USMC Mountain Survival Course- Part 4, by E.T.

Phase 3 – Group Survival (continued)

Relocation and Warmth

We had been in the field on our USMC Mountain Survival Course for four days in Phase 1 and five days for Phase 2. Phase 3 was just beginning. We had taken in roughly 1500 calories over nine days. After everyone had arrived from our isolation locations, the group went for a hump. We moved about five klicks up and down a couple of mountains and posed at the top in some snow for a couple group pictures. Then we humped back down into a large, mostly barren valley, which had a grassed stream running through the center about 4-5 feet across.

We arrived around afternoon and dropped our packs and gear in formation, except our personal survival kits and knives that were strapped to our bodies. After the hump and with the rising sun, we warmed up. Most had stripped down to skivvy tees or taken off their grid fleece and dropped them on their packs. I had put my grid fleece in my pack but still wore my blouse.

Group Division and Fishing Lesson

The instructors split us into three groups– two groups of nine and one group of eight. I was in the group of eight. We spent a couple of hours learning from the instructor how to catch fish with our hands. One person would muddy the water upstream. As the sediment floated down and obscured the fish’s sight, another would slowly move their hands through the murky water along the creek bank feeling for fish. No one caught any except the instructor. We did have some close calls. The fish were still small but slightly larger than before. The largest fish we saw was probably six inches.

After several hours of enjoying the sun and hand fishing. Our instructor sent me and one other to fetch our individual packs for a “demonstration”. Being the untrusting sort, I grabbed my pack and stuffed several nearby fleece and blouses into it. (I had heard rumors that in the old course they did a group survival with limited equipment.) After returning to the group, we were told that the third phase had started. The only equipment we had for eight people was on our bodies and in the two Assault Packs. We were able to get everyone a blouse or fleece to wear, luckily, as this phase had the coldest temperatures we would encounter. It was getting late so we started throwing together a shelter and making a fire.

Our Plan for Heat

Because of the sniper’s shelter catching fire and collapsing, the overseers of our course told the instructors no more fires were permitted. After they pointed out the forecasted temperature and risk of hypothermia, they relented but only on the condition that we set our shelters up in the open away from anything flammable. This meant we set up in a dusty area with very little shelter from the wind, which made it even harder to get a fire started. We began by dragging large logs and rocks together to build three walls in a “U” shape to give us shelter from the wind on three sides. In the center, we built the fire around a small rock wall parallel to the long sides of the U to reflect the heat in all directions. We had no overhead cover, and planned on cuddling under the two tarps if it rained.

Experience With Heat Rotations

That night the temps went into the low teens. We had stuffed our blouses and trousers with leaves to help insulate. We cut holes in the trash bags from our survival kits and put our heads and arms through it to help reflect heat. Others pulled the gauze wrap from their AFAIK and wrapped it around their faces like a scarf. We partnered up to cuddle and stand fire watch. One pair would keep the fire stoked while the rest would try to sleep, changing out every hour. Our sleeping method was laying parallel. One person would face the fire and warm their front while their partner pressed up against them from behind with arms wrapped around holding tight. After roughly 30 minutes, we would switch. (It was all we could take.)

We were close enough to the fire that most of us burned our boots, and we all had singed faces from blowing embers. Our fronts would feel like they were cooking. I wore my shemagh over my face to keep from being burned. Our backs would be reasonably warm with our partner pressed against you. But the person in the back, would shiver uncontrollably, with the only slight warmth coming from your partner in front of you. Those 30 minute spans in the back were ungodly miserable. No one really slept. We just laid there in a baking and shivering revolving daze waiting for dawn.

Space Blanket

By morning we had all given up trying to sleep and were huddled around the fire. This is where the space blankets came in handy. Wrapping that behind your body, like a cape with the front gapped open would do a great job of reflecting heat onto your body and help block the wind from taking your body warmth. The space blanket was limited in use. It was great for signaling and reflecting heat. But wrapping your body in it and lying on the ground did not make any of us feel warmer. Your body is giving off some heat. But since you are inactive, the amount of heat reflected is minimal. I would still recommend one. With another heat source to reflect, it worked very well. The material tears like tissue paper though, so be gentle with it.

Splitting Up and Finding Food

Once the sun came out to warm us, we split up. Some guys checked the snares and tried fishing. Others gathered edible plants. The rest worked on improving our wind breaks and gathering a lot of fire wood. With our limited time the night before, the latter fire watches had to search for wood constantly during the night to keep us from freezing. Most of the day, we lounged in the sun and slept. By evening, we had caught two prairie dogs and a small fish about five inches long. We cleaned and skinned the dogs and roasted them on a spit over the fire.

Being fearful of bubonic plague, we roasted them until they were burned to a crisp. Then we passed the small withered critters around on a stick and each took a small bite. The fish was gutted, then cut into pieces and passed around to be eaten raw. I don’t do sushi, so I passed. After seeing the guy who got the tail throw up after he swallowed it, I was glad I did.

The MRE Deal

That evening the instructors came and offered us a deal. They offered two MRE’s for our fire. After the previous night, no one in my group wanted to make the trade. That night was more brutal than the one before. The wind had picked up and made it more hellish and miserable. Dawn brought out the base commander with a Navy corpsman to check us each out for hypothermia or frostbite. That was when we found out one of the other groups made a poor decision and took food over fire. They spent the night shivering together in a pile under their tarps, but no one died.

Energized By A MRE

That morning, each group was given one MRE to be split amongst the group. We made the food division as fair as possible. We broke the cracker into eight pieces and split the cheese on it, with each person getting a piece. For the entrée, we passed around the pouch and shared a spoon taking one evenly leveled bite each. Concerned about cooties? We didn’t care. The M&Ms were counted out from the desert pouch and handed out. We were energized by this sudden windfall in food, which provided roughly 150 calories each. We tore down our shelters, gathered up our packs, and went for another five klick or so hump through the wilderness. Mentally, this was easier after having that small amount of food. Physically, we were still all in pretty poor shape. Energy was extremely low.

The trail we took was cross country. At times, we had to crawl on hands and knees up mountain sides. We humped to an LZ and were told this would be our final night.

Our Final Night

That night the class made one large fire. Then we broke into our previous smaller groups to make shelters. We made a large lean-to against a massive uprooted tree using our tarps attached to the top of the fallen tree trunk with 550 cord and anchored it at the bottom with rocks. The only way in was to move on hands and knees and crawl on our bellies. We all got to experience trying to sleep without fire that night.

Even with all of our gear returned to us, that night was extremely cold as well. I slept for about two hours and woke to an almost empty shelter with no feeling in my feet. After trying to wiggle the feeling back, and fearful of frostbite, I crawled out and found the majority of the class pressed in against the fire trying to stay warm. It was another exhausting sleepless night.

Further Reading:

SurvivalBlog Writing Contest

This has been part three of a five part entry for Round 71 of the SurvivalBlog non-fiction writing contest. The nearly $11,000 worth of prizes for this round include:

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  1. Is there a reason for not building two fires and sleeping between them? I have no training and know nothing about it, but wonder why this is not done.

    1. With the wind that picked up during this portion, I wouldn’t have wanted to lay between two fires. We were dreadfully close to the flames as it was, if any burning wood had rolled out it would have been a bad thing.

  2. A good read. Good survival training. Lots of information and things to think about. I have seen video of this training on TV so I would imagine it is available on youtube somewhere. The instructors then were more aggressive and unpredictable. This is a beautiful area I have driven thru many times. Bitter Cold in the winter.

    1. I watched that video several months later. I was very unimpressed with the course and the caliber of Marines participating.

      I don’t recall the ranks of those involved, but I believe that by having only NCO’s and Officers we had a more mature and experienced group. Most of whom had undergone rigorous training outside the norm.

      I was pleased ours seemed much more benefiting then what I watched.

  3. Tickling Trout was one of the exercises we did at Camp Hale (Leadville CO) when I was a Company Commander at Ft Carson in the early 80s. I took volunteers from my company up to Camp Hale in summer and winter, skiing and snowshoeing between snow caves in winter; hiking, climbing, rapelling and sleeping outdoors in summer.

  4. This reminds me somehow of “bat 21”. ( pure conjecture I have no survival training )

    Reality counters the romantic image of the Lone Wolf survivor out in the woods living off the land.

    Both in training and real world survival, people ( who are lucky enough to survive ) come to the end of their ordeal filthy,exhausted and starved half to death.

    Thank you for a great article.

  5. Emergency blankets can be set up like a tarp to reflect the IR from the fire to one’s backside, using small round stones pushed into the material as attachment points for cordage. If one had clear sheet plastic like Painter Plastic, a shelter can be made near a long fire with the emergency blanket in the rear of the shelter, one has created a ‘green house’, where inside temps can be surprisingly, and even uncomfortably high. I carry a larger 7 foot in length, and durable reinforced Mylar type material(aluminized plastic) scavenged from heating duct insulation, and a small package containing heavy gauge Painter’s Plastic.

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