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In northern Vermont, two Natick engineers graduated from the winter phase of an Army school to qualify them as...

Mountain Men


Two U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center (Natick) engineers completed the winter phase of the Vermont Army Reserve and National Guard Mountain Warfare School at Camp Ethan Allen in Jericho, Vt., in February and March.

Phil Gibson, a materials research engineer with the Materials Science Team, and Chris Shaffer, materials engineer with the Chemical Technology Team, earned the Ram’s Head Badge awarded to those who successfully complete the summer and winter phases.

The course is made possible through a program called Scientists and Engineers Field Experience With Soldiers (SEFEWS). The Army Materiel Command-managed program allows civilian employees engaged in or responsible for materiel or weapons research and development programs to acquire a first-hand knowledge of the soldier’s environment and equipment. Training opportunities at different installations are available.

The Vermont school offers two-week courses on how to travel and operate effectively in mountainous terrain.

“The school is an excellent opportunity for Natick civilian engineers and scientists to learn about the real-world use of Army clothing, food and shelters,” said Gibson. “The winter course seems to be less physically challenging than the summer course, but requires more mental attention to detail and planning.”

Shaffer agreed that the course was a great chance to get hands-on experience with the Army’s clothing and food, and was pleased with the overall experience.

“The MWS course offered excellent training for working in the mountains, which was enhanced by the knowledgeable staff,” Shaffer said. “The staff displayed immeasurable patience while teaching the students.”

The main focus of the course is mobility. Movement in deep snow and over ice is taught through snowshoeing, cross country and downhill skiing, ice climbing, rappelling, crossing over fixed ropes and skijoring—being pulled on skis by a vehicle.

wall of ice
Phil Gibson, a materials research engineer with the Materials Science Team, climbs a wall of ice during the winter class at the Mountain Warfare School in Vermont.

Instruction includes land navigation with compass and altimeter, glacier travel and crevasse rescue techniques, avalanche hazards and rescue techniques, cold weather injuries and route planning, cold weather effects on weapons, and how to dress for different winter conditions, such as a dry or damp cold.

“Our group was about 10,000 years too late to travel on glaciers in Vermont,” Gibson said.

Much of the training is centered on the Ahkio Tent and Stove group, including the Ahkio sled. The winter course culminates in a three-day bivouac in Smuggler’s Notch on Vermont’s highest mountain, Mount Mansfield. Students hike up into the Notch with their Ahkio sleds and establish a winter campsite with 10-man arctic tents and arctic stoves.

10-man arctic tent
Participants at the Mountain Warfare School in February set up the 10-man arctic tent and Space Heater, Arctic.

The class is then tested on ice climbing, installing winter fixed ropes and constructing a U-pulley crevasse rescue system.

Small groups of four to five people travel as rope teams and climb up a ridge, moving on fixed ropes over steep terrain, traversing and rappelling on steep slopes, and reviewing techniques such as self-arrest with the ice axe, movement over steep ice with crampons and glissading.

Students can leave during the course only if they quit, fail or get recalled to their unit. Civilians should be in good physical condition—they must pass the Army Physical Fitness Test and a medical examination to qualify before signing up—and must be prepared to be treated as a soldier for the entire training period.

Participants in their classes included Special Operations Forces members, infantrymen, airmen, National Guardsmen and even Canadian Ontario Provincial Police constables.

Failure rate for the winter course was about 10 percent compared to 25 percent failure rate for the summer course Gibson attended. Shaffer said nobody failed the testing in his class, but a few participants dropped out because of injuries. Students need to score at least 800 out of 1,000 points on physical and written tests to graduate.

“The MWS instructional cadre seem to be very pleased to see Natick civilians taking their course, and I believe they will welcome future attendees from Natick,” Gibson said.

Civilians give impressions of issued military gear

Finding out what it’s like to live with equipment designed for and issued to the military is a major benefit of the Scientists and Engineers Field Experience With Soldiers (SEFEWS) program.

Natick engineers Phil Gibson and Chris Shaffer lived with many products that have their roots at the Soldier Systems Center while participating in the winter course at the Mountain Warfare School in Jericho, Vt.

“All in all, the soldiers were satisfied with the quality and usefulness of their equipment,” Shaffer said.

Snow hiking was more difficult than expected with Army snowshoes, according to Gibson. Shaffer added that they were bulky and difficult to put on even if sized correctly. Both classes were shown the Marine Corps snowshoes, which have a modern design and possibly better performance.

To protect their hands, most soldiers and instructors brought their own gloves, mittens and liners. The Army gloves need better warmth and water resistance, according to Shaffer. “Less bulk and better tactility is very important when tying a 7 mm cord in cold conditions,” he said.

As for insulating the rest of their body, Special Forces troops “raved about” the Special Operations Forces Personal Equipment Advanced Requirements (SPEAR) lightweight environmental protection system, said Shaffer.

Older items, such as the liner for the jacket and pants, were liked because they are compressible and easily removed from a pack when needed.

The instructors were wearing new parkas and trousers, which incorporated new features such as more pockets with waterproof zippers and a stowaway hood. The new items seemed more appropriate for cold weather use than the existing Gore-Tex parka and trousers, said Gibson.

Students in the Mountain Warfare School courses sleep in tents while on bivouac. For warmth, Shaffer’s group was able to evaluate a developmental heating stove from Natick.

“It was easy to operate and cooled down quickly, which made it less time-consuming to prepare it for packing in the Ahkio. Reduced time to complete a task in the cold is very critical,” said Shaffer.

Gibson said the Space Heater, Arctic was a “big hit.” It was easy to use and maintain, versatile and fairly safe. In the 10-man arctic tent, food was easy to prepare with the stove and kept the tent comfortable.


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