In a forested area outside of Fairbanks, the U.S. Army operates a remote facility where it trains military servicemen and women in cold, mountainous environments. It’s called the Northern Warfare Training Center. And in August, they hosted an elite unit of Army Rangers.
Staff Sergeant Michael O’Brien looks on as Private First Class John Carrmill readies his rope system to ascend a 50-foot rock face next to a waterfall. He goes over his equipment under O’Brien’s watchful eye.
“I’m going to put this around my foot, tie a prussick knot in the rope, clip into my locking carabiner and lock in,” Carrmill says.
“What’s the difference between this rope and this rope? Which is for your waist and which is for your foot?” O’Brien asks. “This one’s for my waist, this one’s for my foot,” Carrmill nails it his first try.
Between the waterfall and a steady drizzle of rain, the rock is slick.
Carrmill has been a U.S. Army Ranger for about a month. He says coming to the middle of cold, wet Alaska for training is exactly the kind of thing he signed up for.
“I love it so far,” Carrmill says.
When it’s Carrmill’s turn to head up, he’ll have to shift his weight between two loops of cord to shimmy up the climbing rope. It’s a new skill for him.
O’Brien keeps quizzing him. “What’s the distance you want to keep between these two prussicks?” About a fist’s width, Carrmill replies. “What are you going to do when you get 8-10 feet off the ground?” Carrmill says he’s going to tie a safety knot, a figure-eight. “Go ahead and ascent,” O’Brien tells him.
The Rangers here are an elite unit of Army special operations forces. Alongside other Army special ops groups, like Delta Force and the green berets, they’ve had boots on the ground in nearly every major U.S. war. They were some of the first to head in to Iraq and Afghanistan, and some of their exploits have been immortalized in Hollywood movies like “Black Hawk Down.”
For two weeks in August, the Georgia-based Rangers are testing themselves against the rigors of the Alaskan Interior. This facility at Black Rapids is called the Northern Warfare Training Center. It offers crash courses in alpine and glacier travel, cold-weather survival and high-altitude operations.
Lt. Col. Mark Adams, who oversees the facility, says the year-round training they provide gives soldiers hands-on experience in an Arctic climate that can’t easily be simulated elsewhere.
“We offer some very extreme temperatures up here,” Adams says. “Every place has some unique differences about it, but this place is one that offers some extreme conditions.”
And even though the center is an Army facility, it’s at the disposal of all Department of Defense personnel and affiliates. They’ve trained up Navy SEALS, groups from the FBI, and more.
The center also doubles as a kind of testing lab for Army gear. Earlier this summer they tried out mosquito nets for troops to use on deployment in malaria-prone areas. Mosquitoes, Adams says, are in copious supply in this neck of the woods. Later on this winter, they’ll be testing different gloves for the Army.
But their primary mission is training.
Back on the rock, private first class Carrmill has just finished his ascent and successful rappel down the slick rock face. Once back on the ground, he yells, “OFF THE ROPE!” to those still above.
When I ask him about how it went, he shrugs and says it was fun. Carrmill was actually faster than a lot of the guys once he got off the ground. I ask him about it and all he says is, “Yeah, once you get used to doing it, it’s fun.”
Carrmill, like a lot of the guys here, is a man of few words. One of the Army PR guys chocks it up to Ranger culture — be quiet, and let your actions do the talking.
Across a small creek, another group of Rangers is doing a basic climbing and rappelling exercise. One Rangers yells up to his buddy about a foothold that’s just within his reach.
Staff Sergeant Joel Rockhill has already been up the wall and back again. Since becoming a Ranger nine years ago, he’s been to airborne school — jumping out of planes and stuff — but scaling a rain-slicked 50-foot rock wall still gets his adrenaline going.
“I mean it was… I’m scared of heights, not going to lie,” he laughs. “It can be pretty difficult.”
Rockhill says coming to Alaska for cold-weather warfare training is a change of pace for the group. In his time with the Rangers, he’s been deployed nine times, which doesn’t leave a lot of time for exercises like this.
“It’s a unique training opportunity. We haven’t really gotten to do a lot of this stuff because of the wars. But coming out here and doing this, getting exposed to the different environments than Iraq and Afghanistan, and really kind of starting to prep for the future, it’s really good.”
With fewer deployments on the horizon as national military focus shifts away from the Middle East, trainings like this one, Rockhill says, help keep the Rangers a close-knit group.
“Obviously we get new guys a lot, and different guys move to different squads and stuff like that, but you build that cohesiveness through training and different situations that happen on deployment,” Rockhill says. “A lot of these guys, these peers of mine, we stay pretty close knit… we hang out on the weekends and such.”
Getting to travel to Alaska together and rough it in the mountains, Rockhill says, isn’t a bad way to spend two weeks with your friends.