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Survive! : The Temperature Was Below Zero, There Was No Food and His 45 Years Weighed More Than Any Backpack

February 25, 1988|GEORGE FRANK | Times Staff Writer

The freezing temperatures, hip-deep snow, gales from mountain peaks and long, dark nights gnawed at our patience and resilience.

Night after night we crawled into our two-man coffins--3 1/2-foot-high hooches crudely carved out of a snow bank. Outside the temperature was zero, but inside the snow caves it was 26 degrees. Darkness in the mountains comes early. Some nights we spent up to 12 hours in our sleeping bags.

It became increasingly difficult to keep warm at night. There was little or no food to eat. Without food, the body, like a furnace, has no fuel to make heat.

Unfortunately, our attempts to catch fish in the ice- and snow-covered streams in the Sierra north of Yosemite National Park were unsuccessful. We had traps out for days at the foot of Lost Canyon Peak near Sonora Pass, but the rabbits and squirrels stayed clear.

Without food, strange things happen to your body. There are extreme emotional highs and lows, similar to those of a distance runner. At times you think you can continue forever, but that can abruptly change, your mind turning to thoughts of failure and defeat.

The high altitude left us breathless even during the shortest treks in the deep snow. Blizzard-like conditions would come up without warning. The dryness at 8,850 feet caused our skin to crack and bleed and the little cuts never seemed to heal. Some mornings our throats were so dry it was impossible to swallow without a drink of water.

When the fires went out at night everything would freeze--water, toothpaste and damp socks.

We began to look thin and smell bad. Increasingly, we viewed our adventure as an ordeal.

One night as I lay awake in my sleeping bag, frantically moving my feet and legs to keep them warm, I asked myself: Why are you doing this?

Couldn't I write this story without staying out here for five nights and six days? Was it reasonable to think that a 45-year-old journalist could survive in the freezing mountains without food in the middle of winter with a group of much younger, better-trained Marines?

I was at the U. S. Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center at Pickel Meadows in the Sierra, just northwest of Bridgeport, Calif. My fellow students were Marine pilots, navigators and crew members from air stations at El Toro, Tustin, Camp Pendleton, Hawaii and North Carolina.

It was cold weather, trench foot and frostbite that prompted the Marine Corps to open the Mountain Warfare Training Center 36 years ago to train Marines bound for the Korean War so they could "survive, maneuver and fight in mountain and cold-weather environments."

In the winters of 1950 and 1951 it was so cold in Korea that the wounded died because there was no way to thaw the plasma. Troops fell to the ground complaining that their feet had fallen asleep when they were really suffering from acute frostbite. The earth was frozen so hard the men could not dig foxholes. The water in their canteens turned to solid ice.

Although it is almost a world apart, the Sierra near the training center looks much like the mountains in North Korea in the winter. Both are located on the same latitude near the 38th parallel.

Each year at the center, some 10,000 Marines are taught ways to survive in the mountains in both the winter and summer. The center, located on a portion of the Toiyabe National Forest, is considered one of the Marine Corps' most remote and isolated posts. Instructors teach survival to small groups of Marine aviators and mountain maneuvers to battalions.

Before being sent into the wilderness, survival groups learn basic skills in a classroom, such as how to start a fire from flint, how to treat hypothermia and frostbite, how to make snowshoes, and how to build shelters. Once out in the mountains, instructors check on their students each day.

After two days of classroom instruction, our group of 15 Marines and one reporter was divided into three squads and loaded onto a CH-46E transport helicopter.

Times photographer Don Kelsen accompanied the group into the wilderness. He, however, would return to civilization Friday evening. The rest of us were there for the duration.

It was Thursday, Jan. 28. The helicopter flew north and landed in a snow-covered, desolate meadow at about 9,000 feet near a large mountain called Mean Peak.

Sgts. William Archer and David Rawdon, survival instructors, pointed to the back door of the aircraft.

"This is it. Out," Archer said, exaggerating his lip movement to overcome the noise of the helicopter. We found ourselves standing in knee-deep snow.

For the first time I felt anxious. All the speculation about what it would be like in the wilderness for nearly a week with little food was no longer going to be left to my imagination. We had arrived.

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