For a moment, the team of military medics was defeated. Humbled. Stopped.
Straining to climb a steep, snow-covered hill at 8,500 feet, their lungs and legs burned with exhaustion. A cold wind strafed the remote stretch of eastern Sierra Nevada.
It was no place to pause for long.
The medics - part of the Navy's Hospital corpsmen, charged with protecting Marines in combat - had lost traction on the slick white mountainside as they tried to lug a packed rescue sled uphill.
Two medics pulled the cumbersome sled from the front with ropes attached at their waists.
Two more pushed from behind.
"Come on, push that (sled)!" bellowed fellow corpsman Adam Rosendahl from the base of the hill, encouraging his military brothers.
"Come on, 'doc' - give it everything you got!" he said, invoking the corps' nickname, referring to the group collectively.
"Come on, push that!"
Inspired, the team trudged up the hill, slowly. Surely. Defiantly.
Atop the steep section, they paused to catch their breath and praise from their comrade.
"Good job, doc," Rosendahl said proudly.
There would be more tests to come.
A place like no other
The corpsmen would spend two weeks training at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center. It's in a rugged and isolated corner of the Sierra, outside the small town of Bridgeport, near the Nevada border.
It's where men and women come to prepare for the war in Afghanistan.
Roughly 10,000 U.S. and international troops - from as far as the United Kingdom and the Netherlands - train here each year. Many, like the Navy corpsmen, learn how to survive and save lives in a brutally cold environment.
Others, including the Marines, learn how to stalk and kill America's enemies among the high-altitude peaks and meadows that mirror those of Afghanistan.
Temperatures "on the hill," as the training area is called, can drop to 20 below zero. Those conditions have blackened fingers and toes with frostbite and turned stove fuel to gel, base instructors said.
Those at Bridgeport, as the base is known, endure an unforgiving wind that cracks your lips, and a sun that radiates off the snow, blinding your eyes and burning your skin.
Trainees push themselves to their limits amid a scene that is both harsh and breathtaking. Mountain peaks appear carved by a master sculptor, dotted with aspen and hearty pines above the frigid West Walker River.
As striking as the setting is the base's importance.
Since the start of the war in Afghanistan in 2001, the center has become one of the most crucial training grounds in the world.
Rank: Civilian supply clerk. Former marine and mountain warfare instructor.
Quote: "It's important to go ahead and have the gear ready - and that's not easy," Geheb said, noting there's more than 6,000 individual pieces of clothing and equipment - from socks to stoves to ski poles - in the main supply center, plus two additional warehouses full of gear.
"It's a constant struggle," he added.
Family: Married to Debra, with two sons and a daughter.
Rank: Senior chief hospital corpsman
Quote: "When I'm off work, I'm off hunting and fishing or hiking in the mountains."
Family: Married to Sara, with a son and daughter
Rank: Hospital corpsman third class
Hometown: Solana Beach, north of San Diego
Quote: "I'm really excited to learn (how to ski), but I didn't think it would be this hard."
Rank: Hospital corpsman first class
Hometown: Clear Lake, Iowa
Quote: "We all know that we're doing good around the world. We're there to protect our brothers and heal anybody anywhere we go."
Family: Married with two children
Rank: Hospital corpsman third class
Hometown: Arlington, Texas
Quote: "You know why you don't see mountain men on commercials? … Because there's nothing tough enough to sponsor them."
Rank: Hospitalman apprentice
Hometown: San Diego
Quote: "Yeaaaahhh baby!!!" he hollered as he was pulled on skis by a Marine Corps transporter
Rank: Navy lieutenant and medical officer
Hometown: Sioux City, Iowa
Quote: "This is the only place of its kind … it gives me insight into what the Marines have to do in an environment like this, and how I can support them."
Family: Married, no children
Rank: Hospital corpsman third class
Home country: Togo, Africa
Quote: "I like hard-core things, to challenge myself."
Rank: Hospital corpsman third class
Hometown: Los Angeles
Quote: "(The military) is like a football team. You put a whole lot of personalities together, you put a whole lot of nationalities together. It's the personalities that make the team a better team."
Rank: Hospital Corpsman third class
Hometown: Olympia, Wash.
Quote: "I'll catch myself down, or the group down, and I just try to keep things light. But more often than not, I stick my foot in my mouth."
Rank: Civilian, Marine Corps wife.
Quote: "It's definitely nice to watch the seasons, but it gets a little weary to have all the snow. It can be very difficult with the hilly area and the ice on the ground, but it's not too bad."
Rank: Civilian, owns Pops Gallley restaurant in Bridgeport
Quote: "(The Marines) are very well thought of. They're always very pleasant, very nice. I've never heard anything bad."
Who are the hospital corpsmen?
They are enlisted medical personnel who serve both the Navy and the Marine Corps, ranging from apprentice to medical officer to surgeon.
They've been part of the Navy for generations - a formal Hospital Corps was established in 1898 before the start of the Spanish-American War. Corpsmen consist of both men and women.
They serve in naval hospitals and clinics, aboard ships as the primary medical caregivers for sailors or with Marines in combat zones ashore.
The term "medic" is more commonly associated with the Army, though corpsmen and medics perform largely the same duties. Those range from conducting physicals and advising troops on hygiene to transporting the sick and injured from a battlefield. Roughly 6,000 corpsmen serve with the Marines Corps worldwide, including Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sources: About.com, U.S. Navy Senior Chief Hospital Corpsman Chris Cain.
Mountain Warfare Training Center at a glance
Located at 6,762 feet in the eastern Sierra, the base is one of the world's premiere settings for cold-weather warfare and survival training. Thousands of U.S. Marines and Navy Corpsmen, as well as troops from as far as Israel, Norway and the United Kingdom train there each year. The center is 21 miles northwest of Bridgeport and 100 miles south of Reno, on 46,000 acres of the Toiyabe National Forest.
It's staffed by up to 323 Marines and trains roughly 10,000 military personnel annually.
The base operates under an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service, and shares its land with snowmobilers, hikers, rock climbers and fishermen.
Strict environmental laws regulate everything from stream runoff at the base to the type of munitions that can be fired. Machine guns and rifles are the largest weapons used. No mortars or anti-tank missiles are permitted.
Pack mules are used frequently to help with training in the higher-altitude mountains.
Elevations in the training areas range to 11,459 feet.
Severe storms at the base have dropped as much as four feet of snow in a 12-hour period, while temperatures have ranged from 90 degrees to 20 degrees below zero.
Mountain Warfare Training Center history
The base was established in 1951 to prepare troops for the Korean War. It was placed in caretaker status during the Vietnam War, but then reactivated in 1976 due to Cold War threats. Today it is considered a preferred stop for troops headed to Afghanistan. With the United States' plans to send 3,200 Marines to Afghanistan this spring, the base has seen a sizeable increase in trainees of late.
Mountain warfare glossary
Bivouac - A military or mountaineering term for a temporary shelter, typically a group of tents.
MRE - Stands for "Meal, Ready-to-Eat." It's an individual meal for the soldier-on-the-go, containing an entrée, side dish, crackers, peanut butter/cheese spread, desert, instant coffee/tea, matches, toilet paper, spoon and a heater to warm the main food item. Under the right conditions, some MREs can reportedly last more than 10 years. The military suggests that all such meals - from the beef stew to the clam chowder to the spicy penne pasta - are better warm than cold.
"Go blue or go green" - Early in their military career, Navy corpsmen choose whether to serve as medics for the Navy (typified by blue uniforms) or the Marines (with green uniforms).
Fleet Marine Force - This highly trained group of Navy corpsmen specialize in all aspects of working with the Marines. The designation is prized among corpsmen.
Rescue Randy - The plastic, life-size dummy was a key part of the medics' training at the base. Randy was strapped inside emergency sleds, hauled up the mountain several times and even dug up during an avalanche rescue and recovery drill.
Banana buckets - When nature calls, the Marines and corpsmen at the mountain warfare center uses the bright yellow buckets. Cleaning them out serves as punishment for the corpsman squad that finishes last in a training race.
BVs - The swift Swedish-made vehicles are used at the base to transport troops and cargo up steep, snowy hillsides. They consist of two cars linked together, each equipped with tracks. Their all-terrain design allows them to navigate everything from deep snow to sand, rocks, boulders, bogs and marshes more effectively than nearly all other tracked vehicles.
Deadman - Any object buried in the snow that serves as an anchor for an attached rope. A Marine-issued green, plastic soap box was used for such a purpose during training. Once buried two and half feet deep, it allowed two corpsmen to safely rappel down a hillside.
- News-Sentinel staff
"The relevancy (of the base) has gone through the roof," said Marine Corps 1st Lt. Patrick Kinser, stationed at the base.
The military announced in January it would send an additional 3,200 Marines to Afghanistan by spring, leading to the highest concentration of American troops ever in the country.
The Mountain Warfare Training Center has already seen the effects of that proposed surge, with more troops making their way through the base in recent months.
"Everything's ramped up here," Kinser noted.
Eighteen corpsmen, including one woman, enrolled in the center's Cold Weather Medicine course last month.
Most all volunteered for the course, and arrived from the temperate climes of Camp Pendleton north of San Diego.
Their drills included trudging for miles over thick snow-clad slopes wearing skis and snowshoes.
They rappelled down icy grades and searched for avalanche victims on wind-whipped mountainsides.
The corpsmen shoveled snow constantly, digging out space for their tents and clearing a circuitous campsite walkway.
They boiled snow day and night to make water for the group.
During their second week, instructors used simulated artillery blasts and bright flashes to model a combat zone.
The students came from across the country. They were men like Chris McNally, of Olympia, Wash., a good-natured, introspective corpsman with a quirky sense of humor.
Some, like Shaun Dezern, of Arlington, Texas, were tough-guy soldiers, unwilling to give in to the elements. And still others were like Robert England, of Sioux City, Iowa, a stoic lead-by-example Navy lieutenant.
Their course was more about survival than medicine.
It took them to a bone-jarringly cold world, miles from civilization, where warmth and shelter were rare commodities.
It showed them how to save themselves first so they can save the Marines in their care.
It revealed a group of braves souls, pushed further than they'd ever been before.
Shouldering the load
Because they're not Marines, the corpsmen feel a constant need to prove themselves to the elite warriors.
Hospital Corpsman Third Class Shaun Dezern fit that mold.
The strong-jawed Texan had never seen snow prior to the training, yet he considered the foreign conditions a personal challenge.
Making a slow march on skis down the mountain - six miles into the unspoiled backcountry from the main base - Dezern, 26, carried an awkward 70-pound "combat load" upon his broad back and shoulders.
One corpsman was required at all times to carry the heavy camouflaged pack, which included extra boots, stoves and emergency MREs - military issued meals, ready-to-eat - for the rest of the troops.
Beginning his descent atop a steep slope, Dezern stumbled forward and to the side. His pack, in an instant, crashed him down, off the side of the trail.
He slid several feet until coming to a stop in thick snow.
With his skis tangled and the pack burdening him, Dezern seemed helpless.
His face was flushed crimson. His lungs heaved.
Slowly, he shifted his skis parallel to the slope. Somehow, he muscled himself up, using his ski poles to steady himself.
Once back on the trail, Dezern inched forward cautiously, only to lose his balance again and tumble down in a violent spill.
Again he wrestled with the pack, gravity and his skis.
Slowly, he stood.
He maneuvered a switchback.
And tumbled again.
His fellow corpsmen - taught to never leave a troop behind - slowed to wait for their nearly broken brother, who lay on the ground cursing.
"Dezern, you want me to take it?" asked Rosendahl, a few feet down the trail.
He refused all offers.
"You're all pride, bro," Rosendahl said, as the two neared the end of the descent, under a canopy of pines.
Moments later, as Dezern crossed a wide meadow blanketed with snow, somebody offered that the tired corpsman "was almost there."
"Thank God," was all he replied, as the sun melted into the cold western sky.
Under a heavenly sky
Stars appeared to jump from the vast, clear sky at Bridgeport, illuminating the night like a Christmas parade passing through a small town's Main Street.
Under the heavenly show, the corpsmen cinched their jackets and packs, and ratcheted their ski bindings for one final drill following their first day on the hill.
Before they left - for a ski hike without the use of headlamps - they remarked on the stars above.
"Wow - I haven't seen a sky like that in years," said one, his tan cap and neck gaiter covering him, as cold air spread across the campsite.
"Damn, dude. I haven't seen anything like this since Iraq," another commented. "It's probably clearer than Iraq."
Likely half the 18 corpsmen at Bridgeport last month will be sent to Afghanistan at some point, estimated Senior Chief Hospital Corpsman Chris Cain, the group's lead instructor.
Many have already completed tours in the deserts of Iraq.
Afghanistan, however, will require them to tolerate extreme high altitudes. Peaks in the Hindu Kush range, which stretches across much of the country, vary from 11,000 feet to more than 19,000 feet high.
They'll need to know how to detect and treat illnesses specific to such a landscape. Severe forms of altitude sickness, like cerebral edema, show themselves in the form of headaches first, then a loss of coordination, sometimes ending in a loss of consciousness.
Twenty-nine-year-old Lt. England came to Bridgeport to learn more about those very conditions.
The tall, thin-faced medical officer (the only officer among the corpsmen) will likely head to the Central Asian country soon.
He won't be on the front lines, but he'll likely check the vital signs of Marines suffering from hypothermia. Perhaps he'll train other corpsmen how to use a Gammo bag - an inflatable, tube-like bag used in the field to lower a victim's air pressure. Someone suffering from edema, for example, would be placed inside the bag, which would then be pumped up to begin treatment.
"Really, my function is to protect Marines' lives," said England, whose wife is a civilian physician. "All that money the Navy put into my (medical school) training, I've got to put it to use."
As the corpsmen crunched through the snow single-file, some falling, others gaining confidence on their skis, Hospital Corpsman First Class James Oglesby reminded them of details large and small.
"Keep good control of your gloves - don't let them fall off," he said, helping 21-year-old Alton Guidry of San Diego, up from a faceplant in the night-darkened snow. "That's what's going to prevent frostbite and all that good stuff."
The troops stayed close during the hike. They checked every few seconds on the man or woman behind them, on their ski bindings, pack, gloves and jacket, as instructed. Such vigilance keeps bodies and minds active in cold conditions.
"Get that blood moving," Oglesby told Guidry, as the young corpsman prepared to step on.
Bright and disciplined, Lt. England seemed ready for the cold terrain. And while he spoke in detail about the ailments he might treat, he talked only generally about the prospect of going to war.
Few of the corpsmen spoke at length about such a possibility, though all acknowledged the need to be prepared.
"Obviously going to war is never exciting," England said at one point.
Reaching the end of the night hike, the lieutenant paused for a moment, soaking in the experience.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Civilian doctors don't get to do this," he remarked, before shoving off into the frozen night.
Back to the mountain
It was 8 below zero on the corpsmen's first night on the hill.
The mercury climbed to just 11 degrees by the next morning's first drill.
Instructors warned the corpsmen - in the meadow for another hike - to keep active, not to go into "zombie mode," as Oglesby called it.
When enduring extreme cold, your mind is put to the test along with your body. The conditions can lead people to stop talking, to stare off into the distance.
That, in turn, can become contagious and lead to "cocooning" or "group hibernation," Oglesby explained later. A group might stop working to collect snow, melt and drink it. They can stop eating, as well, preferring just to sleep.
Students at Bridgeport train until the temperature drops to 25 below zero or whiteout conditions make the landscape invisible, Senior Chief Cain said.
"If I was alone here, it would kill me," admitted McNally, the introspective corpsman from Olympia, as he shoveled the campsite's pathway later that morning. "I miss my family. We all do."
By mid-morning, a bright sun radiated off the mountainside, warming the troops and shaking off any lethargy.
They gathered around Cain for a lesson on rappelling - using a rope to lead oneself down an incline.
The lesson, it turned out, was as much about ingenuity as technique.
Cain did not explain, at first, what he used to anchor his rope to the ground. The line disappeared inside the snowpack in front of the group.
"Would you feel safe rappelling on that?" Cain asked Chris Torres, a burly, confident corpsman.
Torres tested the line, clutching it as he leaned back a bit.
"Oh yeah, definitely," he responded.
Torres was joined by another corpsman, Nick Mounkes, and the two crept carefully down the hill, each grasping the line.
They safely rappelled 15 to 20 feet down, trusting the anchor - whatever it was - to stay lodged in the snow.
Moments later, the two pulled themselves back up, and drew close to the huddle to find out what was buried below.
Two corpsmen shoveled frantically to uncover the object. Once finished, Cain reached down to pull a small, plastic Marine-issued soap box wrapped in Duct tape from the hole.
"That's my survival kit," he said, holding the one-and-a-half ounce box in the air. "That just goes to show you how you have to think outside the box to potentially save your life, or the life of one of your Marines or sailors."
The corpsmen at Bridgeport were not rookie soldiers.
Many had served through squalls while stationed at Okinawa and sandstorms while in Iraq.
Their words and steady gazes told those stories.
But the thin, cold air at the Mountain Warfare Training Center forced them to trust themselves once again, to dig for courage in the midst of mental and physical struggle.
As the afternoon sun cast shadows across the idyllic training site, Shaun Dezern stood ready for the next drill - an avalanche rescue mission.
Asked about his tumultuous trek down the mountain the day prior, he said he didn't know why he kept going, and didn't hand over the pack.
Pausing for just a second, he continued: "There's glory in it once it's done - no matter how bad it sucks," he said. "You don't give in, because if you give in, you get used to giving in."
"Losing is dying," he added.
Contact reporter Chris Nichols at firstname.lastname@example.org.