Temperatures plummeted through the teens and single digits before blizzard conditions closed down Fort Drum, N.Y., and area schools -- a spring-like welcome home last week for two 10th Mountain Division (LI) Soldiers returning from an exercise near the Arctic Circle.
Sgt. 1st Class Jared Holt and Staff Sgt. Kirke Best, instructors at the division's Light Fighter School, endured six days of winter-warfare training on Baffin Island -- roughly 1,400 miles north of Fort Drum.
Part of a joint exercise with Canadian forces called Operation Guerrier Nordique ("Arctic Warrior"), the Soldiers said conditions on the ground -- where snow so dry and compact crunched like Styrofoam underfoot -- were inconceivably cold.
The first night's temperature reached 70 F degrees below zero. Winds howled on Frobisher Bay at more than 50 mph outside their tents.
Capt. Craig W. Bosveld, Light Fighter School commander, said the harsh elements were meant to benefit many stakeholders, including the two Soldiers, the division, the Army and U.S.-Canadian affairs.
"It was a great way for the 10th Mountain Division (LI) Light Fighter School to validate our Mountain Winter Warfare Course and to invest in our cadre's professional mountaineering experience," Bosveld said. "It also allowed Soldiers from the division to train hand in hand with other U.S. and Canadian forces (who have) Arctic experience, to share knowledge and best practices."
After extensive briefings and cold-weather gear inventories in Vermont and Quebec City, U.S. Soldiers boarded a commercial airliner bound for Iqaluit, a small coastal village in the desolate Canadian territory of Nanavut.
In addition to Holt and Best, the U.S. contingent included Soldiers from the Asymmetric Warfare Group, the Army Mountain Warfare School in Jericho, Vt., and about a dozen Army National Guard Soldiers from the 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team.
The training was led by the 35th Canadian Brigade Group, a Canadian Reserve force of the 2nd Canadian Division, along with the support of Canadian Rangers.
The Quebec City-based 35th CBG implemented a civil disturbance scenario and focused the training on domestic emergency response operations with an emphasis on search and rescue and winter patrolling techniques.
But survivability under arctic conditions infused the heart of the training high above the tree line.
Best said both U.S. and Canadian troops relied heavily on the elite Canadian Rangers, a force known as the "eyes and ears" of the Canadian military because of their unconventional missions into isolated areas of northern Canada not covered by traditional soldiers.
"They knew where to go, what condition the ice was in, what to avoid," Best said. "We were pretty much going in there blind and relying on them."
The Soldiers arrived in Iqaluit on March 2. They spent the day in a hangar making last-minute gear adjustments and inspecting larger, prepositioned equipment such as camping stoves, aluminum toboggans, arctic tents and ice-cutting tools like ice axes and augers.
With just a day to acclimate, they headed out the next morning.
Walking on water
When conducting winter warfare under arctic conditions, the environment is as much an enemy as any tactical adversary, Holt said.
"Operationally, everything is based off of survivability," he said. "You need to do so much just to stay alive. You have to think through every move you make. If you make a mistake, it will cost you. The environment is so unforgiving.
"At a tactical level," Holt added, "your whole 'shoot, move and communicate' would be so different than anything you would normally do."
U.S. Soldiers were divided into two "tent sections." One member of the 35th CBG was attached to each tent section to mentor Soldiers and conduct critical survivability operations at night.
Military leaders decided to operate mostly over the flat sea ice along the Baffin Island shoreline, which offered the quickest and easiest track for snowmobiles and sleds transporting the group to its first bivouac site more than a mile out of town.
Holt said the second campsite was roughly six miles away and the last site nearly 10 miles from Iqaluit. The farther away from civilization they ventured, the spottier the communication.
Temperatures on the tent floor where troops slept dropped as low as 12 F degrees. Several open-flame heat sources, including a blowtorch-like pack stove, were used to stay warm on the frozen sea.
When some Soldiers pulled back the polyester flooring, the tent floor lit up a luminous blue over the crystalline sea ice.
Space was at a premium in tents. Soldiers from each section kept their rucksacks and other gear outside. Lines tethered to T-handled wood screws, which were tapped into the ice with a hammer, held tents against the high winds.
Holt said that each morning, depending on the tide, their tents on the frozen ocean rose and fell up to 30 feet relative to land.
"You never felt it," he said. "You heard a few cracking noises once in a while."
Best, who spent nearly six years at the "Home of the Arctic Warriors" in Fort Wainwright, Alaska, said that as long as he could spot a Canadian Ranger on the ice with them, the noises were less eerie.
But it unnerved everybody one day when a Canadian soldier fell in some seawater up to his knees after water bubbled to the ice's surface through a crevasse, Holt said.
"That was an emergency situation there. Because of the extreme cold, if you get wet, it has to be dealt with immediately," he said.
Sudden displacements in the frozen channels of the North Atlantic Ocean also caused some Soldiers to be temporarily separated from the main body one day near a bivouac site.
"The tide came in and busted out huge chunks of ice," Holt said. "We had moved some equipment up a bit and the tide went out. All of the ice dropped down, creating about a 30-foot cliff. We had to set up some mountaineering systems to haul them up to us with their gear."
The next day, the 10th Mountain Soldiers gave the Canadians a mountaineering class.
'Confidence in my equipment'
Surrounded by polar ice caps, wind-scoured fjords and treacherous shifts in sea ice, the two Soldiers said everything took them at least three times longer to do. Add taking extra time to be safety-conscious and hydrated while also being sure to carefully treat items made extremely brittle by the cold, and the most menial tasks became difficult.
Although neither Soldiers suffered any cold-weather injuries, Best did say he experienced a bit of a learning curve his first morning out on the permafrost when his feet in his "Mickey Mouse" cold-weather boots grew painfully cold.
"I learned very quickly, before you stick them on your feet, heat them up over the fire of the stove," he said. "They won't heat up on your feet."
As far as other Army-issued cold-weather gear, the Soldiers said the Army's seven-layer system worked extremely well. Holt added that he would not mind a coverall for a mid-layer, however -- kind of a one-piece to better bridge bottom and top layers.
Both Soldiers also were impressed with the Modular Sleep System, which consists of a waterproof Gore-Tex bivy cover, lightweight patrol sleeping bag and a much thicker cold-weather sleeping bag.
"The whole experience gave me a lot of confidence in my equipment," Best said.
Back to civilization
The U.S. Soldiers flew back to Quebec City on March 8. Before returning stateside several days later, they spent time learning about Canadian military history at the Citadelle of Quebec.
"It all really came together perfectly -- an experience of a lifetime," Holt said. "It is one of those places that more than 99 percent of our Soldiers will never get the chance to go.
"It's hard to put into words how much it meant to us," he added.
As an instructor here, Best said confidence in his gear will help him teach with authority during the Mountain Winter Warfare Course, just one of many infantry courses offered at the Light Fighter School.
Holt, the school's senior instructor, said he has more than 14 pages of notes from the exercise. He said he especially enjoyed gleaning as much as he could from the Canadian Rangers -- most of whom are Inuit.
"Their knowledge is amazing," he said. "Those guys know and understand survival."
Best agreed, adding that he appreciated the positive working relationship the Soldiers carried on with their neighbors to the north.
"I learned a lot," he said. "The Canadians were great to deal with."