KINGWOOD, W.Va. --
The high-pitch sound of clanging metal broke the rhythmic chirping of birds in the foothills of West Virginia as 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit Marines made their way to their classroom -- a cliff-face.
The 15 Marines attended the Special Operations Training Group, II Marine Expeditionary Force, Assault Climbers Course to learn techniques for climbing and moving themselves, other personnel and gear over both man-made and natural obstacles.
The training provides the MEU the ability to negotiate any route regardless of vertical or near vertical terrain. This ability expands the MEU commander's options for conducting complex expeditionary operations in challenging terrain.
"ACC provides Marines the ability to move up to a company-sized element through vertical or near vertical mountainous environments," said Capt. Robert Long, Expeditionary Operations Branch officer-in-charge with SOTG. “It can be employed in many ways, from moving a company up a simple hill to a sheer-cliff face or used to move heavy weapons and gear up a steep hill that couldn’t otherwise be traversed.”
The three-week course began late April and is broken into three parts - crawl, walk, run.
"We have a systems approach to training. We do tactical rope suspension techniques – knots and systems. Then we move into a little bit more advanced training. We work off the tower, then we move to top roping, which is climbing vertical or near vertical terrain, using a very simple and safe method,” said Long. “Finally we move into advanced lead-climbing techniques.”
Most of the students arrive without any training in climbing. Prior to arriving, the Marines learned and were tested on their ability to tie many different knots. With that imperative skill mastered, the Marines began hands-on climbing in the West Virginia mountains, where each lesson built on the lessons before it.
“As far as experience goes, they came with little to none - as far as Marine Corps mountaineering, none of them had climbed before," said Sgt. Jesse Bennett, a course instructor. “They had to show that they were comfortable with the systems and retaining the knowledge to progress from the crawl stage. They had to employ each of their systems the correct way.”
Safety is an overarching priority while on or around the cliffs.
“We have high-risk training. At any given time, I’m climbing on their systems to check their pro placement,” Bennett said. “There are lives on the line everywhere you look. They have to know what they are doing and the people around them have to trust that they are doing the right thing too. We have to depend on the protection they placed.”
Each portion of the course helps build even the least experienced into a strong climber, Bennett explained.
“It’s like everything else. You teach them how to use weapons. Well, out here on the rock face they learn what kind of gear they have and how it works. In the crawl stage we teach them how to use the protective gear. Getting further into the walking stage, they placed protective gear that they didn’t have to rely on. We would go behind them and check to ensure they are placing it correctly," said Bennett.
As the Marines continued to progress, their dependence on the instructors diminished.
“They are now doing the party climb on their own," said Bennett. "They have to pick their own routes. Place their own protective gear that they use without a safety line. They have to move up the cliff and set up their own anchors and system, so they can top-belay their partner.”
Although each Marine came with little to no experience, each says they are feeling more comfortable with their abilities.
“I would say my experience level has jumped dramatically,” said Lance Cpl. John Rasoilo, a rifleman with Company I, Battalion Landing Team 3/8, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, who had no previous rock climbing experience. “They teach you everything you need to know in a short period of time, and you start to master it ‘cause you are doing it so much. The Marine Corps is all about repetition. We get out here and they kind of eased us into safety climbs and top-roping. I feel pretty confident now.”
Protective gear, such as cams, stoppers and hexes are called “friends” and are continuously tested through the course.
"Friends save your life. You want to take care of your friends because they will take care of you," said a special forces Dutch Marine Master Sgt. who is currently an instructor with SOTG.
Each student is required to test their friendships by falling on their own protective gear at least once.
“It is important because they have to learn to trust their gear," said Bennett. "They could be the best climber and get to the top every time, but having never fallen, they could become complacent and the one time they need it, could be wrong. They will always have it in the back of their head, ‘I wonder if that will hold me.’ If they have fallen they will know, and once they fall, they get a better grasp of climbing.”
In addition to gear, the Marines learned different rope systems that could be employed in different ways. In several cases throughout the course, the Marines built one-rope bridges to cross between cliff faces and over water. These bridges were used not only to get themselves and their gear across, but mock casualties as well. In one class, the Marines had to get their squad, a simulated injured Marine and his gear from the bottom of one cliff to the top, across two cliffs and down the other side.
“Should they be repelling on a cliff face and there’s a casualty, they become stuck for any reason, or they need to clear a route, they can tie themselves off on their gear, go hands free to work on whatever they need to fix, or to rescue a casualty, and then continue the descent or ascent safely,” said Long. “The end goal is to be able to get whatever needs to be moved from one place to another while overcoming any obstacle.
"It helps with operational route planning, movement and terrain, time-space appreciation, as well as setting up a number of rope systems with mechanical advantages to move packs and gear through this type of terrain, which most Marines don’t have the opportunity to train in,” said Long. This ability allows the MEU commander to rapidly employ an expeditionary force regardless of natural obstacles – in any clime and place.
“As we continue to operate more and more in places like Afghanistan, we find ourselves in mountainous environments," Long said. "Even if it’s not straight lead climbing up through those environments, the ability to move through time-space planning for a squad, platoon and company sized element is invaluable when it comes to appreciating how difficult it becomes to operate in a mountainous environment.”