anxiously stir about.  They cannot sleep.  Worry overcomes them.  What’s out there?  What lies ahead?  What happens tomorrow?  What was that noise?  This place is scary.  I’m glad I have my team with me…

I have had ample time to ponder the similarities between the military and mountaineering, but perhaps there’s no better way to prove their likeness than comparing stories.  Written above are two accounts of my mountaineering and military experience.  Aside from the time and place and a few other details, both accounts play out the same way.  Detailed planning led to a long training process which prompted travel to a foreign, unfamiliar land.  Hard work, followed by more hard work brought us to hazards.  We mitigate hazards.  We carry heavy packs.  There’s uncertainty.  Doubt.  Hardship.  Teamwork.  Brotherhood.  A team.  The team! Without the team none of this is possible.  Survival, perhaps, is not possible.  We struggle, but we survive.    

Both of these stories have many things in common, but one thing is most similar:  The team.  Both stories revolve around a well bonded, well maintained, well equipped and artfully synchronized group of people able to adapt, overcome, and achieve in the face of adversity.  Injuries, failures, broken equipment, poor communication and at times, death, are all possibilities or likelihoods.  But we soldier on.  We climb on.  We’re Brother’s in Arms and we share the Brotherhood of the Rope.  They’re different terms, yet still the same.  And that is why I believe mountaineering comes so natural to service-members.  Some technical skills change, equipment may differ, but at the very core the concept remains the same - plan, prepare, reduce risk, overcome adversity, work together, work hard, persevere and at times, get lucky until ultimately, the objective is reached.  

I’m leading a team of soldiers - past, present and future - up Mount Everest.  We’ll attempt to reach new altitudes, higher than any soldier has been before.  We’ll labor our way first to the mountain - the objective.  We’ll establish a base camp - a patrol base.  Then we’ll climb the mountain - assault the objective.  Along the way we’ll battle hot and humid conditions at lower altitudes then cold, dry, windy conditions up high.  Hazards are everywhere.  We’ll be tired.  We’ll be hungry.  We’ll have headaches and we’ll be dehydrated.  We’ll want to rest and put off our work until later when we’re feeling better, but we won’t.  We’ll think back on our times in the army - in Afghanistan, in Iraq, during long training events and Ranger School.  We’ll think of the Brothers and Sisters that worked hard for us when we needed help.  And we’ll think of the people we worked hard for when they needed our help.  We might not be expert mountaineers, but we’re experts in many other things that will equip us well when on the receiving end of a difficult mission - in pursuit of a lofty objective.  We know how to make team, lead a team, be a part of team.  We’re Brothers and Sisters in Arms and we’re Brothers and Sisters of the Rope.  We’re the US Army Everest Expedition.  And we climb to “Just Save One.”

From an edited excerpt of: 
“No Two Things More Similar: The Military and Mountaineering” 
By Captain Matthew Hickey

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