Recently US Army Alaska, including the two brigades from the 25th Infantry Division, has been re-flagged as the 11th Arctic Airborne Division. Some soldiers might not be affected by this change, but for some it means a new mission, new equipment, and different tactics. The time I spent in the Arctic was relatively short but I learned some valuable lessons that could be applicable if you’re an arctic soldier or if you’re an everyday outdoors person.
A small group of Americans are sent up to The Canadian Arctic every winter to learn how to survive and fight in Arctic conditions. For the exercise we would spend a week above the Arctic circle. Starting at a research facility we would travel about 130 kilometers by snowmobile to secure an airstrip for a couple of days and then return to the facility.
First, we spent a week in Quebec learning the Canadian equipment and techniques which initially didn’t seem too different from our own. We Americans were not all from the same unit, in fact we barely know one another. Even though most of us had set up Arctic tents and stoves before, we hadn’t done it with our exact groups. What made these rehearsals even easier is that we were able to do them inside first and figure out who was going to do which tasks, all from the comfort of a heated and sheltered space instead of the sub zero temperatures of Quebec. If our first time setting up the tent was in the Arctic circle we would have figured it out, but it wouldn’t have been efficient and we would have been out in the cold trying to “figure it out”.
Everything we did was carefully orchestrated to be the most efficient it could be. When getting to our bivouac sites it was clear who was to do which task and in what order. First, everyone helped assemble the tent. Then the medic immediately went into the tent, assembled and started the stove, and treated any casualties from inside the increasingly warm tent. If there were no casualties, the medic would start to cook. Everyone else in the tent team stayed outside to cut ice blocks and build an ice wall around the tent to give additional wind protection. After that, an emergency landing strip was flattened and marked. Finally, the rest of the tent team would organize personal equipment and bring in only what they needed for the night.
Leaving our bivouac in the morning was also meticulously planned. The departure time was established the night before. 30 mins before departure time is when the stoves had to be disassembled and all the snowmobiles had to be started. If there was any issue with a snowmobile, this gave you 30 minutes to figure it out or make it ready to be towed. 15 mins before departure the tents had to be disassembled, the snow walls taken down and the sleds packed. 10 mins before departure everyone is on their snowmobile in formation. Finally, 5 mins before departure the landing strip is disassembled. This was a rehearsed and understood timeline with a purpose. If there was a major issue with the snowmobiles that would take longer than 30 minutes to fix, the order could be put out to keep the tents up until the issue is resolved. This kept people as warm and sheltered as possible until we were sure that we were ready to leave.
The military in general is notorious for having people aimlessly wait around. Whenever we are given a time to be somewhere each level of leadership says “get there 15 minutes prior”. This usually results in people being hours early and having to wait around for the “real” start time. In the arctic, standing around for hours could at best be a severe drain on morale, at worst it will cause hypothermia casualties. These were rehearsals that we did before being 60 kilometers away from help. My suggestion would be to actually rehearse plans and don’t assume everyone will magically know what to do when the time comes.
Imagine spending all day driving. Now imagine doing that at -50 degrees Fahrenheit. The days that we were moving, we would spend almost the entire day riding our snowmobiles in a long column. We would have two people per snowmobile, one driving and one constantly turning around to make sure the column behind them was keeping up. Physically, it was painful. Your face was cold from the wind, your goggles were likely fogged up enough to make seeing other snowmobiles difficult, and your legs were probably asleep. Mentally, it was monotonous. You can’t talk to your passenger because it’s so loud, you are stuck with nothing but your thoughts and whatever song is stuck in your head. However, we only had to endure this 30 minutes at a time.
Our well established procedure was to drive for 30 minutes and then collapse into a huddle for a 5-10 minute break. That was the time to use the bathroom, eat and drink, defrost our goggles, refuel the snowmobile, check to make sure the trailer sleds were secure, and just talk to one another. This ensured that no one would run out of gas or lose a sled after 3 hours of non-stop riding. It also gives relief to the “strong silent type” who would never speak up to say they need a break until it was an absolute emergency.
This is similar to what I have learned about leading groups on hikes. If you establish break points along the way, mentally people can tell themselves “all I have to do is make it to the next break point”. At these points you can then establish “we will all take our backpacks off and eat, drink, check our shoelaces, alter what we are wearing if needed, ect”. These could be at physical milestones or by time like it was for us in the arctic.
Once we rode away from the research facility and out onto the sea ice, it was the most desolate feeling I have ever experienced. There was nothing but ice in every direction. If we didn’t have something with us or if something broke, there was no resupply. What were the major things that could go wrong? The major things that we needed were heat, food, and transportation. There were no trees to cut down for firewood, there were no animals we could hunt for food, and there were no mechanic shops that we could bring a broken snowmobile to.
We had established timetables for how long we could use each stove, and we packed accordingly. Our contingency for if our diesel arctic stoves stopped working were MSR XGK stoves that could burn diesel, white gas, or the gasoline that our snowmobiles used. Food was something that was harder to plan a contingency for, however some people did bring ice fishing gear gear. Of course this is only going to work if you know how to use it, you aren’t going to magically learn a survival skill when it’s time to use it.
Of the 6 snowmobiles we had, I was assigned the only one with a pull-start and the other 5 had electric starters. Usually the electric starters worked with no issues, and everyone got to watch me and my snowmobile partner yank on the string until it started. The last night of the exercise was especially cold and none of the electric starters worked. Our pull start fired up with the usual effort. One person in the group who was an avid snowmobiler then pulled the running snowmobile up next to one that wouldn’t start and put a tarp over them both. After a couple of minutes, the heat from the exhaust heated the cold one enough that it was able to start. We continued this for the rest until all the snowmobiles were started and we were able to make that 30 minute timeline to be ready to move. Of course the only person that knew that trick was the person that rides snowmobiles in their free time.
The point is logistics can be unreliable but if there’s the potential for your life to depend on a specific piece of equipment, gear, or skill, take the initiative to learn it.
While we were working a French Canadian platoon, we also worked with Inuits who were part of the Canadian Rangers. Since we were going to be working together with these two distinct groups of people, we took the time to figure out what they like and what is useful to them. If we had the opportunity to trade or flat out gift things to them, it might start us out on the right foot and leave a lasting good impression on them. For the French Canadians, we brought maple syrup and extra military patches. All the younger soldiers loved switching flag patches, unit patches, name tapes, ect. We found out from someone who had previously gone on this trip that the Inuits really appreciated ice fishing gear like fishing lines and lures, but that gear is hard to come by in the far north since the area is only accessible by plane. We brought some up to them, it was the least that we could do for the small group of Inuits who were basic our immediate lifeline if something went wrong.
We also learned and wrote down some phrases in French and Inuktitut. Yes, mostly everyone also spoke English but learning and using basic greetings and phrases was something everyone seemed to appreciate. Instead of just assuming everyone spoke English, we made the attempt to try and meet them (almost) halfway.
The Arctic was without a doubt the harshest environment that I’ve ever been in. I learned some valuable lessons that I can apply to the military and the outdoors in general. With the Army now doubling down on Arctic warfare capabilities, now more than ever it should actually consider mountaineering and cold weather warfare a distinct career path as I outlined
My hope is that soldiers who are up for the challenge will actually volunteer to go up there and take a proactive role in their training and development. At the same time, I hope the Army and the leadership in 11th Arctic Airborne Division help make it a worthwhile venture.