The drive to Likely, B.C. had taken longer than expected, but the four guys I travelled with, Pte. Justin Mahlum, Cpl. Thomas Peters, Cpl. Tyler Bonderud and Cpl. Dale McDonald, made the most of it with small talk and the odd nap.
On Jan. 31 at 2 a.m., we stepped out of the warm truck into the cold night’s air. I was surprised by how much snow there was – much more than the six inches we had been briefed to expect. There was more like three feet.
I had joined the Rocky Mountain Rangers for the weekend, reservists from Kamloops and Prince George, for their latest winter training exercise, or “winter ex” as they call it.
I was handed my rucksack and snowshoes and immediately embarrassed when I could barely lift my rucksack. It topped 35 pounds. Instructions were given by Warrant Officer Daryl Mellquist that we’d be snowshoeing roughly two klicks (kilometres) to our destination or patrol base where we’d be spending the rest of the night.
McDonald helped me strap into my snowshoes and told me to get in line behind him. He was pushing the toboggan filled with necessities for the night. Two others were pulling with ropes from the front. It was “a human dog sled team,” as he put it.
The five of us were designated “three section,” and lined up behind two section. We began making our way, moving slowly but with few stops. My snowshoes wouldn’t stay on and I could feel Mahlum getting frustrated behind me, having to constantly stop and help me strap them back on. The terrain was tough to see in the dark. Luckily, the moon was close to full and m y eyes began to adjust.
“[The moon] is a huge tactical advantage. It makes it a lot easier to maneuver in the dark ‘cause sometimes there isn’t that much light and then you’re hooped and kind of butt up against each other,” Bonderud said. Bonderud has been in the Rocky Mountain Rangers f or three years.
“It’s kind of hard to walk in three feet of snow with a rucksack on, let alone [also] pull toboggans,” Mahlum said. He’s been in the infantry for a year and a half and this was not only his first winter ex, but also his first time on snowshoes.
To create a path to patrol on, we circled the perimeter of our camp twice. Three section pulled the toboggan off the path we had created and began mapping out exactly where we would be sleeping. I felt useless having no idea how to help. They tamped down the snow with their snowshoes, pulled the tent out and started digging holes where the tent pegs would be staked.
It was 4:30 a.m. by the time we started getting into our sleeping bags. Each soldier was expected to do one hour of patrol where they would walk the path around the tents, keeping a watchful eye out for the enemy. They would also do one hour of stove watch, making sure our sources of heat, a lantern and a gas stove, wouldn’t die out or light the tent on fire. Despite multiple layers and a military-grade sleeping bag, the night was cold. In the morning, we all joked about waking up to not feeling our toes.
“I got two hours of sleep the first night, which wasn’t bad,” Peters said.
He’s been in the infantry for almost five years, and this is his eighth winter ex.
After a short sleep
Reveille was set for a late 9:30 a.m. call, which came as a surprise to the soldiers who didn’t get more than three hours of sleep anyway. Breakfast was different for each of us, depending on which ration we grabbed out of our rucksacks and put to boil on the stove. Each ration had peanut butter, jam, some bread, a sugary snack, two powdered sports drinks, gum and a main meal like sweet and sour pork or a salmon fillet and would provide about 2,000 calories, meant to match the levels of exertion soldiers endure.
Later that morning, we were packed up and headed out on snowshoe to the first exercise location. With the sun out, I regained some of the warmth I’d lost from the night before. Most of the soldiers had stripped down to sweatshirts or long-sleeved shirts. They were broken up into three groups and were given 25 minutes to put up a tent with the lantern lit and the stove boiling water. Later, at another location, the soldiers had to put the tents up in 15 minutes with the lantern lit and stove running. These are fundamental skills that haven’t been focused on as much since 2000.
“[The military] was so focused on Afghanistan for so long that most of the exercises were focused around that. But now that that is sort of over, they’re getting back into the traditional training we usually do,” McDonald said.
We snowshoed towards Horsefly River and waited for further instruction. The sun was starting to hide behind the mountains and with the sky still clear, the temperature dropped to -10 C.
“That’s the problem. When it’s warm during the day and colder at night, you sweat and feel the change more than if the whole day was cold,” Bonderud said.
With weather as the wild card, the three rules consistently mentioned throughout the trip were to: not sweat, drink plenty of water and make smart decisions that don’t expel unnecessary energy.
“In the winter, everything is about conserving heat,” Capt. Seth Hunter said. Hunter had planned to lead the group through a river crossing exercise, but it was cancelled when it was discovered that Horsefly River was much higher than expected.
This was Brettell’s first winter ex and he made a mistake the others said you only make once – he got too cold. He got that way from falling in the snow and sweating too much. He couldn’t feel his feet and his legs were cramping. His jacket and two layers of pants were sopping wet and were starting to freeze. Said to have a cold weather injury by his superiors, he was put under the shelter, given an extra pair of fleece pants and hot f ood and water.
Young stepped into the role of caring for Brettell.
“The military as a whole operates on a fire team partner setup where you have your buddy and you watch out for each other. If you notice somebody who’s having issues you make sure you get them whatever they need,” Young said.
Young spent the next three hours monitoring Brettell until he fell asleep.
On the other side of the river, the soldiers would be spending the night in improvised shelters and their sleeping bags. Each approached the task in a different way with varying results. McDonald didn’t build a shelter and instead covered his rucksack and area with fir branches. He’s done roughly a dozen winter exercises and has been in the infantry for five years.
Mahlum built his shelter between two trees and used his ground sheet to keep the wind out.
“It could have been a lot better, but it could have been a lot worse,” Mahlum said.
McDonald was impressed with Mahlum’s work and slightly jealous.
“From my army experience, I know that anything can change and I didn’t want to take something down at four in the morning,” he said.
Bonderud dug a “snow grave” roughly his height in length and slept inside his sleeping bag. Bonderud’s shelter wasn’t as successful as McDonald’s, but he knew he had to keep a positive attitude.
“Morale is actually a pretty important thing, because once one guy starts getting pretty negative, it kind of spreads. What we tend to do is sort of embrace ‘the suck’ essentially,” Bonderud said. “When things get really bad you have to almost laugh about it. You’ve got to keep the morale up and keep it positive.”
“There’s two sides to it: the negativity that is legitimate and there’s the negativity that’s just hilarious, and in the infantry, we usually stick to the negativity that’s funny,” McDonald said, chuckling.
Sunday morning was spent doing reconnaissance patrols, which McDonald told me were important for finding an alternate base location could be scouted ahead of time.
After that, the rest of the morning was spent creating snow walls up on a hill using shovels and snowshoes. The walls had to look like other mounds along the hill line while being six feet across for the two groups of soldiers to fit behind them and sight enemies.
Before leaving on Sunday, all the soldiers had to declare that they had given back any ammunition before leaving the site. After that, everyone huddled in a circle and got to say the parts they liked and didn’t like about the weekend. The intention was for Capt. Hunter to use feedback for future exercises. Overall everyone agreed it was a “great ex.”
The ride home was long. The energy and excitement felt on the night we left was gone now. The cold weather had sucked the energy out of us. Peters drove and the rest of us fell asleep, but I kept waking up when I felt phantom snowshoes still attached to my feet. I had accomplished staying dry for the entire weekend, something I’m proud of for my first winter ex.