August 8, 2009
Climbing Pikes Peak wasn’t challenge enough for the U. S. Army’s 77th Special Forces Group, home-based in an area called “Smoke Bomb Hill” at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. When my gung-oh outfit — also know as the “Green Berets” — designed a training exercise that involved climbing a 14,000 foot mountain in Colorado, to make it interesting they decided we’d begin the slog at least two 13,000 foot peaks away.
The Pikes Peak exercise was part of the Special Forces Summer Military Mountaineering course offered at Fort Carson, near Colorado Springs, Colorado. The march took three days to complete, which meant that we had to spend two nights in the Rocky Mountains in sleeping bags, no tents allowed. We had fine weather, with sun during the day once the morning fog burned off, and cool nights, so the sleeping bags were not the problem. The problem for me — a picky eater in those days— was that during the operation we dined only on field rations. Military “C-rations,” as anyone who was ever in the service will tell you, consists of tasteless canned meat, stale crackers, and weak Sterno-heated coffee. In my case the tepid brew was sipped from a can that had recently been emptied of its sliced peaches for my breakfast. (The nineteen-year-old version of me is on the left in the photo above. Click any image for a larger view.) When you wake up on a cold and damp morning in the mountains under a big pile of rocks, the C-ration coffee is plenty good enough to take the chill out of your bones.
On the first night out my buddy, Pluchek (military types call each other by last names only) and I slept under an arrangement of huge boulders. They seemed to have been placed on the slope of the mountain in such a way as to create a small cave-like shelter just for us. The idea of nesting there was to avoid the heavy dew that settles in the mountains each morning. Our plan didn’t work. Abundant moisture collected on the tops of the boulders and ran in rivulets to the underside, where it dripped onto us like water torture. The next morning we crawled from under the rocks like human slugs and dosed ourselves with some of that wonderfully bad coffee. Afterwards, during the “hurry-up-and-wait” military routine before the order to move out came, Pluchek used his rucksack for a pillow and napped on a warm rock like a lizard.
On the second night we camped in a pine grove in a small valley between Mountain Number Two and Pikes Peak. We relaxed around the campfire like boy scouts, telling stories, snacking, and goofing off. (That’s me at the right in the photo, sitting with a guy named Schmitz. Schmitz is drinking c-ration coffee. I’m the whittler.) We slept in the open that night, no tents and no boulders. The next morning, day three, we washed up and brushed our teeth and combed our hair using our canteen cups as basins.
We made the summit of Pikes Peak the next morning after our third long hike in as many days, this one all up hill. We didn’t have to actually “climb” the mountain. To me, mountain “climbing” brings to mind a hand over hand struggle using ropes and pitons and such. (Rock climbing was another of our Summer Military Mountaineering courses, but that’s another blog post.) As it was, we simply walked up Pikes Peak, strolled to the 14,110 foot summit as you would on any other hike. To be honest, the experience was rather anti-climatic — pun intended. We arrived at the summit to be greeted by tourists who, smarter than the average soldier, had opted to take the scenic cog railway. After a cigarette break and extra time to enjoy the view and take snap-shots, we were marched off and loaded onto two-and-a-half-ton trucks for the ride back to Fort Carson. (One of my favorite pictures is of Pluchek at the summit, in which Colorado Springs can be glimpsed in the distance through the morning mist.)
As we moved to the trucks, I spotted a cute girl posing for a snapshot by the Pikes Peak summit sign. I assumed the older man about to take her picture was the young lady’s father. She was a typical 1950s bobby soxer with bobbed hair, hip-length tan “car coat,” rolled up blue jeans to show off her white anklets, and what appeared to be classic penny loafers on her feet. The man must have noticed me and turned just as I was about to snap a final frame with my Kodak box camera. I love the blur that resulted from the smiling man’s movement — it creates a dynamic foreground element that serves to frame the girl and the sign — an example of what I’ve come to think of as photographic compositional serendipity. (In other words, dumb luck.)
When we returned to Fort Carson and were told about our Summer Military Mountaineering class for the following day, it turned out to be another activity that raised questions in my naturally non-military mind. (After two years in the army I was still not fully on board with the military logic of there being a “right way, a wrong way, and an army way” of doing things. That may explain why, after just one three-year enlistment, I happily left army life behind for good.) When briefed on our next assignment, my thoughts went something like this: Unless we where going to be prospecting for gold and silver in the beautiful Rocky Mountains, why in the world did we need to learn how to pack mules?