Why is it that studs (students) never get lost when you have warm and sunny search conditions? It was starting to snow as the choppers lifted off. The vibrations of the Blackhawk can start to put a guy into a trance like state, as he watches the terrain below blur by. The three studs on the ground had missed their link up times that morning and noon, it was starting to go into the evening. It was the end of the field exercise that tested the studís skills and we were into the 10 - 12 mile evasion phase of the training.
Very rarely will we have a problem keeping track of them, but this was a very rugged training area. It was mountainous to include more than one 10,000-foot peak. Rock and elevation are an instructorís nightmare, because an evasion problem forces evaders to move at a quicker pace. The faster they move the more likely there will be injuries. With the possibility of serious injuries. The other big factor when operating in mountainous terrain is weather systems. One side of the mountain is in the rain, on the other side it is sunny, on top it is snowing and in the valleys the winds are high etc. Not to mention the lighting storms are freaky dangerous and plentiful.
When we were in Colorado in 99,í fifty six elk were killed in one herd, during a lighting strike. The ore deposits in the mountains just naturally attract it.
We were after a 3-stud group, one strong male, one weak male and a female that could hold her own with a little guidance. The word "strong" is a description that covers three different areas when it comes to sizing up a student. The first element is the skill level that a student has, the second is their mental toughness and confidence and the last is their physical toughness. Every attribute plays off of the other. Becoming misoriented just happens and if you spend enough time in the sticks it happens to everyone. Especially when using a large scale E&E map. If an individual was evading in enemy held territory, its just a given that knowledge of that specific terrain will probably be sparse. So, what an evader does after becoming misoriented is a big factor in solving the problem. With the weather conditions deteriorating it was going to be an adventure to get to the studs before things got ugly. If they kept moving trying to finish the exercise it would makes things more difficult.
The snow kept falling and it was growing darker by the minute. One of the search and rescue teams, SAR 7, had spotted tracks in a small clearing that was on a possible evasion azimuth from the studís last link-up site. Whether it was their tracks was yet to be determined. There wasnít much snow on the ground at that time so the blackish rock could be seen through the tracks. Normally it would be a good sign that some one had passed through there recently. Which may or may not be a good thing in this case. The ranking cadre on the bird had a good gut feeling so he requested to be dropped in. The commander gave the OK and the team kicked the ropes and fast roped in.
They picked up the trail and started moving into the trees. Every team has a medic and at least three to four other teammates. Many times studs with strong skills are chosen to help make up the team. They hadnít moved very far when they found a deep pine tree covered valley in their line of travel. The falling snow hadnít penetrated the thick pine coverage of the sloping valley walls. The sides were steep and made up of slick rock. It was going to be a hazardous descent. Because our cadre are made up of former combat MOS types, they donít really take into account the specifics that say a PJ (rescue para-jumper) would. Terrain is just something that you move across to find and finish the enemy. In this case the terrain was the enemy.
The air temperature started dropping quickly as the darkness enveloped the mountains. With head lamps on the SAR team started to follow the possible signs of the evaders. It soon became evident that whom ever had moved through there before them, had a hell of a time going down. Pine needles had been bulldozed down the face of steep rock faces, as if some one was sliding down them on their butt. Which was a good possibility, but was it the studs that we were looking for ? Ropes where deployed to aid the descent down the rock faces. It was slow going in the dark even with the headlamps on. The snow was still falling and the temperature still dropping. The ropes had to come out because half of the team had taken a bumbling, stumbling ride down one section of tree covered rock with minimal damage.
Again we are talking about men whoís expertise is in hostage rescue, dignitary protection and adaptation skills, not emergency rescue techniques. Plus, a little over confidence can breed disaster. When a group of stranded survivors are trying to survive they are proverbially trying to beat the Reaper. When a SAR team is trying to rescue those survivors they are trying to chase the Reaper down. If you get caught up in the chase the Reaper can turn on you and chase you back!
The deeper they moved into the valley the farther it seemed to go. The weather outside of that world had turned ugly and was storming to beat all hell. The chopper assets were called in by the wing commander, which left all of the teams that were out, on foot with no recovery support. So everyone was staying out whether they liked it or not. All cadre were in the field with mixed teams of studs. Which was a contingency that everyone had planned on anyway. Every half an hour of movement, the team would give three blast of a rescue whistle, which is ear piercing if you are standing in a close proximity. With no response back the ropes were rigged and down they went.
At one point in the descent loose rock came busting through the pines at super sonic velocity. Everyone scrambled for cover behind any tree that looked like it would stop a ballistic bowling ball. One stud took a golf ball sized fragment on the back of his hand, which swelled a lump up just about the size of a golf ball. An instructor caught a football size gem in the side of the rucksack and knocked him down. When he recovered he found that the impact had actually broken one of his ruck straps. When the team finally made the bottom they found a fast moving stream that bashed its way through large jagged boulders.
Now, the question was would the studs have moved down or up stream ? Up would take them to their original link-up point, but they would probably go down if they knew they were lost. A lower set of clouds rolled in under the ceiling that was producing the snow in the higher elevations. Then it started to drizzle rain with freezing temperatures, this was hypothermic conditions in the first degree. If the studs didnít build shelters soon and stay dry they would have a bigger problem than just being lost. This is how the Reaper sneaks up on you.
Thunder started to rumble from the thickening clouds and the rain fell. The team commander later recalled saying to himself "it was going to be a miserable night for any SAR teams close to this valley." They started down stream blasting their whistles every hundred yards or so and listening for a response. Searching at night is definitely not the best time to be out in the thick of it all. But, if they were not found that night, civilian search and rescue teams would have to be called in to supplement manpower and assets. So, the team moved on until fatigue became an issue. Poncho hooches were thrown up with haste, and the high-speed back packing stoves were fired up. Coffee and hot chow is a motivator in the wild places. Especially when everything is wet and icy.
Before long the team was underway, as they leapfrogged the wet rock along the stream they found their first good sign. A BDU patrol cap, but was it from the lost studs? When they looked inside of the lining there was the last name of one of the studs, written in black marker. The whistles came out and blasted the surrounding darkness. Soon a distant reply whistle could be heard. It came from back up in the cliffs, maybe 300-400 meters. The SAR 7 team raced up toward the sound, soon a womanís voice called to them. It was the E-5 female student. She directed them to come to her location.
When they reached her they found a V-2 (type of shelter that we teach in our classes) and a small fire burning in between the two. She had abrasions on her forehead, face and one elbow. In the shelter was the male classified as the weakest member of the group, with a black eye and his boot off. The medic worked on them while the SAR team members gathered up more firewood and made hot chow. The SAR team leader radioed in their grid coordinates taken off of his GPS. The male E-5 had a broken ankle due to a fall that they were in trying to escape a rock shower when descending.
The other male stud of the group had helped them set up the shelters and get the fire started, then set out on his own to get help. He also was hurt and could not move his arm without shooting pain in the shoulder. The medic diagnosed it as sounding like a broken collarbone. He had given them instructions not to move unless they heard a chopper or needed water. The female asked him what if something happened to him and he couldnít make it to help? He replied "Iím going to make it out no matter what, Iím just worried about if YOU are going to make it." With that he left. By 0700 the next morning he crossed a logging road and was spotted by SAR 4 who were driving back to the CP in a CUT-V.
The Spec 4 recounted his journey to them. He had to cross the stream and climb out of the steep sided valley. He stopped only to build fires to dry out his clothing and collect water to drink. He said he had remembered our instructors telling him that many times a person canít tell when hypothermia is coming on. He made it a point to build a fire every hour or so and dry himself out. And building a fire in the wet shitty conditions was not always easy with his injury. All that he had was a flint rod and knife to start the fires. In fact his collarbone was broken, which did not aid him in his efforts to make it out. The SAR team leader that picked him up said that he looked like a guy just hitch hiking down the road and not a desperate victim in need of help. Which was exactly the call that we had made about him before the search began, "strong."
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